THE GREAT LUCRATIVE UNKNOWN
AN ALASKAN SCRUTINY
Students wanting to escape the usual 9-5 desk job or competitive internship should remember that along with the glory come gut-strewn factory floors and frozen fingers. A summer spent working in Alaska means long hours, hard physical labor and even the potential loss of limb.
Of course, the "Alaskan experience" cannot be neatly defined, and there is a wide range of work for the intrepid adventurer from which to choose. Jobs in the fishing industry do fall roughly into two main categories: fishing and processing. But the experiences of individual students are much more diverse.
In a seafood processing plant, the hapless summer employee could en up with one of the following work experiences: cleaning fish, butchering live crab or frozen fish for market, using a high pressure hose spray or offloading fish from tenders.
"Most seafood processing jobs are smelly, bloody, slimy, cold, wet and tiring, because of manual work and standing for many hours," according to documents published by Alaska Employment Service.
At the height of the fishing season, employees will be expected to work up to 18 hours a day. During peak periods, the line works around the clock. A set-netter in Bristol Bay, James L. Johnston '64 says "You can make $6.000 to $6.50 an hour working greater monetary benefits. "You can make a lot of money working 100 hours a week After 40 you get time-and-a half," Johnston says.
Winthrop House resident David A. Herne '93-'94 spent one summer working in a fish processing plant in Valdez, on the southern coast. According to Herne, these plants fall into two types. More regulated factories have stringent working hour limitations and offer better pay, but they are more difficult to come by. The summer positions in these plants are often filled by the preceding February.
The second type of plant, such as the one Herne worked for, barely regulate either hours or conditions. These jobs are often more demanding, and lack worker incentives such as guaranteed housing. Working hours are unlimited, however, so these positions are often the most financially rewarding, Herne says.
Such regulation loopholes can be found in other fishing position. According to the Alaska Employment service, processing plants located on a vessel more than three miles offshore cannot be regulated by federal or state laws.
Life at either kind of plant can be both physically grueling and psychologically isolating. Herne describes his first few weeks and a struggle "to get off the 'slime line," which, according to Herne, "is the worst job in America."
The slime line's attractive job description entails bending over freezing water as streams of decapitated fish bodies speed toward you. Hands are half-frozen, nearly numb submerged in fishy slop; floors are covered in putrid slime. In the unventilated, enclosed factory, "everything smells like fish," Herne explains, and the whine of the conveyer belt is unceasing.
Herne often worked days straight, some weeks sleeping as little as 20 hours. When you're not working you're eight sleeping or eating--probably sleeping." And since the work is dictated by the catch, there are no set times. "Days lose meaning--you could easily work 24 hours straight."
Herne's hard work did not go unrewarded. At the first opportunity he got off the slime line and joined the "Dock Crew," where, instead, of cutting and gutting fish, he shoveled ice on the incoming loads of salmon. His first day, "They worked [him] as hard as they could," but Herne says he kept going. He would do "anything to leave the slime line."
Many workers remark that even the simplest concerns magnify in importance. "You're so hungry," Herne remembers, that anything tastes good. Herne tells of an old "regular" who cleaned out garbage cans collecting discarded beans and rice and anything else "edible."
The trout, which could not be used in salmon plants was given to workers who would, "take the Crisco used to lubricate the machines and fry the fish. We'd kill them, cut them up and eat them. They tasted amazing." Sometimes, David admits, workers would steal salmon too--sticking them into the spaces left by oversized boots.
Despite the unquestionable hardships and the perils of his hours on the "slime line," Herne concludes that he would, "do it all again." In a way," he reflects, in a land of stark, uncompromising beauty, in a world where you succeed by virtue of sheer hard work and persistence, "it is the quintessential triumph of the American Dream."
For the adventuresome, fishing provides a more exciting and profitable alternative to the monotony of working on a processing line. Rather than being paid by the hour.