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Alaskan fish plants could be viewed as an alternate universe in which one voluntarily revokes the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in exchange for slime, misery and the pursuit of fish. There are a variety of reasons for seeking employment at a fish plant. Here are some of them:
A mildly masochistic streak accompanied by insanity resulting from loan anxiety, a condition usually experienced by students.
A reference from previous fish plant workers, with bad memories, who say that it's a great way to earn money.
A desire to smell bad, eat terribly, and make friends and form romantic relationships with men, or women, who are only slightly distinguishable from the Alaskan moose.
The single-minded curiosity that prompts people to enter the kinds of situations in which they have to to run very quickly in front of enraged bulls, race away from molten volcano lava, or make numerous calls to people during their dinner-hour inquiring if they'd like to buy a sandwich toaster.
The temporary amnesia that is a precursor to 'returning' to a fish plant, having blocked out all of the really nasty bits.
Upon entering a fish plant, you can expect to be interviewed with rigour and efficiency. The interview generally consisted of a quick pulse check and a Polaroid, ostensibly for the file, but more probably for the FBI, who can occasionally be seen snooping about. You will then be supplied with a hydraulic spoon* with which you will be expected to remove the blood line from an already gutted and guillotined fish.
The guillotine is a hydraulic knife1. The machine is operated with a foot pedal and is accompanied by a nice full colour picture of a man's hand being severed off by careless operation and failure to use safety guards (which everyone then proceeds to do anyway). A good 'header2' can take the heads off of 63 fish per minute. The fish are then unceremoniously shoved onto a router to remove bits of the neck that tend to get in the way, and then are slid onto a 'coastliner3' which is a machine for taking out the eggs and guts.
The fish are then cleaned by you, the rookie, with the hydraulic spoon. This process involves the removal of bloodballs and the first membrane that tends to stick to the fish, because during the fish's lifetime, it is essential that this membrane remains attached.
Grading the Fish
The fish are then graded. The fish scale changes from time to time (actually, it changes from hour to hour) depending on:
- The sobriety of the grader
- The quantity of fish yet to be graded
- The expected drunkenness of the proposed clients
A good example of this phenomenon is one in which the same tray of fish, in the course of an hour, was graded and re-graded in the following fashion.
- Went from grade two (slight wounds and sores)
- To grade one (practically perfect in every way)
- To domestic (meaning, not good enough for the Japanese, so we'll send them to Americans who don't know any better)
- Back to grade two again
- Then finally to 'Texas Brites' (still domestic, but sold to Texas for Fourth of July feasts)
Once graded by these rigorous standards the fish are bunched up in separate but equal racks in which they will be frozen by huge blast freezers to prepare them for the packing process, or else packed with ice for fresh shipping.
There then ensues a complicated fish packing process before the fish are loaded by forklift into the backs of large semi-trailers and shipped off to consumers around the world.
The entirety of this job is accomplished between the temperatures of 20 and -20°F under the assumption that it's best for the fish (who don't give a rip because they're dead). In order to speed production, the management generously offers generic musical selections that vary from 'The Hip Hop Tape' to the 'Metallica Tape'. And then they repeat.
Shifts range from 0 hours a day, for disturbingly long periods of time, to 24 hours a day, for also disturbingly long periods of time. All efforts are made to maximise the number of shifts to ensure that, despite the rigorous hours, as few people actually get overtime as possible.
Diet consists of freeze-dried hamburgers and the occasional bowl of oatmeal. This diet was once complemented by occasional instalments of doughnuts from the managers, but this was quickly discontinued as the workers had a dishearteningly strong tendency to want to eat... more than one.
After three months, one returns home exhausted, sick, and several thousand dollars richer. In most cases, this money is promptly confiscated by a college tuition fees office, and the fish worker vows never to return.