Jan/Feb 1999 Nonfiction

Otoliths, Icthyology and Fish Slime
-Chapter Five-

by Dail Bridges

Early the next morning, I awoke to a strange sensation. At first, I couldn't figure out what was different. Then I identified it: Generally the ship's engines hummed continuously and the vessel itself vibrated and throbbed from their power. I had become so accustomed to these sounds and motions that I no longer noticed them. However, now, instead of the roar of the engines and a forward, pulsing movement, the boat rolled gently from side to side. I threw on my clothes and raced to the bridge, worried we might already be trailing a net behind us.

I was greeted by the Captain and the Fishing Master, who told me "soon fishing begin." With the Fishing Master, I hunched over the electronic Fish finder.

"Mintai. Mintai." He repeated as he tapped the glass surface of the fish finder, his finger hovering over a deep red blob. Mintai , Pollock, school in large and dense numbers, which explained their intense red appearance on the fish finder screen.

I stared, fascinated, at the strange patterns on the fish finder. Jagged black lines arched up from the bottom of the screen, tall pyramids of underwater cliffs. The Mintai pattern that the Fishing Master studied appeared wedged between two peaks, just below the pointed tops. I wondered how a net could possibly be drawn through this narrow opening. Two yellow patches streaked like brush strokes across the far left of the screen. The Fishing Master spoke a name that I did not recognize when I tapped these stripes.

I moved to the stern window and gazed down upon the deck. Below me, the entire crew moved carefully and quickly in a finely choreographed routine. Coils of rope winged across the deck, tossed from one man to another, props in their energetic ballet. No movement was wasted as they readied the deck for fishing. Four men danced with large cables attached to winches, muscling their recalcitrant partners across the deck, where they clipped the hooked cables to the main fishing net, heaped in one corner. Slowly the mesh net lifted into the air, swaying and shivering, a huge caterpillar awakening, section by section.

The Fishing Master stood beside me, concentrating on the scene below. He shouted into a microphone that hung beside the stern window, directing the positioning of the net. Finally, he barked a clipped command. Several men standing on the edge of the stern ramp slid the heavily weighted end of the net down the ramp, where it splashed into the sea. With a whine, the winches began unwinding the heavy lengths of cable attached to the net, and the boat moved slowly forward, trailing the net out behind it. The weights strung at regular intervals along the bottom sides of the net forced it downward.

When the crew finished laying the net, the trawl doors followed. The massive trawl doors hung like giant shields, affixed to posts on each side of the stern ramp. Once in the water, these two one and one-half ton metal door-shaped objects kept the mouth of the net spread open as it moved through the school of fish. The Fishing Master shouted a command, and four men stepped up to the steel plates, wrestling them from their perch. A terrible grinding and clanging crackled onto the bridge over the loudspeaker, like special effects at a Halloween haunted house. The Captain, bent over a depth reading machine, shouted numbers to the Fishing Master, whose gaze never wavered from the deck. After several minutes, he raised the microphone to his lips and commanded the crew to stop the net. More grinding and then sudden silence. The soft clicking and humming of the bridge instruments crept into the quiet.

Like its ever present smell, the sounds of the KYOWA would become part of my psyche. I had never been in a situation where I could not rely on verbal communication for my direction. How could I gain the information I needed to do my job? I found my clues in the sounds and feel of the boat. My senses stayed on heightened awareness, a constant adrenalin rush that exhausted me. From a deep sleep, I would claw my way to consciousness, wondering why, then realize that we were stopped dead in the water, rolling gently, the lack of engine sounds creating a vacuum of silence. I knew the crew would be on deck, preparing to set the net. The whine of the winches brought me running to the bridge; a net was going out. A slow pitching and soft humming guaranteed that I would find the Fishing Master huddled over the fish finder, studying it intently as we slowly moved through the ocean, searching for fish.

I wondered how long the trawl would stay down. Minutes? Hours? The school of fish on the fish finder screen appeared very dense--did that mean the net would fill up quickly? And just how much fish could that net hold anyway? I pointed to my watch and looked questioningly at the Fishing Master. He held up two fingers and shrugged, which I interpreted to mean two hours.

