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Jan/Feb 1999 Nonfiction

Otoliths, Icthyology and Fish Slime
-Chapter Six-

by Dail Bridges


Paperwork! The bane of an Observer's existence. Daily my eyes crossed over the 11 different and very detailed data forms that I filled out by hand, with my special number two pencil clutched tightly between my fingers. For each trawl I sampled, the forms must be filled out, and I also had to write up daily and weekly catch reports.

When I finished my work in the factory, I would hose off the plastic "field" forms and length frequency strips on which I had recorded all of my raw data, and trudge back to my cabin. Cold salt water from the awkward, three foot-long length frequency strips inevitably drained down my sleeves. No matter how carefully I rinsed, fish slime and other particles of factory debris clung to the forms. The slime would generally smear the metal surface of my tiny desk and coat parts of the paper data forms, as well.

I spent hours under the weak fluorescent lighting in my cabin, hunched over papers with tiny boxes. From my plastic forms, I transferred the weight and length figures for each species to one paper form. Next I used another form plus my hand held calculator to do complex statistical calculations. I repeated each calculation at least twice to check for accuracy. Sometimes when the ship rolled sharply, I punched an incorrect button--say subtract instead of add. A slight problem. Once assured I had done my calculations correctly, I wrote the final figures onto yet another data sheet.

Finally, the only remaining task lay stretched before me--the yard long, slimy, length frequency strip. These contained single straight line tally marks, penciled in against the nose of each individual Pollock. Painstakingly, I scratched each of these hundred plus marks onto the final paper forms, under the correct measurement heading. No matter how I tried to line everything up, halfway through my careful marking, I would often discover that I had my ruler off by one or two inches. Back to, literally, square one.

I would often review my completed data forms, which I kept in a big black notebook. By the legibility of my handwriting, I could reconstruct what the seas had been like. Clear, crisp numbers meant calm seas; jerky, smeared writing meant I had probably been bracing myself against the wall to write with the heavy rolling of the ship.

I also had to compare my catch estimates and species content findings with the Captain's recordings, which he kept in a Daily Cumulative Catch Log (DCCL) on the bridge. Theoretically, my data figures should come close to the Captain's DCCL figures. If not, a problem existed somewhere. The bottom line was that the boats wanted to catch as much fish as possible, with as little interference as possible. Each boat worked on a quota system, and once their quotas were up--based on my figures, monitored back on land--they had to stop fishing.

And what was an Observer to do if some sort of problem existed on board? What if I suspected my boat of inaccurately reporting their catch sizes? Of secretly stashing prohibited species? Of any violation? We as Observers did not have legal powers; the National Marine Fisheries Service, who directed the program back in Seattle, advised us to contact them for help. The only NMFS program contact available to us was through the ship's Radio Operator. Each week, we were required to send in a catch report via this Radio Operator. The report contained the names and amounts of each species that had been caught for the week. For instance, one of my reports might read:

Pollock 120,000 MT stop Pacific Cod 400 MT stop
Sculpin 4 MT stop Halibut 7 stop King Crab 14 stop
Fishing area 60 15' North 178 37' West stop March 13-19

These reports were standardized and the only variances were the names of the species caught and their amounts. To ensure that they had been received exactly as we sent them, part of our job on return to land was to verify their accuracy. Ships' operators had, on occasion, been known to alter numbers.

Before heading off to sea , NMFS had given each of us "secret codes" that we were to insert in our weekly radio messages if we perceived a problem. There were four escalating levels of codes, and to ensure secrecy, the program changed them with each Observing group. Cleverly, these were disguised as names of fish that would normally never appear in our messages--species that we would never be catching in our particular areas. For example:

Level One: Herring-"I think there is a problem of cheating but am unsure. Will update with next radio message."
Level Two: Swordfish- "I am sure there is a problem of cheating but need more time to collect evidence. Will update with next radio message."
Level Three: Puffer fish-"I have documented cheating. Have Coast Guard board immediately."
Level Four: Angelfish-"My life is in danger. Have Coast Guard board immediately."

All of the people in my training class had laughed at this last code. I think, however, our laughter was similar to that expressed during the survival suit drill--a cover for our very real nervousness. NMFS assured us that the foreigners stood to lose absolutely everything if they threatened an Observer and this code had never been used.

