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Nets Mended, Boots Packed. Fish Boats Head For Alaska

It’s the start of the spring fishing season. Big factory ships are heading out to sea, and in coming weeks, 10,000 people from Washington state will head north to the Alaska fishing grounds.

Half of all the seafood caught in the U.S. comes from the Alaska fishery. Seattle is its base, and the biggest players are the companies that own catcher-processor ships. They include Trident Seafoods, Glacier Fish Company and American Seafoods Group. Crews have spent the last few weeks getting the ships ready.

At Interbay’s Pier 91 on Monday, the Northern Eagle, a ship owned by American Seafoods, prepared for its journey.

Northern Eagle planned to run down the Oregon Coast for hake cod, unload, and then start its trip north to Alaska for pollock. Alan Davis, safety and compliance director for American Seafoods, showed off the ship, already battered by the sea despite having been painted two years ago.

“The work that we do is pretty rugged," Davis said. "It doesn’t take long for the paint to get chipped and it to look weathered.”

From the bridge you can see down three stories into the depths of the ship. The wheelhouse no longer carries a wheel. Instead there are consoles of devices for navigation and fish-finding. Alan Davis said technology allows these big ships to fill their holds more quickly.

Everywhere wires are exposed, hatches are open, and people are checking systems.

When the ship leaves, everything has to be perfect. A hundred and forty five people will be on this ship when it leaves Seattle for Dutch Harbor. They’ll sleep in staterooms of four. They’ll keep their wet-gear in a locker that blows hot air up their boots to dry them out. And they’ll communicate with family through a window-side bank of computers. Davis said having the Internet at sea is a relief to sailors; it means instant communication with the people they love.

We see the engine room which gives off heat that helps cooks the fish guts in tanks that are steps away. This produces fish meal, or fish food. Fish oil is produced from the separated fish, meaning there is little waste from fish processing.

The factory floor is steps away. It smells strongly of fish and diesel, a smell Davis said will be non-existent by the time the vessel pulls away from the pier.

“One of the interesting things about the ships when they are here in town, they smell worse than they do at sea,” he said. “At sea it smells fresh and salt water. There’s no real fish odor at all. But when it comes back home it can sometimes get flavorful."

In the factory, fish flow down chutes to machines that separate them into useful chunks just as they twitch their last. The guts run onto the gut-line and the hunt for fish roe is on. Eighteen grades of caviar are sorted on the ship. The filets are frozen and packed. And the fish destined for surimi – a fish paste that becomes imitation crab, imitation lobster and similar products – is sent away to be churned to a paste.

Over the next few weeks, more fishers in Washington will spring into action. At Fishermen's Terminal, nets will be repaired and the salmon seiners will get going.

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