From the window of the tiny turboprop, Julio Morales stared down on jagged, snow-sheathed summits. He’d never seen such huge mountains, never been in such a small airplane. He’d been handed a pair of Styrofoam earplugs when he boarded the flight at the Anchorage airport and was told to keep his seat belt on. And then they’d taken off, up and out over Cook Inlet, the long bay that leads from Alaska’s largest city toward the open ocean. They were headed west, over the towering volcanic peaks of the Alaskan Peninsula, and along the Aleutian Island Chain to the fishing port of Dutch Harbor. It was about as far west as you could go, farther west than Julio had ever been.
Julio was forty years old, but he looked much younger, with big, wet brown eyes and smooth, round cheeks. He had a couple of cousins who’d worked in Dutch Harbor, one at a fish processing plant, and the other on a boat. He liked their stories of Alaska. Just the idea of the place appealed to him—so big, so empty.
As the plane descended, Julio couldn’t see anything: no city, no airport, no lights. Outside the window was just a wall of white. And then, all of a sudden, they were on the runway, a clipped stretch of asphalt laid across a narrow spit of land dividing two large bays. Julio climbed down a metal stepladder straight into the cold, late-winter afternoon. He picked up his green oversized army duffel inside the one-room airport and found the waiting van. It had been sent by his new employer, the Fishing Company of Alaska (FCA), to deliver him a mile down the road to the Grand Aleutian hotel.
If it were located anywhere else in the country, the Grand Aleutian’s direct competition would be a typical Holiday Inn. The comforters are polyester, the bathroom floors are linoleum, and the tubs are small and scuffed. Even many of the nonsmoking rooms smell like stale cigarettes. The hotel is the nicest in Dutch Harbor. But it’s also the only hotel in Dutch Harbor—with the exception of bunkhouses for processing-plant workers and government fishery employees. The three-story, 110-room, crescent-shaped hotel hugs Margaret Bay, a tiny inlet that attracts geese and ducks and the odd sea lion. In the summertime, when Dutch Harbor turns lush and green, a handful of extreme birders will book at the Grand Aleutian, where rooms start at $160 a night. There are the odd adventure travelers, planning long treks across the treeless islands, or kayaking expeditions in some of the roughest, coldest waters on the planet. There’s some historical tourism from World War II veterans who were stationed in Dutch Harbor during the Pacific campaign, and, in recent years, visits from die-hard fans of the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch, which follows the crews of crab boats that work out of the port.
For the most part, though, Dutch Harbor is far off the wild-life-and-glaciers tourist circuit that draws more than a million visitors to Alaska each summer. Most of the guests at the Grand Aleutian are in town for business. They’re men who own boats, who buy fish, or fix ships. And they’re fishery workers waiting to get on a boat or waiting for a flight home—sometimes for days and days and days. The hulking hotel is run by UniSea, Inc., a Japanese-owned seafood company that operates the largest of five fish-processing plants in town. Officially, the entire populated area is part of the city of Unalaska. Many locals use that more accurate name, especially the native Aleuts who have inhabited the islands for thousands of years. To outsiders and most fishermen, the whole place is just “Dutch.”
Despite a full-time population of just 4,300 people, Dutch Harbor/Unalaska is the top fishing port in the United States in terms of volume of catch. The town has held the title for twenty years running. In 2008, the two-hundred-odd fishing boats that sail out of Dutch hauled in 612.7 million pounds of fish—more than 13 percent of the total U.S. catch, and worth $195 million dollars.
Most of the full-timers live across the bridge from the airport and the Grand Aleutian hotel. “The Bridge to the Other Side,” it’s called. Several square blocks of wooden homes line the black-sand waterfront looking out into Iliuliuk Bay. Though many of the houses are brightly painted—blue, pink, and green—many are deep in disrepair, with rotting wood and broken windows and yards strewn with old fishing gear. A modern library, medical clinic, and high school seem at odds with the dilapidated houses that surround them. The town buildings were improved in the 1980s and 1990s, when the community was flush with fish money. Now Unalaska has an Olympic-size pool in its aquatic center and an indoor track and racquetball courts at the town recreation facility.
Julio didn’t go to the gym or the pool. But he did explore around the UniSea plant, just down the road from the hotel. It was Rosel Garcia’s idea to get outside. Julio didn’t want to miss a call from the company. They’d been told they would be called when their boat arrived, and that they should wait at the hotel until then. Julio wasn’t sure they should leave the building. But they’d been in town for a couple of days already, and they wanted to see more of the island. Julio had noticed Rosel in the airport in Anchorage, a black guy speaking Spanish on his cell phone. Julio could tell from his accent that Rosel was from Central America—Honduras, it turned out. They were booked on the same flight to Dutch Harbor, both to work for the FCA. When they got to the hotel, they found out they’d be sharing a room.