I started to pace back and forth in front of the window. Despite my determination to prove to myself and everyone else that I could do this work, niggling doubts taunted me. Maybe I really couldn't do it. Would I physically be able to weigh and measure enough fish to provide accurate samples? Would the statistical calculations be too difficult? What if all of the data I brought back to land was inaccurate, weeks of work wasted? Not only did I have to prove myself, but my work played a major part in the role of the U.S. government's management of the Bering Sea fisheries. I envisioned returning to land, having failed at my job. Facing the program staff and trying to explain how I had managed to ruin everything: inaccurate samples, not enough samples, mis-identified fish...How would I feel? How would I be viewed by the program? I thought about the days leading up to this point, where the real work actually began. The terrifying scramble to get to the deck of the Kyowa--staring down into those hungry waves, knowing what would happen with just one mis-step. Rolling around in my bunk for three days, turned inside out from seasickness. Somehow I would pull this off; I had come too far not to. I went down to my sampling station and nervously shoved baskets around for a few minutes, arranged, for the fifth time, my plastic forms on the wooden work bench and headed to the galley for sustenance before I faced whatever lay ahead.

Within ninety minutes, bells began ringing, and I recognized the characteristic whine of the winches. My plan of action, a battle plan mentally reviewed over and over, took me first to the bridge to watch as the trawl came on. Then I would race to the changing room and put on my gear. Finally, I would appear in position, at attention beside my work station, ready to attack the fish as they came into the factory.

From the bridge window, I watched in awe as the crew, with great difficulty, winched an enormous net jammed full of fish onto the deck. The monstrous net appeared to be alive, writhing like a huge whale that bucked and fought against every effort to land it on board. Water poured over the deck as the packed net swung crazily through the air, threatening to steamroll everything in its way. Crew members leapt and twisted to avoid this unpredictable enemy. When the thing finally lay still on the deck, it stretched from end to end, a length of about 125 feet and towered over the men beside it.

Beside me, the Fishing Master and the Captain exclaimed excitedly. I felt hot all over; the rollbar, gripped tightly under my hands, became slippery with sweat. I had imagined many scenarios, but none like this. In my mental preparations, we pulled on a trawl of, perhaps, 10-20 tons. Something that would fill up the two 5 ton holding bins twice. The sheer quantity of fish that wallowed below on the deck was beyond my comprehension. What was I going to do? What would any of us do?

Wiping my damp hands on my coveralls, I caught the attention of the Fishing Master and wrote "50?" on a piece of paper. He laughed and wrote "90!" 90 tons of fish...Lord Have Mercy.

The net below became a stage, the men jerking like marionettes. They bounced from one end to the other, dragging dangling cables like puppet strings. Shaking loose their ties, they attached the lines to various parts of the net. The puppet masters took over, operating the winches, lifting the mammoth sausage up, up into the air. Section by section, they emptied the net into the holding bins. Like silver dollars, the fish flashed as they slid in mountainous heaps into the bins. Leaving this surreal scene, I went below to put on my gear and try to figure out what I was going to do.

I arrived to pure chaos in the processing factory below the deck. Fish poured out of the holding bins, spilling wildy off the conveyor belts. Men scurried around attempting to pile up the fish, which stubbornly insisted on slithering about on the floor like oversizedthreatening bananas. Some crewmen turned on the mechanized saws, others hand sharpened fillet knives. Akihamasan, the factory Master, shouted orders. Slowly, fish began moving along the conveyor belt. The factory became its own sea of fish and noise--the high keening of the saws, the grinding of the conveyor belts, the shouting of the men. Very different from the quiet area that Kazukisan and I had visited the day before. I stuffed in my earplugs to try to drown out the overwhelming clatter.

Kazukisan, assigned to be my "assistant," appeared at my side, a dazed look on his face. "Too many fishes!" he exclaimed. I could only agree. He gazed at me expectantly, and I realized he was waiting for directions from me. I tried to look like I knew what I was doing and motioned for him to help me slide my sampling baskets next to the conveyor belt. We had been taught in class to take the entire contents of one section of the belt for a sample. I bent over the conveyor belt and, using my hands and arms, slid as much fish as I could in the general direction of the baskets. Most of the fish flopped to the floor behind the baskets and proceeded to disappear from view beneath the conveyor belt. I tried to repeat the process, but by this time the fish were moving at such a rapid clip along the belt that I succeeded in swiping only a few into the baskets. I had little to show for my two attempts at sample collection, other than a nice coating of fish slime on my yellow rain jacket. Some of the slime managed to work its way under the neckline of my wool sweater, and I wriggled as it oozed down my chest. I glanced at Kazuki, who looked as if he were trying not to laugh.

Leaning close to him, I shouted "Please, can you have Akihamasan turn off the conveyor belt for just two minutes?"

