A tour, follow up on drama and irony, and a very bad pun

The eggs of the salmon, the roe

Brings in plenty of dough.

But as the workers grew fewer,

We took a fine tour,

And filled in a tale of woe.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations.  After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time, 54 hour a week position with a Community Health Center.  I’m taking a working vacation now in Petersburg, Alaska.

Bethany and I had the chance to tour the salmon cannery the day before we departed Petersburg.  Even at the end of the season we left impressed.

This year’s run of pink (or chum) salmon broke records, as did the number of pounds of salmon packed (56 million and counting, when we left).  Each fish, sorted on the tender before arrival at the cannery, runs through another sort before it enters the processing line. The outside of the cannery, that interfaces with the fishing boats and tenders via enormous vacuum cleaners, gets the name Beach Crew.

It doesn’t look like a beach but the people get to work outside.  A good part of that job consists of sorting fish, and they reject a fair number on the basis of species or advanced maturity.

Technology has improved the problem of by-catch, the taking of fish unintentionally.  King salmon, for example, having suffered in numbers, can’t be sold but can be kept and returned to the captain of the crew that caught it.

Workers can tell from inspection which fish have come too close to spawning and had the palatability of their flesh deteriorate, and we saw a fair number of fish rejected thereby.

In the Egg Room, we watched the processing of salmon roe, and learned that some years the roe brings more money than the fish.  The best of the best goes to Japan; the next two grades down get shipped to Russia.  Off-shore Japanese and Russian interests pay their own workers in sorting, and, to a limited extent, in packing.  The eggs take an enormous amount of salt.  A very large ship brings the refrigerated, not frozen, ikura across the Pacific.  I made the observation, that no matter how big such a vessel, if it functions thus we must call it a roe boat.

Five pressure cookers, each five feet in diameter and thirty yards long, cook the fish.  The hand trucks that enter the cookers each carry five layers of 96 cans.  Moving the cans on those carts requires an enormous expenditure of energy.

The facility freezes fish all year long, but freezes more when the cannery work finishes.  As we walked through chilling rooms at 40 degrees below zero I got a chance to talk about the process for chilling hog carcasses back home.

As the tour progressed, different people mentioned the young man I saw terminated in the street two days before (see previous post).  As the 16 hour work days exacted their toll, his behavior became more and more bizarre.  This person had seen him near the Laundromat, that person had seen him angrily gesticulating en route to the bar, extending his middle finger at inanimate objects.  Another heard he’d been in a fight and the police became involved.

All hoped he’d avail himself of his plane ticket that afternoon.

In the end I figured the 16 hour days had pushed him past his limit.  I had seen sleep deprivation induce major psychopathology before, in the aftermath of the New Zealand earthquake.

And I worried about myself and my workload at home.




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