Julio was impressed by the Grand Aleutian. The lobby was striking, with a towering stone fireplace. From his room, he could see big ships sailing in and out of the bay. There were two restaurants and a bar with its own menu. The men were allowed to order anything they wanted and charge it to the company. Julio was amazed at how well they were being treated. He ordered steak and lobster. The only things that were off-limits were booze and porn. There’d been some problems in the past, they were told. If you want to drink, do it with your own money.
It was cold and snowing. Neither of them had winter boots, but Julio and Rosel left the hotel and wandered down to the waterfront. There were some boats tied up, including the Cornelia Marie from the Deadliest Catch. They walked by a handful of storefronts. There was a barber shop, a liquor store, a tanning salon, and a bar—the UniSea. They continued a long way along a road that traced the bay. More than once, Julio fell; it was hard to balance on the crusted ice built up along the road’s shoulder. But it felt good just to breathe in the cold, crisp air. It was a nice change from the overbearing heat in southern California.
Julio had been working hard for years but couldn’t seem to save much money. He didn’t own a home. He had no wife, no kids, no obligations. He was ready for a big change—an adventure. For three years, his cousin Marco had been flying up to Dutch Harbor for months at a time, coming home flush with cash. He’d said he might be able to get Julio a job, and maybe their cousin Byron, too.
Byron and Julio grew up together in Guatemala. Julio was three years old when his mother left for the United States. She got a job in a restaurant in Queens, New York. He was raised mostly by his grandmother. She was often caring for ten kids and struggling to make enough food to keep them all fed. Julio slept in the same bed with his younger cousin Byron, and the two boys grew to be like brothers. Byron looked up to Julio. When Julio became an altar boy, Byron wanted to be one as well. Byron was confirmed in the Catholic church shortly after Julio. When Julio was sixteen, he left home. Alone, he traveled the more than two thousand miles to the United States border. He took buses and sneaked onto trains. When he reached Tijuana, he called his mother, who had moved from New York to Los Angeles. She would pay for a coyote to bring Julio across.
He was the youngest in a group of sixteen. They crossed the mountains at night, hiking for hours by moonlight. There was one guy who was just a couple years older and had been back and forth before. Julio asked him about California: What was the food like? Had he been to Disneyland? He’d been there, he told Julio. It was great, even better than you could imagine. There was a van waiting for them on the other side. When they climbed out the next day, they were near downtown Los Angeles.
Julio enrolled in high school in Long Beach, but there was a lot of gang activity at the school and a lot of killings. He dropped out. He worked in the kitchen at a hospital, and then at a Ralph’s supermarket. In 1995 he got a job at a mom-and-pop marine supply company that serviced boats at Marina del Rey, an upscale boat harbor just a couple miles north of Los Angeles International Airport. He had originally been hired for a construction job: The store was moving spaces and they needed some demolition work done. Julio’s work ethic impressed the store’s owners. They’d once hired their marine electricians straight out of the local high school, but that school had eliminated most of its shop classes. Julio became an apprentice. He learned marine plumbing and electrical work. There were a lot of wealthy people around, couples with fifty- or sixty-foot yachts who wanted custom work done. Julio worked on Florence Henderson’s boat. He worked on John Travolta’s boat. More and more of the shop’s clients were Mexicans, and it was helpful for the owner to have a Spanish-speaking employee. After a few years, a lot of people came into the store and asked for Julio. For eleven years he’d lived and worked in Venice Beach. Byron was nearby. He had come north in 1987, three years after Julio. He was married, with two little girls. The cousins spent holidays together. Byron had learned to cook from their grandmother. He’d put on an apron and impress the family with his ceviche and carne asada. Sometimes, he and Julio talked about Alaska.
Julio had been thinking about it for a while. He’d done some online research and filled out a few applications for fishing jobs. Then, in the fall of 2007, his cousin Marco called. The Fishing Company of Alaska was hiring; Julio should contact their offices in Seattle, he said. The person who answered the phone at FCA wasn’t interested in Julio’s marine electrical experience. They’d be hiring new factory workers soon, though. Julio could come in for an interview and orientation. Then they would call him when they needed him.
Julio and Byron traveled to Seattle for the interview, then moved in with an uncle south of the city. Julio was following Marco, and Byron was following Julio. That was the way the family saw it, anyway. At Christmastime, with still no word from the company, Byron flew back to California. Julio stayed in Washington, waiting for the call. It came at the end of February. He was given a confirmation number for a flight the next day from Seattle to Anchorage and on to Dutch Harbor.