Each of us, as green and trusting observers, took these codes to heart and with us to sea. We spent hours developing ingenious ways to hide the codes. My friend Joan used a laminating machine and made a small plastic square which she tucked beneath the insole of her boot. I inserted a thin card in the space between the paper and the cardboard tube of one of my extra rolls of toilet paper. Sara inked hers in tiny letters on the inside of her duffel bag.

I felt the confidence that comes with knowing I had a back up, an authority to turn to-- help was only a radio message away. I wasn't really alone out here; if I found myself in a dangerous or threatening situation, all I had to do was send in the word "angelfish" and NMFS would immediately dispatch the Coast Guard to my rescue. This reassurance surrounded me like a protective bubble as, everyday, I worked and socialized and laughed with the men, yet never forgetting that I was an outsider in the midst of this foreign world.

One morning, the day after I submitted my weekly radio message to the ship's operator, the Captain and Fishing Master summoned me to the bridge. I bounced cheerfully up to the stairs, assuming we had a change in fishing plans. The somber faces of the Captain, Fishing Master and Kazukisan greeted me.

The Captain motioned me over to the table and tapped a paper lying on its surface. I recognized it as my radio message of the previous day.

Very politely, the Captain said "Miss Dairusan, what this mean?" He pointed to a sentence at the end of the report that read "Please tell me if I should anticipate transfer to another vessel." NMFS had originally told me to expect a possible transfer after three weeks, and this was the end of my third week on the KYOWA. I wanted to know what the program had in store for me.

I explained to the Captain and Fishing Master, with Kazuki attempting to interpret, what this sentence meant. The Fishing Master and Captain spoke rapidly to each other. Kazukisan shifted from foot to foot and refused to meet my gaze. The Captain poked him and pointed at me. My original cheerfulness disappeared into the tension that hung in the air, a tension that I did not understand.

"Miss Dairusan, maybe you leave because you think we do bad things?" Kazukisan asked sadly.

"Bad things"--what did this mean? How could asking NMFS about a transfer mean I thought the KYOWA was doing "bad things?" My confusion deepened. I assured Kazuki that I thought they were doing honest work and I only wanted to know if NMFS wanted me to go to another boat. This time, in their agitated conversation, I heard the words "Coast Guard."

"Maybe you say this to make Coast Guard come on KYOWA because you think we do bad things?" Kazukisan looked at me gravely, sweat beads lining his upper lip. My heart pounded wildly, wondering what kind of confrontation we were heading for. Never before had I experienced any kind of conflict with these men. We worked side by side, easily and happily, day in and day out. We laughed together and teased each other endlessly. These men were my friends. But herein lay the rub. These men were not my friends; we were on opposing sides in a billion dollar business venture. Friendship and loyalty, kindness and consideration would fall away in an instant if I uncovered any wrong doing by the KYOWA and attempted to report it. In their eyes, the entire purpose of my job was to hamper their efforts to catch as much fish as possible. If not for me, would they be throwing back the valuable King Crab, Halibut and salmon that they caught? Wouldn't they be more likely to under report their catch sizes so they could catch more fish and make more money than the regulations allowed?

Again, I explained about the possibility of my transferring to another boat. Again, I tried to explain that this line meant nothing other than what it read. I also asked him why they were concerned about this sentence.

"Miss Dairusan, we know Observers have secret word they send to Fish Boss in Seattle when boats do bad things. Usually word is name of fish. What is this 'anticipate?' It is unusual name of fish? Maybe like shark? It is not on special list." Kazukisan nodded at the Captain, and he pulled a book from the shelf over our heads. Flipping through it, he found a tablet size piece of paper folded in half. He opened it and pressed it flat onto the tabletop.

I looked down and saw, painstakingly written out in all capital letters, the exact codes that, even now, sat in my cabin, wedged in a toilet paper roll. My stomach clenched in disbelief as I wondered where they had gotten this list. In the back of my mind, I felt a thrust of panic trying to leap the barrier I had created for it; this barrier that kept all of my fears and doubts contained and manageable. This barrier that had successfully prevented me from considering the possibility that I was now facing: help was not just a radio message away. I had no allies out here; I was truly and totally alone.

"These words...how did you get these?" I pointed to the list, wondering if Kazuki would tell me.

He conferred with the Captain and Fishing Master and replied "Fishing Master, he get from Radio Master of Shotoku Maru." In an evening radio session, the Shotoku Maru had probably shared the codes with all of the Japanese boats that were on the air at the time. I marveled at my own naivete in thinking that my little observer codes would have remained a secret in such a big money industry. With so much at stake, nothing would escape the attention of the officers.

