BRENDAN BASHIN-SULLIVAN (B.A. ’15)
As the Naknek River winds its way into Alaska’s Bristol Bay, clouds of birds cluster on its muddy surface, as though drawn by magnets. The squawking masses are dominated by gulls, but occasionally bald eagles join the flock to feed on a slurry of salmon bones and offal that drains continuously out of a series of “chum pipes” set into the river bed. Every salmon cannery in Naknek, AK (population 300, off-season) has a chum pipe, the final elimination in a digestive process that begins in the bay’s five river mouths. Each 12-hour fishing period, a fleet of 3,500 32-foot drift boats haul in fathom after fathom of gillnets studded with sockeye salmon. Deckhands pick the fish from the net and throw them into mesh bags in the boat’s hold, which are later winched aboard much larger ships called tenders and sluiced into holds full of icy water for transport back to Naknek and its canneries. Once docked at Ocean Beauty Seafoods, the tender’s crew attach flexible hoses up to two feet in diameter to the ship’s hold. Massive pumps strain to suck out the morass of salmon, water, blood, and ice. Two things allow the canneries to pump hundreds of thousands of solid salmon carcasses at a time: the sockeye are shaped so as to be hydrodynamic even under rigor mortis and they secrete prodigious amounts of mucus and slime. The system is, for the most part, self-lubricating.
So quickly can a half million pounds of fish be slurped into the pipes that often the canneries can’t process them fast enough. A member of one cannery’s beach gang proudly showed me a patch of concrete about the size of a tennis court and studded with valves and hatches, his crew’s handiwork from the previous season. Underneath, he told me, were three enormous steel tanks, overflow storage for peak season. But when working smoothly, the salmon travel up the tubes and into the cannery proper where they are cleaned and sorted, then filleted, flash-frozen, or canned depending on grade. At Alaska General Seafoods I met a 23-year-old college student from Oregon who was the undisputed master, after three seasons, of his cannery’s vacuum sealer. He told me that the keys to success on the cannery circuit are specialization and taking as many overtime hours as possible without keeling over from exhaustion. For the unspecialized, the roughly 6,000 seasonal cannery workers, college students from Washington and Oregon recruited at career fairs, entire families flown in from Puerto Rico, members of local Yup’ik and Athabascan tribes, there is little to do but wait for the salmon to come in. The canneries house them in structures that range from decaying wooden bunkhouses to newly built corrugated aluminum dormitories not out of place on a college campus. And indeed, the pre-season, with its heady mix of anticipation and mind-bending boredom (Naknek is not connected by road to the rest of the country; everything must be flown or barged in), has a note of the collegiate in it. Knots of cannery workers sit on the balconies of their bunkhouses and smoke, or walk the mile and half to town in search of the public library’s notoriously elusive internet connection or, failing that, a stiff drink.
Outside of their function as processing centers and dormitories, canneries are also places of business. Each has a tidy little office in which deals are struck. A commemorative clock with a different plastic piece of nigiri for each number tells the time in Ocean Beauty’s main office, a hint at where the real market for Alaskan salmon lies. The canneries’ decision, as salmon prices plummeted in the 1980s, to harvest and sell the salmon eggs they once discarded with the offal to the Japanese market may well have saved the industry and the town. But in addition to choosing how, when, and to whom to deliver the season’s catch, cannery offices deal with the fractious, chaotic world of the fleet itself. No banker worth her bonus would see lending money to a drift boat captain as anything other than career suicide: fishing permits are expensive, equipment unreliable, conditions harsh, and crew (like myself) unskilled. Furthermore, the season’s profits are threatened by such diverse factors as water temperature, the exchange rate with the yen, mechanical failure, extreme weather, accidents, and arrests. The cannery thus becomes the patron as well as the client, often agreeing to float five figures or more in debt from fishermen on the strength of previous seasons. This gives rise to a relationship somewhere between fierce mutual loyalty and punishing debt peonage, and these rooms have heard as much desperate pleading as friendly banter. But fundamentally the cannery remains “there” for its fishermen. This year, with the predicted run of 50 million fish weeks overdue, Ocean Beauty allowed a flotilla of its fishermen, who had launched their boats prematurely, to tie up all together to its pilings rather than waste fuel fighting rough waters on the bay, or waste money having their boats pulled into the boatyard. Forty or so boats formed a raft, and crews grilled and drank beers and laughed on their decks. When the river ebbed low, the boats touched the muddy, sick-looking bed of the river, and the stench rose heavy with the sun. The crews, stirring after the eerily short Alaskan summer night, had front-row seats when the eagles arrived at the chum pipe.