IT WAS 3:00 IN THE MORNING when the phone rang in Julio’s room at the Grand Aleutian. They should pack their bags and come downstairs, the woman from the FCA said. Their ride would be there soon. Julio was the first one to the lobby. Soon he was piling into a van with half a dozen other new workers. It was just a ten-minute drive—across the Bridge to the Other Side, and right on Captains Bay Road. Then, the van stopped. The boat was tied up on the pier. It was much bigger than Julio had imagined. This is going to be fun, he thought, as he lugged his duffel out of the van and walked down the dock toward the waiting ship.
At 184 feet, the Alaska Ranger was almost twice as big as many of the vessels featured on Deadliest Catch. The hull was black, the wheelhouse a white, rectangular compartment perched on the front third of the ship and surrounded by a narrow upper deck with white metal rails. Julio saw his cousin Marco. They hugged, and Marco carried Julio’s bag as they climbed the metal gangway onto the ship’s deck and then down a flight of steep stairs and through the galley to the room they would share with six other men. There were four bunk beds, most of them strewn with crumpled sleeping bags, pillows, and clothing. Julio threw his bag on an empty mattress.
The Ranger wasn’t the largest boat in the FCA’s fleet. The company had the 200-foot Alaska Warrior and the 230-foot Alaska Juris. They owned seven boats in all. Two of the ships were long-liners, vessels that release massive fishing lines strewn with thousands of hooks into the ocean. The lines are left to soak and are pulled up hours later, the fish gaffed off one at a time as the lines are reeled back in. The other five FCA ships, including the Ranger, were bottom trawlers that target groundfish schooling near the ocean floor. The trawlers roll a huge, weighted net off the stern of the boat. The net is funnel-shaped, with a narrow rear pouch known as the “cod-end.” The mouth of the net is held open by two refrigerator-size metal doors that are pushed apart by the force of the water as the net is dragged behind the ship, often for a dozen miles at a time.
Rollers on the underside of the net help prevent it from becoming caught up on rocks, coral, and other snags on the ocean floor. In a several-hour-long drag, 150 tons of fish can be scooped up in the net, which is hauled back on board with massive winches. The full cod-end looks like a giant sausage dragged up on the stern. The net is zipped open and the fish spill out on deck. They are shoveled through a hatch into an eighty-ton holding tank. Then they’re sorted. Prohibited species like crab, salmon, and halibut, and bycatch like jellyfish, starfish, and other invertebrates, are thrown overboard. The “keepable” catch is headed, gutted, and stacked in gigantic freezers in the bow of the boat.
Marco brought Julio down to the factory, one deck below their bunk room. Julio glanced over the stainless steel tables and the silent saws. Marco showed him the enormous freezers. It seemed like they took up half the ship. The Ranger was a head-and-gut boat, the factory an assembly line for turning a freshly caught fish into a store-ready slab of flesh. A boat like the Ranger could decapitate and disembowel tens of thousands of pounds of fish each trip.
The vessel was one of about sixty such ships sailing out of Dutch Harbor. Most of these so-called H&G boats range from 100 to 225 feet, smaller than the Bering Sea’s massive factory processors (the largest of which is more than 400 feet long and has a 100-person crew) but much bigger than most of the family-run boats that dominate TV images of Alaskan fishing life. Many of the smaller catcher boats that dock at Dutch and at the smaller Alaskan fishing ports of Kodiak, Seward, Sitka, Homer, Cordova, and Ketchikan, are just 30 or 40 feet long, with crews of two or four people. They’ll fish for a day or two and then return either to port or to a floating processor to unload their catch while it’s still fresh. The H&G boats, on the other hand, can hold enough fish to travel far from shore for weeks at a time. Most have multiple freezer holds built right into the hull of the ship. The Ranger had four freezers. On an exceptionally good trip, it might take just a few days to fill them. More commonly, the ship might be out for two, three, even six weeks at a time.