Luckily I had my Japanese/English dictionary with me. I opened it to the word "anticipate," and placed it on the table, pointing to the definition. All three men huddled over the page, talking among themselves. Finally, they straightened up. A red flush crept over Kazukisan's once strained and white face. Both the Captain and Fishing Master bowed deeply, repeating apologies over and over.

"Did you send this message yesterday as normally scheduled?" I glared at the Captain, remembering NMFS strong warning that it was mandatory for us to submit our weeky messages on time.

More bowing and flushed faces. The Fishing Master spoke harshly to Kazuki, who grabbed my radio message and fled from the bridge, rushing, I assumed, to the Radio Operator's cabin to have my message sent a day late.

What would have happened if I had been attempting to send in one of my codes? Would the officers have tried to prevent me? Legally, they could do nothing. But laws and legality felt very far removed from the world in which we exsisted. A tale that I had kept behind my newly ruptured saftey barrier seeped through the barrier's break and into my mind: Larry, my friend who had gotten me into this in the first place, had worked on one Japanese ship that developed an elaborate method of secretly freezing pans of fish in an area unknown to the Observer. Day after day, Larry's catch estimates differed significantly from the Captain's DCCL. He and the Captain spent hours going through the logs, the Captain innocently scratching his head and insisting that Larry must be making continuous mistakes in his work. It took Larry weeks of sleuthing, but he finally stumbled across the secret area where the crew stashed the unrecorded fish. When he confronted the Captain with his discovery, the Captain first cried and begged Larry to pretend he had not seen this. Men's livelihoods--their families--depended on this being a successful venture. When this didn't work, and Larry forced the Captain to send his message, the entire ship's complement stopped speaking to him and exited rooms as soon as he entered. Larry endured several long and depressing days before the Coast Guard finally boarded and removed him.

It was impossible to think of the Fishing Master not speaking to me. Impossible to imagine Masadru leaving the dining room when I entered. Or Kazukisan, turning from me when I smiled at him in the factory. Yet I knew all of these things--and more--would occur if I discovered the KYOWA cheating and had to report it. Anger, hostility, threats--perhaps even the need to utilize the now laughable code four.

I felt shaken and jarred. In a matter of minutes, I learned that I had only myself to rely on. NMFS and the Coast Guard belonged in that other world of laws and legality that did not exsist out here and that, despite their assurances, was clearly not easily accessible to me. This was it--my worst fear realized--it was me and me alone out here.

As I continued to work on foreign boats, this very fear became my strength. I learned to trust myself, physically and emotionally and intuitively. I learned to rely on my instincts about people and situations. I developed a solid inner strength that, I think, comes only from self-reliance.

Four years later, when I was traveling alone in Indonesia, this solid inner strength saved my life. On the island of Lombok, I became extremely ill. In the course of a few hours, I could not even move from the tiny bed on which I lay in a local guest house.

OK, this is bad, I tell myself, but it will pass; I had all of my travel shots, so just give it time. I sweat and shiver and doze. Nickel-sized blisters break out all over my body, oozing clear fluid onto my drenched sheets. A sledge hammer pounds my head. I feel like I have just had my wisdom teeth taken out; then my lower jaw locks up completely and I cannot open my mouth. Hours pass and all I want to do is lie still and not move again, ever, ever. Rest and peace, that is all I want. I have no strength and feel as if I am floating. Somehow, I know if I do not get up and find help, I will never leave this bed and its seductive comfort. I reach deep into my inner core, telling myself that I can sit up. Count to ten, then do it. No? OK, try again. I have to do this, there is no one here to help me. Deep breaths, visualize my strength, rely on myself. Slowly, I sit up. Good, very good. See? I, alone, did this. I can do anything. Turn inward: solid steel, that is what I am made of as I stand slowly and painfully. My steel core forces my blistered feet painfully across the cement floor and to the door. I hobble into the dirt street and collapse, just as a donkey cart ambles past. The driver stops and approaches me, a heap near his rear wheel. He is half my size, so I grasp the cart for support, my inner voice commanding me to get up and into the wagon. Now unconsciousness subdues the voice in my head, the one that comes from my place of deep strength.

I awake in a hospital, an IV in my arm and dozens of brown faces peering into my own. My head no longer aches and the fever is gone. I can open my mouth. I smile with the knowledge that I have saved myself.

 

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