He smiled at me and nodded eagerly but did not move. I went into my pantomime routine, indicating that the belt should be stopped, I would quickly fill my baskets with fish, then the belt could be started again. This time as he nodded, Kazuki raced off to find Akihama. When they returned, it took about five more minutes of pantomime for Akihamasan to understand what I needed. Finally, he ordered the conveyor shut off and Kazuki and I filled my six sampling baskets.

We shoved each basket over to my work station, and I slowly sorted the fish into various species groups. The previous night I had dreamed of bringing on a rummage sale of fish, dozens of different species jumbled together, all sizes and shapes and none that I could identify. I had tried to sort them into piles, but they had been hopelessly tangled, like a huge knotted silver necklace. I was relieved to see that this trawl proved what they had told me in class: Pollock catches are relatively "clean" ones with little by-catch. Pollock made up most of my sample. A few Pacific Cod leered out at me, and a King Crab anxiously flailed its pinchers.

Kazuki and I heaved each basket up and, using the rope and clip especially designed for this purpose, attached it to my hanging scales. Steadying the basket, I tried to get as accurate a reading as possible, despite the rolling of the ship. I recorded the weights on my plastic forms. Later, I would use a statistical calculation to extrapolate the sample sizes up to estimates of how much of each species was contained in the entire catch. I also had to collect weight and length statistics for all King Crab, Halibut and Salmon. Luckily, the crewmen were experienced in the ways of Observers, and they pulled the few of these contained in the trawl off of the line for me and set them aside. Even if these prohibited species were dead, I had to toss them over. Though this often seemed a waste, the trainers explained it this way: Suppose, for instance, the Captain pointed out a freezer full of Halibut and said they had all been dead when they came on as by-catch in an earlier trawl. Before my arrival, the boat could have set a net specifically for Halibut and now be innocently insisting that they had not wanted to waste all of this "accidental" catch. So the United States law stated that it was illegal for foreign boats to have these species on board in any form.

After finishing my third stint of sampling, I jumped onto the processing line beside Masadru. His curls flew back and forth as he turned from side to side, shoving fish from one conveyor to another. I pantomimed that I wanted to help, and he shouted to Kazuki, who handed me a knife. Kazuki positioned me in front of my very own chopping block, and I watched as he demonstrated how to chop the tails off of the fish. I grabbed a foot long Pollock and placed it on the block. Whacking at its tail, I only partially severed it. I picked up the fish and shook it vigorously to see if I could dislodge the tail. No luck. Kazuki poked the man beside him who alerted other crew members to the spectacle. Even over the clattering factory sounds, I could hear their laughter. I kept at it and eventually got the whacking motion down. Of course, the men around me cut off six tails for every one I managed to remove.

Before returning to my sampling work, I walked through the factory, trying to understand the work flow. I passed the "linemen," whom I had attempted to assist with my tail-whacking efforts. They headed, gutted and tailed each fish. The last lineman shoved the dressed fish onto a conveyor belt that spewed them onto a table where they piled up in front of three men. These men hunted through the piles of fish, picking and choosing ones to wedge against each other in large metal pans, a jigsaw puzzle of Pollock. Once the puzzle was completed, the men sprayed the pans with water and placed them on freezer racks in the flash freezer behind them. The fish stayed here for several hours, until they became solid blocks of ice. Then a crew member removed the frozen blocks of fish and another man placed these blocks in cartons. Each block weighed 25 kilograms and each carton contained two blocks. The packed cartons received a date stamp and the word mintai in Japanese characters. Then the final ride for these fish, as they careened on the angled conveyor down to the depths of the frozen fish holds below. I jumped onto the conveyor and rode on top of two cartons, past the astonished faces of the packers, to the dark opening of the fish hold. The boxes burst through the tiny doorway into two black gloved hands. I perched on the sill above the doorway, peering into the dimness, trying to see through the icy steam. The black hands belonged to a man yanking cartons off of the conveyor. A heavy wool hat pulled low over his face obscured his identity. He and a second anonymous man waddled like bears in their bundled clothing as they stacked the cardboard boxes against the wall.

I returned to the processing line, where the crew members worked fast and furiously, slicing and sawing. Fish guts and body parts flew, covering everything. My shiny yellow rain suit became slimy and brownish-green, as did my boots, gloves and hard hat. I had learned the hard way that I must wear the protective yellow plastic hat in the factory; on my earlier tour with Sasakisan, I had banged my head three times on the low hanging pipes.

Using sea water hoses, we washed things down, including ourselves, sluicing offal (fish waste) and debris out the metal chutes at water level (the factory level) into the sea. I repeated my sampling procedure every few hours, at various points during the processing, in an attempt to get unbiased samples of the catch. Despite the overwhelming number of fish, my work was not technically too difficult--it just stretched over long periods of time.