Most of the jobs on the head-and-gut boats weren’t really about fishing. Jeremy Freitag found that out when he was hired for his first Alaska job, three years earlier. They were factory jobs—assembly-line work in the cold, wet belly of a boat lurching on the Bering Sea. It was a whole lot more like standing on the line in a meat-processing plant than a day of deep-sea fishing. Still, it wasn’t a bad gig. Jeremy was twenty-two. He had seen the nickel ad about fishing in Alaska when he was nineteen, soon after graduating from high school in the small eastern Oregon town of Lebanon. He drove six hours up to Seattle to fill out an application. It was the first time in his life he’d left his home state. He got the job and landed in Dutch Harbor in the summer of 2005. The FCA was his third company. He had learned that once you’ve had a job on a boat, it’s not too hard to find another one. He had spent the late summer and early fall of 2007 on the Ranger. The work was hard and the hours were long. But it was fast money. The starting pay was $50 a day, plus a bonus of four or five cents a case per processor. On a ten-day trip, the Ranger might get back to port with thirty thousand cases of fish. It could add up to a $1,500 bonus for an entry-level factory worker like Jeremy.
Only a couple of the guys on the boat were full-time deckhands. Everyone else worked in the factory: twelve-hour shifts, with six hours off in between. The factory crew was broken into three groups, with two of the three on at all times. In a couple weeks at sea, the men almost never got more than five hours of sleep in a row.
Jeremy had pretty much always been tired, but he didn’t mind the work. The money was a lot better than at the mill job he had right out of high school. He figured that in just a few years he could save enough money to buy a house. He guessed that he’d need about $100,000—enough to get him something decent in the farm country of central Oregon. Nothing fancy, just a middle-class home. He didn’t spend much money in Alaska—he slept and ate on the boat. And when he came home, he could crash at his parents’ house. He had a good job and a goal.
In January 2008 Jeremy had planned to go back to Dutch Harbor to a spot on the Seafreeze, a three-hundred-foot processing ship he’d worked on back in 2006. He liked the larger boat better. The pay was a little more, the hours a little shorter. But when the time came, the Seafreeze didn’t need him. He called the FCA. They had openings. In early January, he flew back up to Dutch, back to the Ranger. Jeremy had been thinking he’d work in the factory again, but the Ranger’s steward still hadn’t shown up the day the boat was set to leave for the season’s first fishing trip. The Ranger’s cook, Eric Haynes, asked Jeremy if he wanted the job. It paid $110 a day, a huge raise from his salary as a processor. Best of all, unlike a processor’s twelve-hours-on, six-hours-off schedule, the steward worked days: 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. By FCA standards, twelve hours a day was the short shift.
Jeremy liked the work. He helped out in the galley, prepping meals and washing dishes for Eric. The ship’s cook had been working on the boat for years, and he was good company. He’d been on the Ranger longer than the captain, longer than the mate, and longer than any of the engineers. Though he’d had offers from other companies, Eric liked the Ranger. He made eight or ten grand a month—only the ship’s officers made more—and shared a room with just one other guy, assistant cook Mark Hagerman, with whom he traded off shifts in the kitchen. Eric kept a punching bag in his bunk room, and would work out in his off time. If the weather was good enough, he’d run wind sprints or jump rope up on deck. Back home in Las Vegas, Eric competed in amateur kickboxing competitions. He worked as a cook there, too (he’d once had a stint at the rotating rooftop restaurant in the Stratosphere). But after a while, he always wanted to return to Alaska.
The Ranger’s galley was about as basic as you could get, but Eric put effort into the cooking. Each season, he studied different cookbooks to perfect a new set of recipes. He knew how hard the guys were working; he’d started out in the factory himself. His food was their one pleasure—their reward. It made him happy to see them eat, and his effort didn’t go unnoticed. The Ranger was widely regarded as having the best food of any boat on the FCA fleet. Most guys would say they ate a whole lot better at sea than they did at home. There were meals every six hours to coincide with the changing shifts, and the food was designed to please a crew made up of people from all over the world: tacos, stir-fries, sushi, steaks.
There was usually a pile of dirty dishes for Jeremy to deal with in the morning. After he took care of stuff in the kitchen, he would scrub the toilets, mop the floors, or maybe clean up the shower area a little. A couple of the showers had to be turned on and off with a pair of pliers or a crescent wrench. It was a pain how stuff like that never got fixed, Jeremy thought. The ship had two washing machines and two dryers, but one of each was broken, too. Keeping up with the laundry—mostly clothing stinking of sweat and fish guts—was a twenty-four-hour job. The crew joked that you didn’t want to piss off the steward, or he’d wash your things without detergent. Jeremy was in charge of collecting and disposing of the ship’s trash—pretty much everything was burned and dumped into the ocean. He would go around to the crew’s rooms and collect their garbage. Sometimes he noticed beer cans or liquor bottles in the trash. Like everyone else, Jeremy had signed the company’s no-tolerance drug and alcohol policy. “No illegal drugs, controlled substances, alcohol, paraphernalia, or firearms will be allowed aboard an FCA vessel at any time,” his employee handbook read. “THIS MEANS NOT ONE SHRED, GRAIN, PILL, OR TRACE.”
