You are one of over 700. Often, we don’t see your faces. Bandanas protect noses, cheeks, lips from the dry chill, from the salt in the air, from the stench of the fish. But I see yours. You aren’t wearing a bandana.
Skin, dark and chapped. Eyes, bloodshot. A dim warmth, though, somewhere behind the weathered layer. You look like a dad.
Red pants, yellow rain jacket, blue apron, green gloves. My garb matches. Everyone’s does. Standard-issue. It’s less than 32° Fahrenheit in here, in the processing plant. The fish must remain cold, fresh, profitable. Water, tinged crimson, dripping down every surface, coats the floor an inch or so deep. It reminds me of Jaws.
The platform we stand on, I can’t see it. It looks like we are floating on a rug of mashed salmon organs, tissue, roe — a morbid magic carpet. My breath fogs up my safety glasses. Numbness overcomes my toes.
I don’t know how long you’ve been up here, sorting fish into two rows, tails facing in, on the metallic tray between us. I don’t even know your name. I want to ask. But I doubt you could hear me over the rumble and clanking and thumping of the monstrous silver slaughter machines. I also doubt you speak English. Most of the processors don’t.
Chances are, mainland America is foreign to you. Silver Bay Seafoods harvests a substantial chunk of its workforce from Puerto Rico. A handful of workers consider Africa — Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia — home. Others, Eastern Europe. What country are you from?
Even if you could hear me, understand me, we’re instructed to not engage. Management — the Johns, we call them, because every single one of them is an unpalatable 60-something man named John — explicitly tells us to not talk to you. It makes things less complicated, they claim, to only allow human resources to speak to you. I wonder why.
Five weeks ago, when I landed in Naknek, a 500-person village sustained by salmon canneries and accessible only by plane, none of you had arrived. Millions of salmon, still busy chugging up the southeast Alaskan coast, hadn’t flooded into Bristol Bay. All the bunkhouses sat empty. Silence occupied the plant instead.
“Welcome to Hell.” Cyrus, one of the dust-covered foremen with the beginning baby bump of a beer belly, greeted me in this warm, welcoming way. His bandana scraped against unshaven chin as he exposed his face. A sickeningly sadistic smile crept from ear to ear, like he was a fraternity brother preparing to haze a new pledge. He thought I was a processor; he must get a kick out of saying this to all of you, seeing your faces. Maybe it’s a way to weed you out, get rid of the weak ones early. Nonetheless, I corrected him.
But, when you arrived, you didn’t correct him. You couldn’t. Cyrus’s grin taunted you, his statement frightened you. And now you are sorting fish — fish ripped open, fish gutted, fish with their blood vessels torn out, decapitated fish, fish whose tails have been chopped off, eggs-extracted fish — in Hell. Both of us are.
I’m a college student, though, a sophomore. I’m cooped up in the office, answering phones, filing papers. My boss, your boss, is my uncle. Everyone calls him “Coach.” I call him Chris. Only for tonight will I be on the floor of the plant — well, above it, I guess, on this Halloween decoration of a platform. I couldn’t tell you how long you’re going to be here. I wish I could. It’s not my call.
You’re on C shift — 2:00 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.. Two 15-minute breaks, cut short most of the time, divide the labor. Rumor has it, they run about five minutes. At least you get a stale cookie and some too-hot-to-drink watered-down coffee to tide you over until you get pulled off the line.
After standing for 14 and a half hours, foremen switch out processors at 6:30 a.m. Except you quickly learn that they don’t, especially when peak season hits. Foremen shove more processors in wherever they fit, bumping up the number of fillets cleaned, frozen, sealed, and shipped. It’s not a secret. But no one will admit to it.
What if my coworkers forget me in here, desert me like the foremen do? I told them to come grab me at 10:00 p.m.. But they might not remember. A wave of phone calls from our fleet could suddenly swamp the office. Will you be here, opening the tiny gate to the river of lifeless fish, pushing a steady stream of slimy bodies to flow onto our tray, and then sorting away? Will you be here to help me lift the tray back onto the rack? With all the sockeye on it, my arms falter.
My train of thought derails as the tray of 20 or so corpses slips out of the stabilizing latch, crashing down on my left foot. The headless, tailless fish hit the platform, sliding off in all directions. I step on one of them in my haste to try to catch the others. Processors around me don’t flinch, don’t stare, don’t help. I don’t blame them. Foremen terminate processors who abandon their post, trapping them in Naknek. Silver Bay normally covers processors’ flights home, which easily exceed $1,200 a piece. But not if you’re fired. Or if you quit.