After my second sampling stint, Kazuki had returned to the processing line, leaving me to work alone. Now, each time I hoisted the heavy baskets (about 75 pounds when full) onto the hanging scales for weighing, men would shout and prod each other to watch me. Sometimes the flashing knives would come to a standstill as they gaped, open mouthed in amazement, at this Amazon gaijen ona (foreign woman).

After nine hours or so, the bells sounded. The men turned off the clattering saws and someone stopped the conveyors. Sudden silence filled the factory. Akihamasan shouted an order, and the crew members raced topside to the deck. I followed the men and watched them set the net for another trawl.

This trawl remained in the water for only an hour, and I went up to the bridge to watch a repeat of what had occurred only 10 hours ago. To make way for this new catch, the crew pushed the remaining fish from the first trawl--a good 25 tons--to the sides of the boat. The men struggled to bring on another net packed with fish. It appeared to be about the same size as the first one--another 90 tons. I was incredulous--where would they put it? We still had over half of the first trawl left to process. Once the net was landed on the deck, it looked like a football field of fish. The men clambered over piles of fish, slipping and sliding their way back down to the factory. I thought longingly of my sand-filled mattress and pillow, thinking how good they would feel right now. Instead of veering for my cabin, I forced myself to return to the factory.

After being in the factory for 12 hours, we took a quick break in the evening for a meal. The traditional ideas of breakfast, lunch and dinner would not apply when we worked long stints in the factory. The hours blurred together and meals could no longer be identified by the time at which they were served. I was learning about the Japanese work ethic--hard work and lots of it. On larger boats, there were two shifts of crew members. However, on the KWOYA, the 26 crewmen worked constantly around the clock until the hauls were completed. The Captain and even the Cooking Master joined us in the factory to try to cope with all of the fish. Never once did the Fishing Master come to the factory; I learned that, on Japanese boats, the Fishing Master outranks the Captain and it would be unheard of for him to appear in the factory.

I worked until I was so exhausted that I tripped over my baskets and landed head first in a heap of Pollock. It was around 2:00 in the morning when I left the factory. I stumbled to the changing room, where I would leave my rain gear. Slowly I struggled to straighten each arm as I removed my jacket. I sat heavily down on the floor, leaning over to reach my boots. My fingers were so weak that I could barely grasp them. I pulled and tugged, my arms and hands trembling with exhaustion. It seemed an impossible task to separate my boots from my feet. These were only my first two trawls--how could I keep this pace up for weeks at a time?

I returned to the factory at 9:00 the next morning, my body protesting at every step. The men were still hard at work, with piles of fish remaining on the deck. They looked tired, but most still maintained their good humor. Akihamasan, the factory manager, gave me a weary smile of greeting. About my height, he stood out from the rest of the men. Despite the long hours in the factory, his agile hands still flew through the piles of fish. I questioned him about rest, and he told me when this haul was finished, the crew would sleep for a few hours before setting the net and beginning the whole process again. They had stopped for a meal break at some point while I was sleeping.

I bent over to shove my sampling baskets up to the conveyor belt and nearly fell over. But it was worse when I tried to straighten up again. I had to grab my work station for support and, literally, pull myself upright. I glanced around, hoping none of the men noticed my frailty.

Eventually, the conveyor belt coming from the holding bin carried only two or three Pollock per foot, instead of a mass of fish wedged end to end. A couple of men climbed into the bins and shoveled the remaining fish out into the factory. The piles diminished. The whirring saws were shut down, knives cleaned and put away. My shoulders sagged and my boots pulled like steel weights. I felt beaten down by fish. Looking around at the exhausted men, I wondered how they still managed to stand upright.

After cleaning up, we all plodded towards the galley. Sasakisan had prepared a feast for us: steaming vats of rice plus lots of fried Pollock and cabbage. Kazukisan and Akihamasan made room for me, and I wearily slumped between them. The men attacked the food as if they had not eaten in weeks. A bottle of whiskey made its rounds, then another and another. Sasakisan distributed cans of cold Kirin beer to the crew. Despite their exhaustion, the men laughed and chattered with an energy I did not feel. Akihamasan shyly offered me first beer, then whiskey. I could tell by his hesitancy that it was probably unusual for a woman to drink alcohol. Since I was gaijin and a guest, I am sure he felt compelled to offer it to me. The men all looked my way to see what I would do when Akihama plunked the whiskey bottle down in front of me. A couple of them whispered to each other. Masadru actually stood up from his seat at the end of the bench to get a better view. I could almost see their thoughts, hanging in the air like cartoon bubbles: Of course, this bizarre foreigner would certainly grab the bottle and chug down it entire contents. After all, for a woman who tossed around heavy baskets of fish and rode on conveyor belts, a bottle of whiskey would be child's play.

