A phone call to one of the captains I interviewed about commercial fishing last year confirmed the potential and Capt. Mike Uttecht’s willingness to supply information and pictures for an article about Alaskan canneries and fish processing boats. Capt. Mike lives in King Cove on a peninsula reachable by plane or by boat. The ferries run from May to October. There is one major employer in King Cove, the Peter Pan Cannery. King Cove’s population of about 950 swells in the summer by about 500 workers who come to process salmon. Located on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, Peter Pan Seafood is owned by Maruha Capital Investments, a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro in Japan, the largest seafood company in the world. Pacific American built a cannery in King Cove in 1911 and after a fire destroyed most of the cannery, it was taken over by Peter Pan. Many of the first cannery workers were Chinese, Scandinavian and the local Unangan fishermen.
Things are different in Alaska. If you live in a small community only reachable by plane in the winter, the weather is sometimes too bad to travel by plane, so you don’t get mail for a week. Your clinic is staffed by a Physician’s Assistant and there is no doctor, dentist, vet or mechanic. If what you need is not supplied by one of the three stores in King Cove you mail order it. If you were born in King Cove as Mike was, you are used to living without some things. Others have to learn to survive without having help handy. People pool their talent and help each other.
There is no grid that serves King Cove. The community ran their electric needs on a diesel generating system until 1994 when they started using hydroelectric, which is cheaper and more reliable. They now have a second hydroelectric facility. The cannery has its own electric generating system. Before hydro came to King Cove, a few of the residents had homemade windmills that they used to generate their own power. The cost of a King Cove kilowatt hour is 30 cents. Rural Alaska averages 45 cents. The average in the lower 48 states is about 12 cents per hour, varying state by state. Louisiana is less than 10 cents and Idaho is over 20 cents per kilowatt hour.
Going back in time, fish were preserved in glass jars. In 1810 a patent was issued for tin cans to replace the jars and the first salmon was canned in Scotland in 1824. Two brothers from Maine came to California in the 1850s and sold fresh and salted salmon. The Hume brothers convinced one of their Maine schoolmates to come to Sacramento, California to work with them. Their friend, Hapgood, was a fisherman and tinsmith who had canned lobster in Maine. He brought can making equipment with him. The three of them lived in the original cabin that Humes had purchased and bought a scow for their can making shop. They packed the cans in salted water, boiled them for an hour, later adding a pickle to each can to replace salt. They painted the cans red and although everything was done carefully by hand, half the cans exploded, burst at the seams. They sold 2,000 cases of a dozen cans for $5 each. When the salmon run slowed down on the Sacramento River, they moved to Washington.
Fish are very perishable and every effort is made to get the fish from the water into the boat, keeping them alive as long as possible until they are delivered to the fish processor. To keep the fish alive they are usually kept in a tank filled with chilled 32 degree seawater that circulates. The temperature is lowered to reduce their metabolic rate. Often on commercial boats slurry is used, made of micro-crystals of ice formed and suspended in a solution of water and a freezing point depressant such as common salt.
At Peter Pan in King Cove the boats and the tenders (the smaller boats that bring fish in from the larger boats that continue to fish) unload their fish at the cannery dock using vacuum tubes with water in them that send the fish directly to the cannery floor. Before the vacuum tubes, the iced salmon were forklifted off the boats and propped up on top of entry chutes. A “fish pusher” would push the fish and ice to the entrance of the chute with a plastic snow shovel.
The workers that process the fish are hired by Peter Pan and other canneries by the season. The foremen work year round, going from season to season for cod, pollock, crab and salmon. Usually a salmon foreman will always do salmon seasons. The fishing slows down in November, stops in December and starts up again in January. The summer salmon workers are hired with a contract and can sign up again for the next kind of fish to be processed. They work long days, almost every day and make time and a half for hours beyond 8 in a day and 40 in a week. It’s not uncommon for a worker to take home $8,000 or $9,000 for a summer’s work. Peter Pan provides free room and board, free snacks at breaks and free transportation from Seattle or Anchorage as long as they complete their contracts. Some canneries provide free boots, gloves and rainwear. Some have access to desktop computers with WiFi connection. Most provide free room and board.
After the fish are unloaded a mechanical guillotine cuts off the heads. Fish heads are sold for 50 cents apiece to make dog food. A team of workers slit the fish bellies, scrape out the innards and harvest the roe, which is collected in a basket and taken to the “roe room” where it is washed, graded for quality and packaged. The people doing this work are in the “slime line” – there is slime everywhere. At the end of the line the fish are separated and graded by weight and quality.
When the salmon are to be canned, the cans are made in the lower 48 states and are shipped to King Cove in two flat pieces. The bottom part of the can is expanded and rounded by a machine. After the cans are filled the lids are attached. They go in cases without labels. After the cans are tested they are labeled. Fish designated fresh get weighed in 50 pound increments. At the end of each day they do a cleanup. Typical days are 16 plus hours. Whether there are fish to work on depends on the weather. The work is gut, harvest roe, clean, sort, grade, pack, REPEAT. It’s an unbelievably tedious, repetitive, strenuous job in a cold, wet, noisy atmosphere. What is it really like to be one of these workers?
From the reviews of some of the workers at Peter Pan and other canneries:
“A prison camp with breaks”
“Always worrying about being written up for infractions”
“Work long hours, paycheck better than 2 F-T jobs”
“Get to meet people from all over”
“Always on your feet”
“Everything is paid for – you just have to work 7 days, 16 hours a day”
“Hardest part of the job was standing long hours with short breaks”
“I had a great time and can’t wait to come back for another season”
Jobs on fish processing boats are very similar to those in the cannery. The boats go out for 10 days to two months. The function of the 305’ Golden Alaska is to act as the mothership. Operating in the Bering Sea, Northern Pacific Ocean and along the Aleutian Chain, it processes, freezes and cases the fish delivered to them by six “catcher boats”. They produce Fillet Blocks, Mince, Surimi, Pollock, Roe, Fishmeal and Fish Oil. Most of these products are frozen at sea and off-loaded in Seattle, Washington or Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Because of the cheap labor available in China, it pays for Alaskan fishermen to freeze salmon they caught in Alaskan waters, send it to China to be defrosted, boned and sent back to the US.