He knew booze wasn’t allowed on board. But who was he going to tell? The bottles were in the rooms of some of the most senior crew. Jeremy had to go down to the engine room to get fuel for the garbage. On his way, he’d pass by the rudder room, where big, white absorbent pads the crew called diapers were laid out on the floor to sop up seawater and oil. The engineers would change the pads regularly, and Jeremy would have to haul big black trash bags stuffed with the sopping, oily diapers up to deck to be burned with the rest of the garbage. He’d go up to the wheelhouse to do odd chores for the captain, Steve Slotvig.
Slotvig was a competent captain and kept the boat running relatively efficiently, but there wasn’t a lot of chitchat with the man. Small things could set him off, and his spirit was anything but generous. On Jeremy’s first trip on the Ranger, one of the other processors got a nasty gash and needed stitches—a job that would normally fall to the captain of the boat. Slotvig was in no rush to deal with it. He wanted to finish his breakfast and coffee first. He told the man he could take one shift off—six hours. After that, he’d better be back on the factory line, or he was out of a job. Jeremy quickly figured out that he should go out of his way not to get on Slotvig’s bad side. He brought the captain his meals and coffee—whatever he wanted. He washed the windows of the wheelhouse, scrubbing off the hardened bird shit with Windex and an ice scraper. It was hard work in the winter, when the temperature outside was regularly below freezing. Bird shit was bad. Frozen bird shit was worse. But the job still beat the factory. Jeremy considered himself lucky.
This was the first year Jeremy had been in Alaska for the start of the winter A season, which stretches from early January through late March, sometimes into April. It was much colder than he’d experienced before. The waves were bigger. There was lots of ice in the water. He’d noticed back in the summer that the Ranger rode rougher than his previous boats. One of the ship’s engineers had told him it was because of the Ranger’s flat bottom. It was built as an oil supply rig for the Gulf of Mexico back in the early 1970s—a “Mississippi mud boat,” they called it—and converted to a fishing trawler decades later. Jeremy just knew that it felt different than the ships he’d been on before. It seemed like a sloppy ride.
DUTCH HARBOR’S STAR ROLE in the American fishing industry is relatively new. Until a few decades ago, Alaskan waters were teeming with foreign vessels. Fishermen from Russia, Poland, Korea, and Japan all had discovered the richness of the North Pacific’s continental shelf. American fishermen, on the other hand, were nowhere to be seen. Then, in 1976, Congress pushed the borders of the United States two hundred miles out into the open ocean. The legislation was known as the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and was later renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Act, after the senators who championed the cause (Republican Ted Stevens, from Alaska, and Warren Magnuson, Democrat from Washington State). The new “territory” was called the Exclusive Economic Zone (the EEZ), and it limited fishing in the area to American interests. Now, only American-flagged ships with American captains can fish within the EEZ.
But the foreign ships had something the Americans did not have. To fish for weeks or months far from their own shores, foreign vessels had developed technology to process and freeze their catch right on board. American fishermen had little experience with that type of fishing or with the Asian fish market and its insatiable demand for odd fish and—to the American palate—even odder fish products. And so, in the years after the Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed, U.S. companies hired foreigners—specifically Japanese—to teach them how to fish the Bering and to process fish products with specific Asian markets in mind.
The FCA was one of the first American companies to start processing on board their ships, and from the start they sailed with senior-level Japanese crew. At the time, it wasn’t an uncommon practice. What was unusual was the company’s Japanese family history. FCA is owned by Karena Adler. Now in her late fifties, Adler founded the company in the mid-1980s, soon after divorcing from Masashi Yamada, a Japanese businessman twenty-nine years her senior. Yamada, who is now in his eighties, remains a powerful businessman in Japan. He’s involved in real estate, manufacturing—and fishing. Among his many holdings is controlling ownership of Anyo, a fishing company that operates five of its own factory ships, and is the exclusive buyer of all of FCA’s catch. Anyo calls the Fishing Company of Alaska its “partner” company. The FCA doesn’t have its own Web site. Until recently, though, its boats and their whereabouts were detailed on Anyo’s home page.
JEREMY NOTICED THE DIFFERENCE that the Japanese made right away. On his other boats, the captains relied on sonar fishfinders and their own expertise to identify the best fishing grounds. On the Ranger, it was up to the head Japanese crew member. Everyone called him “the fish master.” Jeremy didn’t know the fish master’s real name, but he knew he was an important person on the boat. He often saw him alone in the wheelhouse, driving the ship. On Jeremy’s other boats, only the captain or first mate did that.