I felt like I was back in fifth grade and being dared by the boys to climb out onto that wavering limb--come on, do it, don't be chicken! I find it difficult to pass up a dare. In this case, however, my palate won out. I abhor the taste of alcohol, so I asked Sasakisan for coca-cola. Laughter and sighs of relief from the men. At least in one respect I did not blow their cultural expectations. Maybe this gaijin ona wasn't so different from the women they knew after all.

Being in the galley this time with the men felt very different from our first meal together. Gone were the shyness and timidity I had experienced then. It was as if I had proved myself by working side by side with them through the endless hours and piles of fish. Most of the men now acknowledged me, and only a few continued to avoid me. It seemed we were warming up to each other. However, even after two months of working together, a certain distance would remain. After I left the KYOWA, I worked on other Japanese vessels and had the same experience. We never attained an easy level of casualness, the give and take that comes from being together 24 hours a day. There always seemed to be an invisible barrier separating us; no matter what I did, I was never able to cross it. I attributed this to cultural differences and to the most significant difference of all--that I was a woman. I knew the importance of formality and politeness in Japanese culture. Highly valued are the attributes of reserve and respect when dealing with others. I am not a reserved person; I am a person who laughs, teases and touches others with ease. I treaded a delicate balance everyday on the KYOWA and all of my other Japanese boats.

After eating, the weary men headed off to the showers and then to their bunks. I waited until all of the men finished bathing before I took my turn. I had been given a cardboard sign to post on the door that said "Off Limits" in Japanese. Or so the Captain told me--I guessed that it probably said "Woman in shower--come on in!" I peeked hesitantly into the bathing room, hoping I would not see any naked men. Fortunately, it was empty. Hot steam filled the room, and dampness swam over me, even as I stood in the corridor. I hung my warning sign on the door knob, kicked off my sandals and stepped into the steambath. Beneath my bare feet, damp wooden floorboards actually felt spongy after standing for long hours on the steel floor of the factory. A round tub full of hot salt water took up most of the space in the small square room. I groped along the wall until I found hooks on which to hang my towel and clothes. Just as I stepped into the tub, the ship rolled to starboard. I gripped the sides of the tub for balance, my left foot skidding along the floor board, my right leg caught over the edge of the tub. I should perhaps be on a football field, leading the cheer leading team in an acrobatic split. My clothes leapt from their hook and landed in a heap beside my left foot. The ship rolled to port and my split changed angle, pulling the other half of my groin muscles to match. Water sloshed over the tub's edge onto my clothing, flattening it in a soggy pile against the floorboards. Finally we leveled out, and I raised my aching left leg into the tub, sinking slowly up to my neck in the warm, relaxing water. I glanced down, once, at my clothes absorbing water on the floor but could not muster the strength to get out and hang them up. Instead, I rested my head back against the edge of the tub and drifted into a dreamy trance as the water flowed around me. I must have dozed, because I dreamed of hundreds of Pollock, swimming around me in the tiny tub, stacked up by the dozens in the room, hanging by their gills from the clothing hooks. My head snapped up; I looked around unsuccessfully for fish. I forced myself to climb out of the tub and lather my body and hair. Bathing etiquette dictated that no soap get in the hot tub; it was to be kept as clean as possible. A shower head protruded from the starboard wall, and I turned the handle. I forced myself to stand under a freezing spray of salt water to rinse off. There was no fresh water in the shower. I would eventually become used to the salty crust that coated my body for the entire cruise. My hair, however, was another story. It always dried into stiff spikes that sprang straight out from my head, refusing to be flattened by my harsh brushing. Styled into punk before anyone knew what the word meant.

Shivering, I tried to dry off with my wet towel. I struggled to pull on blue jeans now heavy with water. I stepped into the corridor and thrust on my sandals, tip-toeing wetly back to my cabin, my dripping towel trailing behind me.

Throwing off my soaking clothes, I sank gratefully into my tiny bunk. Even my hard, sand packed mattress felt welcoming in my exhausted state. I longed to stretch all the way out--an impossibility. I wondered how taller Observers managed. The best I could do was a semi-fetal position, quickly falling asleep to the rhythm of the boat's gentle pitching.


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