You are hereLife aboard the F/V Alaska Beauty

Life aboard the F/V Alaska Beauty

By John Locke - Posted on 17 June 1995

She's called the Alaska Beauty, but man, is she ugly. The 98-foot trawler shows more rust than paint. What paint she has is thick, cracked and peeling. At first glance, she looks like a Harley biker--rough, tough, and mean. She's intimidating.

But spend a few days aboard, and she grows on you. The lower deck is large enough that you don't feel cramped. The galley is relatively spacious, although the eight bunks are crammed in with little room to spare. The wheelhouse, upstairs, is bright and airy, a pleasant place to read or watch whales while we drift between sets, or during anchor watch on our days off.

After a while, she feels like home. You no longer even notice the rust. The white, 800 pound doors that hold the net open, dangle on the sides at the stern. Between them, the reel holds the net, bright orange with blue floats. The black hull and the white wheelhouse have become downright attractive.

This is the platform that is home and work for me, May and the first half of June, 1995. Sixteen long days and one weekend. That is what it feels like. It only feels like a new day after a full night's sleep. And we only get that every other night. We go to work around 7 or 8 pm, work through the night, through the day, until 6 or 7 pm the next evening. We set the net out every 3 hours for half an hour, then bring it in and sample whatever we catch.

What we catch is pollock. Lots and lots of pollock. Walleye Pollock are a medium sized 2-3 pound fish, around 18 inches long, with white meat and an enormous, round mouth. Fish & Chips stands often use pollock, and when you eat imitation crab meat, you're eating pollock.

We take 60 pollock from each set, weigh and measure them, take their otoliths (ear bones that are used to determine age) and stomachs, and donate the rest of the carcasses to the birds. We rotate jobs, but when we're tired or swamped, Mark, my co-worker, takes stomachs and I write down numbers. We can process a fish in about 35 seconds. Sometimes a third person comes over from another boat to lend us a hand.

Mark hopes not to come back as a pollock in his next life; if he has to live as one pollock for each he has killed, he figures he'll spend the next 20,000 years chasing copapods and fleeing from bigger predators. That's the irony of this project: we're here to see what fish are around, and who's eating whom. We're funded by the Trustees, the group that disperses funds from the Exxon Valdez settlement. Ostensibly we are trying to find out how the Sound is recovering from the oil spill. And to do that, we go out and kill lots of fish to see how they're surviving.

I wonder if this is how mass-murderers get their start. Killing pollock. At first, we were gentle, trying to remove their stomachs and their ear-bones without hurting them too much. But then, it was more merciful to kill them quickly. A scalpel to the brain is quite effective. Insert it, it stiffens. Angle it one way, the tail flops that direction. Bend it back, the tail kicks the other way. Pull it out, and the fins quiver and shake, and then the fish is dead. We are becoming quite warped out here, with our morbid job. We even fight over who gets the pleasure of killing the fish.

Our workspace is built onto the back of the wheelhouse. The sides and ceiling are plywood; the back is open, giving us a view of the lower deck and net. When the wind and rain kicks up, we close off the back with a tarp, sealing ourselves in a rather small cubicle. Two bright halogen lights give us the light we need to work.

As the trip progressed, our workspace has become more and more decorated. Numbers fill one wall, counting the sets and preserved bottles. Smack in the middle of this graffiti is the Trophy: the head of a record 4 pound pollock. Its skin has dried and shrivelled. Once it looked ferocious, evil; then its eyes crossed, and it became comical. Eventually, they dried and became spooky, sunken black hollows. It gave us the creeps, so we gave the trophy an eye transplant. But, after the second transplant, it became too much work, so we gave him sunglasses. The cigarette was not far behind, and finally, a thin black necktie, and voila! The Blues Pollock was born. Below the trophy is a dollar bill, wrapped in plastic and stuck to the wall with duct tape. Mark earned it on a dare for licking a pollock's stomach.

One stormy, wet night, we had the tarp down in back, sheltering us from the elements. From the wheelhouse we looked like figures in a museum. Bernie, of the Prince William Sound Science Center, who was monitoring the acoustics in the warmth of the wheelhouse, decided we needed a sign:


This exhibit displays 3 state employees actually working. Although this behavior is not uncommon, the general public rarely has an opportunity to view biologists in their natural environment. In this case, they are weighing, sexing, and gutting fish. The biologists have studied long and hard to learn the proper techniques. The slower learners even went to graduate school.

Please do not tap on the glass or otherwise harass the biologists. They are not used to being viewed. Sudden movements may cause the biologists to flee and possibly run into the glass.

On our off days, I sleep in until 10 or 11, then go out to find us anchored somewhere in a bay, surrounded by snowy mountains, with glaciers in the distance. I read my book, jump-rope, hop in our little inflatable and motor to shore for a walk, do some writing, watch a movie, or just hang out in the wheelhouse watching the rain. We drop a line down to the bottom, jigging for halibut, but all we seem to get is rockfish. After a few hours of some sort of activity, I crawl back into bed for a nap, because in the evening, we start all over again with another 24 hour shift. And that is how 35 days feel like 16.

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