The fish master had his own crew of technicians: There was a Japanese boatswain (or deck boss), a Japanese factory manager, and a few Japanese engineers. It seemed to Jeremy that the Japanese were running the show, and he was told by guys who’d been working for the company much longer that it was the same way on all the FCA boats. Like the captain and first mate, fish master Satoshi Konno had a private stateroom. The other Japanese technicians shared a bunk room, and they all usually sat together at meals, apart from the rest of the crew. Jeremy would help Eric Haynes prepare a separate meal for them, often fish, and always rice. Konno would frequently come down to the galley to request a particular dish. It often seemed like he’d been drinking; one time Konno even showed up in the galley with his pants on backward. Jeremy had heard that the Japanese didn’t work directly for the Fishing Company of Alaska. In fact, they got their checks from North Pacific Resources, a subsidiary of Anyo, the Japanese company that bought the fish. None of them spoke much English. They spoke Japanese to one another, and when the fish master was communicating with the captain, there was more yelling than talking.
The captain was a screamer, and Konno got on his nerves more than anyone. They argued constantly. Jeremy saw it in the summer, during his first FCA trip, but recently the arguments had taken a more serious turn. The Arctic ice edge that normally pushes into the Bering a few hundred miles north of Dutch Harbor had crept unusually far south this winter. The seasonal ice is often broken into pancakelike chunks that can be two or three feet thick and, in certain wind conditions, migrate a mile in an hour. As January turned to February, the crew watched the captain and fish master butt heads about how fast the ship should be operated in ice.
Ice is everywhere during the winter in the northern Bering Sea. It’s not uncommon for Alaska’s northernmost harbors to become iced in during the winter months. The Arctic ice edge is moving all the time—a fishing ground that one week is beneath clear ocean may be iced over a few days later. Few fishing boats out of Dutch Harbor are icebreakers. The Ranger certainly wasn’t. Still, most boats will occasionally find themselves fishing near ice, or trying to outrun the thickening pack. How deep they go and how hard they push is a judgment call on the part of the captain.
Anyone who’d been on the Ranger for a while had seen plenty of ice. Sometimes there would be barely any open water visible at all, just big, flat slabs of sea ice with cracks dividing them. The ship would usually just nose into it at a knot or two. The goal was to keep the speed slow, not get stuck, and avoid backing down, which could damage the ship’s rudders or propellers.
This season seemed different, though. The ice was dense, and there was a lot of scraping and banging. It seemed to several of the crew like they were pushing through the ice faster than they had in the past, on this or on other boats. The Ranger had a walk-in freezer in the bow of the ship, on the same deck as the galley. Eric would send Jeremy up there all the time to grab stuff for the kitchen. From inside the freezer, it felt like the 184-foot steel-hulled boat was a pinball, banging fast and hard against one chunk of ice after another. They were definitely going slower than they would at full speed, Jeremy thought, but the pounding and vibrations were still startling.
The crew had been told that their numbers were lower than on the other trawlers, that they were catching fewer fish and processing it more slowly. The fish master was angry with the totals and would take it out on the captain. Meanwhile, Slotvig would complain to anyone who would listen that Konno was going to get him fired.
Cook Eric Haynes was sick of it. Both Slotvig and Konno would come to him, complaining about the other. The captain would be whining about how the fish master had yelled at him or thrown something at him. Konno, meanwhile, would tell Eric that the captain was baka—stupid, or, his English translation: “small head.” The fish master had been on the boat for a few years longer than Slotvig, and Eric had seen him interact with previous captains. Konno wasn’t easy to get along with, period. The guy who had been captain before Slotvig left the company after a blowup with him. A hydraulic line broke and oil got all over the fish in the fish bin. The fish master wanted to pack it anyway. The captain at the time made the crew throw the contaminated fish overboard. He got his way, but he and Konno almost got into a fistfight over it. When they got back to port, that captain was gone. He left the ship and the company. Eric hadn’t seen him since.
Konno was just so damn competitive about their numbers, Eric thought. It killed him when the other boats were doing better. And his personality and Slotvig’s clashed. They were both short-tempered, and neither was the type to let anything go. To Eric, some of it was pretty immature. One time the previous year, the ship’s steward had come to Eric to tell him about something the captain had just written on a dry erase board in the galley.
“Look, Steve just came down and wrote this big thing out there, that he’s fired. That Konno fired him,” the steward said.