A thumb pops into my periphery as yet another fish slithers out of my grip. I turn my head — it’s your thumb. It’s a thumbs-up. A question or a statement? You point to my foot. It’s a question: “Are you okay?” I respond, with an identical thumbs-up statement, followed by a nod: “I am okay.”
Kindness. The tundra here is so rich in minerals, packed with anything from gold to mammoth fossil. Salmon clog the rivers. Exploited oil fields just a few hundred miles north fill the world’s wallets and gas tanks. But Alaska lacks one resource: kindness. Profit comes first. You’re here, though. Life dealt you an exceptionally unlucky hand of cards. You need money, a bed, some food. That’s why you’re here, in this inhumane place, despite being human.
But did you know about what happens here before you boarded that flight? About the cold, harsh dangers of this cold, harsh place?
People lose things here — on purpose and by accident. So tempting are those mini fish guillotines to a processor who misses their family but whose bank account cannot take the blow of a flight home. A quick slip of a finger or two down the conveyor belt, under the protective hood, and into that piscine execution chamber grants them medical leave: a free ticket out of Hell.
What about the recurrent safety violations? A Google search of “Silver Bay Seafoods,” and you would have unearthed the Puerto Rican government’s investigation and the failed inspections performed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Records of the absence of portable fire extinguishers, detrimental exposure to ammonia, potassium hydroxide, and phosphoric acid, electrical shock hazards, and critical infractions of equipment safety would have popped up right in front of you.
Yes, OSHA fined Silver Bay. $28,925. A one-hundredth of a percent of the company’s $220 million value. And it cannot be overlooked that the only reason they did investigate was because the governor of Puerto Rico personally asked them to, after hearing about what had happened to his people.
You might have discovered the uncorroborated, but nevertheless disturbing, ex-employee testimonials about the armed guards surrounding the plant one summer. Semi-automatic weapons fenced the processors in.
Another article or two about the infamous “King Salmon Inn” could have resulted, as well. KSI, as it’s referred to, is an abandoned motel-turned-bunkhouse purchased by Silver Bay Seafoods. The only problem is that it’s falling apart — mold climbing up the walls, mattress shortages, a pathetic trickle of running water laced with heavy metals. KSI is also plopped right in the middle of a forest grizzly bears consider home. A rickety school bus shuttles the motel’s overworked guests 17 miles to work and 17 miles back to their humble abode. I only drove there once. Everyone was drunk and/or high on whatever they could snort, drink, or chew. It was noon.
Did you know that you wouldn’t be able to call your family? Your cell phone doesn’t work up here. I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now. Down the road a mile and a half, you could shell out $150 at Naknek Trading and get a functional SIM card. That’s where the only health clinic in town is, too. Bears and lynx cross that road all day long, though. And if you’re not working, you’re sleeping or eating, not going for a stroll. Theoretically, the landlines up in the office would instantaneously connect you to the lower 48. The Johns explicitly forbid it, however. Their wish is our command, but their command is certainly not our wish.
I didn’t know about all of this before I got on that plane, either. I had no idea. No one told me. Not even my uncle. Ashamed of the industry? Maybe. He talks to all of you, befriends you, even sneaks into the plant sometimes to help out. Pumping “dog food” – the Pepto Bismol-colored purée of heads, tails, and organs – is his job of choice. The Johns decided to transfer him from Naknek to False Pass, 361 miles away.
We finish a rack, only for a few moments, though. You hurriedly stretch your arms, in preparation for the next set. But you only loosen your left arm before 10 trays stop at our station and lock in place. Your thumb presses the green button, elevating the rack to our height. A rhythm materializes in our sorting. Slide the tray out. Click into the stabilizing latch. Open the gate. Tails inward. No overlap. Slide back onto the rack. Repeat.
You could have ended up in the strawberry fields of Central California. They sit right next to the highways. Wandering eyes on a 110° day could land on you. You, wearing long pants, two layers of long-sleeve shirts, and heavy gloves, all to protect your skin from the harsh pesticides, fertilizers, simultaneously cooking you.
Or you could have been a little more hidden, behind walls, in the slaughterhouses of the Midwest. Eviscerating hogs, cows, chickens, ducks, whatever comes your way. You’d see your breath, wince with every repetitive motion, just as you do here in Naknek. The difference arrives when you clock out. On the mainland, you would leave. You’d go home. There would be doctors, too, at least someone to help you.
But there is no one here, up in Naknek. Nobody can see through the blue tin walls from the Alaskan Peninsula Highway, which is sparsely used as it is. The majority of the population here is just like you — processors. So, you’ll stand here, for another I don’t know how many hours, arranging I don’t know how many fish, with your pleas for help imprisoned in your mind, muffled by the roaring.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Kirsi L-M