By Michael Beeson
In the seafood industry, tendering is carrying the catch from where it is caught to a processing facility. This way the fishermen can stay on the fishing grounds and keep catching. I work on a salmon tender in Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA.
The boat I work on is 90 feet long and spends most of the year fishing for black cod and halibut. While tendering we outfit the boat with an enormous vacuum called a fish pump to get the fish out of the fishermen’s hold and onto our boat. The fish pass through a system of tubes to a weight box, then into our fish hold, which can pack about 200,000 pounds of salmon.
We have a crew of three people, just enough to get everything done. Our boat has a bunk room with four bunks, where two of us sleep. The captain sleeps in a bunk upstairs in the wheelhouse. The boat has a nice galley and bathroom with a shower, so it is fairly comfortable to live on for the two months of the tendering season.
Our boat tenders for the purse seine fishing fleet(seiners) whose fishing schedule is determined by the state’s fishery scientists. The salmon run is closely monitored to make sure that fishing is sustainable. The fisheries scientists help the fishermen target only certain runs of salmon, and will close fishing for days to ensure that enough salmon have a chance to get up their birth rivers to spawn. Early in the run, fishing will be restricted to small areas, then once enough salmon have made it past certain points, fishing opens in broad areas and on more days.
Twenty minutes before a fishing day opens, we need to fire up and test all of our equipment in case a fisherman fills up their net on the first set. If they capture too many fish for their hauler to lift onto their boat, they will need us to stick our fish pump hose directly into their net and suck the live fish out of the sea. This can be a tense operation, as we have to drift in the current between other boats, their nets and the shore, while there is possibly $100,000 worth of salmon on the line.
One morning this summer we were pumping a seiner’s net when another fisherman drove past us yelling lots of swear words from their crows nest saying that we were in the way. There wasn’t much we could do about it. A few weeks later we had to pump the angry fisherman’s boat and he turned out to be pretty nice, but he seemed totally hopped up on caffeine and excited about his work.
On a typical day no fishermen fill up their net, so we drive our boat around our assigned area, using binoculars to spot fishermen from our fleet. We work for one of several seafood companies that buy fish from Prince William Sound. Our fleet is made up of about 50 boats and we have to learn what our company’s boats look like so we can stay near them throughout the day. It is always amazing to me to be out in a complete wilderness, but to see so many fishing boats driving around.
If fishing is slow we will find a place to anchor up and we can take a nap or do some chores, but a seiner could show up at any time, so we are always ready. Sometimes I will be happily napping in my bunk when I get woken by the sound of a boat pulling up to our side with a hold full of fish needing us to help them get back out fishing. Then I have to quickly get some work clothes on and run out to the deck to toss the lines. A few times I haven’t had time for socks and ended up pumping off the boat wearing my flip flops. When we get a midday pump off it is important to be quick, as the fishermen will be anxious to get back out to catch more fish and make more money.
Pumping the salmon out of a fisherman’s boat takes from half an hour to an hour. The first step is to stick our pump hose into the seiner’s fish hold, which is a big tank in the bottom of the boat full of refrigerated sea water and salmon. The fish travel through the suction line hose to the fish pump, then up the discharge hose to a sorting table where the different species will be separated to be weighed. Next the salmon are dumped down a waterpark worthy slide into our fish hold.
My job at this time is to control the amount of refrigerated sea water in our fish hold and the fishing boats hold by opening and closing valves that pump water out of our hold and over board or into the fishing boats hold. If I mess up, our fish hold gets too full of water and the fish spill out onto the deck. Then I have to pick the salmon up and put them back in the hold one by one, which is annoying and slimy. I also pump sea water into the seiner’s hold so that there is the optimal mixture of water and salmon, and the pump can work as fast as possible.
While the fish are being pumped and weighed, the fishermen can get fuel and freshwater from us as well as deposit their garbage. The boats we work with have crews of four or five people. They stay out on the fishing grounds for months at a time and are all working hard so we try to help them in any way we can, giving away paper towels, garbage bags or some fresh food if they need it.
Over the summer we get to know the seiners. When a crew seems to be working hard and having a good time, we start to root for them and we feel happy when they catch a lot or sad when they have a slow day. Some of the boats have captain’s who don’t respect their crews and yell too much. Once, a particularly self centered captain, in an accident of frustration, knocked one of his crew into the cold, slimy waters of the fish hold. I feel bad for the crews of these captains; they have to spend three months on a small boat, with no shower and living in fear of making a mistake.
After the fish are weighed it takes a few minutes to make a fish ticket showing the fishermen how much fish they caught. The fish tickets are also used by the fishery managers to assess how many salmon have been caught and how many more fish can be sustainably harvested. Before casting the fisherman off, we give them some ice cream. It is always great seeing their smiling faces as we hand them a treat to help them get energy for the next fishing day.
We see four to eight boats a night and once we have all of the seiners pumped off we wait for orders from the fleet manager. This is one of the most difficult parts of tendering, as we usually finish pumping around midnight and we are getting sleepy. The fleet manager will have us put our salmon onto another tender, pump salmon off of the other tenders or bring just the salmon we have on board into the cannery.
If we have to put our salmon onto another tender, we will tie up with them and put their pump hose into our hold to suck the fish out. Or we can even put our own hose into our hold and switch a valve so that the fish get pumped off to the other tender. This is a tedious process at the end of a day of work. For example, once a tender was pumping our fish out, had their pump break, and we had to wait around while they were fixing it until four in the morning, then had to wake up when fishing started at six.
When we transport the salmon to town we are exhausted and we have to take turns steering the boat during the 6-16 hour journey so we can all take a nap. To make sure we stay awake while steering, we have a watch alarm, which is a button we have to press every few minutes. If you fail to press the button a loud alarm goes off and everyone will wake up and be angry that you fell asleep. Your eyes tend to get very heavy and the driver’s seat seems very comfortable when you are steering the boat at four in the morning, but falling asleep could be disastrous.
Once we make it to the cannery we tie up to the dock so that they can use their fish pump to suck the salmon out of our fish hold. The cannery workers do the pumping, so during this time we get a chance to run to the grocery store to get supplies and take care of anything we need to do in town. If we are lucky we even get to have lunch or dinner at a restaurant. Once the salmon are sucked out of our boat we head back out to sea to fill our fish hold again.
The salmon we deliver are mostly put into cans so they can be shipped and eaten all over the world. Working on a tender boat has taught me the work that goes into getting this amazing food from the sea to our plates. I truly believe that we are taking good care of the fish and that it is a sustainable food source. I consider myself an environmentalist and every time that I take part in commercial fishing, I am amazed by how many fish there are out there. I hope we can continue to protect our oceans while enjoying the amazing seafood it produces.