Eric went out and erased it all. Then he went to talk to Slotvig. The man was in tears. The ship’s cook ended up mediating the conflict between the two men, going back and forth between them to settle things down. It blew over, but the captain and the fish master hated each other to the point that Konno wouldn’t even talk to Slotvig anymore. Eric had seen Konno get up and leave when the captain entered the galley. It was ugly, and it was playing out in front of the whole crew.
One night in late February, a handful of crew members were in the galley when they heard a commotion in the hallway one level up. Through the open stairway, the men could see the captain and the fish master standing chest to chest, huffing and puffing at each other. The men in the galley grew quiet. It was an argument about the ice. The captain had evidently been asleep, and had woken to find the fish master had increased the ship’s speed—even though they were still inside the ice pack. Slotvig ran up to the wheelhouse and reduced the speed. The men in the galley had noticed the boat slow down. Moments before, it had been difficult to stand up without holding on to something. It felt like the ship was almost at full speed, the hull beating into the ice pack with a noise like a pounding drum. Now, the captain was screaming at the fish master, hollering that plowing through the ice that way could damage the boat. The captain was fuming.
“It’s my fucking boat,” several crew members heard him yell at Konno. “I’m the one that drives it!”
The fish master was cussing back at the captain in Japanese. The men didn’t understand a word he was saying, but he was obviously enraged. They could see the two men shoving at each other in the narrow hallway.
A couple more crew members had stuck their heads out of their staterooms before the fish master spit right in the captain’s face.
The next time the Ranger arrived back in Dutch Harbor was the day Julio Morales boarded the ship for the first time. Julio’s first job had been to keep an eye on the vent on one of the fuel tanks as the ship was pumped full of diesel. He was posted on the deck on the port side when he heard screaming from inside the wheelhouse.
“Get the fuck out of here, motherfucker!” Julio heard someone yell. He had no idea who it was, or what was going on, but the words were clear and angry: “Get the hell out, you motherfucker. Go home!” Whoever was yelling had a strong accent. Julio could hear slamming from inside the ship. About five minutes later, he saw Captain Steve Slotvig emerge, carrying a garbage bag stuffed with clothes. The older man looked pissed as he stormed down the pier. Julio heard the crew talking. They were saying that the fish master had gotten the captain fired.
By the time the Ranger left Dutch the next day, a temporary solution had been found: Eric Peter Jacobsen, a twenty-plus-year FCA employee who’d been serving as first mate under Slotvig, would fill in as captain. Most of the crew was relieved. Unlike Slotvig, Jacobsen, whom the crew called “Captain Pete,” was well liked and mild-mannered. His first mate would be David Silveira, a fifty-year-old former tuna man from San Diego who was the captain of one of the FCA’s long-liners, the Pioneer. Silveira wasn’t happy about the assignment, but he was willing to step in temporarily. Pete was a friend. Both men were used to sailing on long-liners, and Silveira didn’t want to leave Pete to deal with the trawler and its crew on his own. He agreed to go—but just for a few trips, just until they found someone else.
ON MARCH 5, THE ALASKA RANGER left Dutch Harbor with Pete Jacobsen as her new captain, and David Silveira as mate. It took less than a day to reach the fishing grounds. They were targeting yellowfin sole, but a half dozen species were piled up around Julio’s new knee-high rubber boots: pollack, rock sole, cod, halibut. Not that Julio could tell what was what. He quickly realized there wouldn’t be any formal training in this job. No apprenticing like his work at the marinas in Southern California. He had to watch what everyone else was doing and figure it out, quick.
Julio’s job was to wade into the fish bin, which had been loaded up through a big hatch on deck, and push the fish out onto the conveyer belt on the ship’s port side. The fish ran over a flow scale that recorded the total weight of the catch, and then were herded into a hopper where the bycatch and “prohibs” were sorted out. A stream of salt water kept the fish wet and slippery. Dry fish were too hard to move around. The water soaked the whole factory; sometimes there would be several inches of standing water on the factory floor.
From the hopper, the fish were fed out onto two conveyer belts, and a couple guys stood on the belts and kicked the fish into the right direction so they’d be lined up head first when they reached the circular saws at the ends. Those guys were called the “kickers.” The “headers” manned the saws that decapitated each fish. The fish needed to be lined up neatly to keep as much of the flesh as possible. After the heads were off, a mini-vacuum attached to the saw sucked the guts from the body cavity. The detritus was fed out a discard chute back into the ocean; the “shit chute,” the guys called it. Then the fish were sorted by species and size, packed into metal pans, and stacked into a plate freezer that squeezed the pans together and compressed the fish into compact blocks.
It was exhausting work. It was cold in the factory, and loud, with all the noise from the conveyor belt gears added to the constant grumble of the Ranger’s massive 7,000-horsepower engines. Julio didn’t know too many names, and no one had learned his, either. People just yelled “Hey, hey!” to get his attention. He was learning some of the common language though, like the “hubba, hubba” urged by the Japanese techs. It meant hurry up.
There were video cameras in the factory. That was so the fish master could keep an eye on production from up in the wheelhouse, Julio was told. Sometimes the Japanese boss came down and walked the processing deck. He’d grab smaller fish off the line and throw them out. It seemed to Julio like a lot of the men were nervous in the fish master’s presence. He could be ruthless in chewing out an incompetent factory worker and no one wanted to piss him off, or look lazy in front of him. When the fish master got close, Julio could smell alcohol on his breath.
From the end of Julio’s first six-hour shift his back hurt and his arms were sore. He didn’t complain. Don’t think about it, he told himself. Just keep working. When the men went up to the galley for lunch, they stripped off the rain gear they wore in the factory, which was covered with little bits of fish, scales, and slime. They hung it on hooks, wiped their hands on the sweatshirts they wore underneath, and went to eat.
After thirteen days, the boat was full with thirty-two thousand cases of fish. When they got back to Dutch Harbor, Julio was happy to see his younger cousin Byron Carrillo at the dock. Byron had gotten a call just a few days after Julio. He was originally assigned to a different FCA boat, the Juris, but when Byron got to Dutch Harbor he asked if he could be put on the same ship with his cousins.
On Wednesday, March 19, the Ranger headed back to the yellowfin grounds. They were up near the Pribilof Islands, a couple hundred miles north of Dutch Harbor, when the first haul came up. Byron had been assigned to a different work squad thanJulio and Marco. When their shifts overlapped, Julio could see him from across the processing space. His cousin had thick, shoulder-length black hair that was flapping all over his face. He had brought way too much stuff to Alaska: three bags in all, with a bunch of nice clothes and shoes he’d never need in Dutch Harbor. “This isn’t a cruise,” Julio told Byron when he saw the bags. Even with all that gear, Byron hadn’t brought a hat. Julio had an extra knit beanie. He gave it to his cousin to hold back his hair.
After only a couple of shifts, Byron was exhausted. It seemed lucky when it turned out his first trip was an unusually short one. The ice had shifted when they had been back in town and now solid pack covered the intended fishing ground. They dropped the net, but the water was too deep and they weren’t hauling up the fish they wanted. On Friday, March 21, the FCA decided to cut its losses, and ordered all the trawlers to return to Dutch.
The weather was terrible back in town. Twenty-five-mile-an-hour winds chapped the men’s exposed faces as they secured the ship to the pier. They would be going right back out, but there was still time to make a few phone calls. It was after midnight as Julio and Byron shuffled down the icy pier to a bank of pay phones. There was an arctic fox digging into a nearby trash can, and a few guys lined up to make calls. They both talked to Julio’s brother, who was about to be deployed to Iraq. Then Julio waited in the snow while Byron called his wife and young daughters in Los Angeles.
BACK ON THE SHIP, THERE WAS still plenty of work to be done. Pallets of groceries were delivered to the dock, and steward Jeremy Freitag helped load the food onto the boat and unpack it into the Ranger’s walk-in freezer. Julio and Byron were part of a group of crew members tasked with loading on a month’s worth of “fiber,” the bags used to hold the frozen fish. The crew formed a chain from the dock to a storage space next to the wheelhouse, handing bundles of the sacks along like men on a fire brigade. After just a few loads, Byron bent over and asked Julio to pile the bags on his back. His arms were too tired, he couldn’t hold them up anymore. In Los Angeles, Byron had been working as a cashier at a gas station, and at a pizza restaurant. He wasn’t used to hard physical labor. He was a little overweight. And he really didn’t like the cold. After the first day in the factory, Julio had asked his cousin if he thought he would come back for the summer B season. “Hell no, I’m not coming back,” Byron said. The work was miserable.
While most of the crew were busy getting the ship loaded up for the next trip, the deckhands concentrated on changing the fishing gear. They would need the bigger net. Everyone had heard that all of the FCA’s trawlers were heading out to fish for Atka mackerel, a foot-long, bumblebee-colored fish that schools near the edge of the continental shelf and is popular in Asian cuisine (most Americans have never tasted the fish).
The targeted fishing ground was four hundred miles west, halfway to Russia, in an area known as Petrel Bank. On Saturday morning, March 22, the ship’s engineers fueled the Ranger with almost 150,000 gallons of diesel. It was noon by the time the ship pulled back out into Captains Bay and began the long steam out the Aleutian Island Chain.