Dungeoness Fish

Rotating around the plant I am learning new ways to torture, I mean process fish.  Fish move around the large warehouse on two to three different conveyor belts, stopping only to have another part of their body removed.  Every part of the fish is used, much to the disappointment of seagulls hovering nearby.  Twice, a seagull has just walked into the warehouse looking for scraps.  Bold bird.
Blood Bath
Marie Antoinette’s Last Day
October 16, 1793
Restaurants and food banks request a whole fish, beheaded and gutted.  I stand at the washing area, gloved up, the holes in my full length rubber apron sealed by duct tape, waiting, breath holding.  Plop, plop, plop.  Each fish falls off a belt 4 inches into the washing station for it’s final bath before placed in a large crate.  After a while the slime and blood turn the water red; blood washing off blood.  I scrub them quickly, opening the gut like a suitcase looking for residue of organs that, just half a day ago, beat with life.  The sound of the fish guillotine caw-chunking down on necks 15 feet behind me keeps an irregular rhythm.  Only the fish large enough to lose their heads do. 

The Rack
Medieval Torture Rack, England
After the loads of whole fish are processed I’m sent to the racks.  Fillets are stacked orderly, not touching each other or the edges, and sent to the freezer.  Teams of two stack a rack.  
Two to three racks are worked on at a time.  
A rack sits on a pallet, is about 5 feet tall has seven compartments that stack on top each other.  Workers make like a metal, plastic, fish sandwich over and over. The blue plastic is spread onto the wet, white plastic board, much like a fitted and top sheet for a bed, with the fish snuggled up between.  Little “babies” deserving of a lullaby.  (Now I know I’ve lost my mind.)
…Rack, basket, white plastic board, blue plastic wrap, fish, blue wrap, basket, white board, blue plastic, fish, blue plastic, new rack…  
The rack plays out on everyone’s back.  You start work at 6 inches off the pallet, squatting over it to arrange the fish onto the sheet, then slowly bend your way up, ‘till the pallet is just under the arm pits.  I do this over and over for ten hours.  With a 15 minute break every two hours, and a half hour lunch, three days in a row. 

Two Coho Fillets Ready for the BBQ
My mind starts to get wiggy.  I look down at the fillets, all hint of fish removed, now just a hump of slimy flesh and start to wonder what else they could be.  Cold large pieces of raw bacon. Large slug penises. Pink tape worms.   Then it hits me— tongues.   
Dead Tongues Tell No Tales
Cut out laid out
on a sheet, in a row
Pierced and strung
hung ’round the neck
The cutter, the puller
yanks out grabs full
Eyes of the carver
cold as a tomb
Red drops run 
down, never away
Dead tongues
tell no tales


Spawning Coho Salmon are one of the most attractive fish.  This is a BIG fish with an average length of 28 inches, occasionally reaching 36 pounds.  This fish is currently “in season” at the processing plants on the docks of Bellingham Bay.  I know this first hand because I am a fish flinger.

Coho’s Looking For Love

The Coho pre-spawning colors are silver with some black dots on the back.  When the hormones activate and send the fish into “spawn mode”, it transforms into a monster fish! Vibrant shades of pink, burgundy, neon green and black grow over the silver scales.  The males mouth jets out, teeth blaring like an old lady’s stubborn poodle.  The females grow eggs, 2500-3000, on either side of their organs in sacks that start just under the jaw and run down the length of their bodies.  These fish are ready to get it ON!

BAM! Who’s Your Daddy?

There is something beautiful about watching this fish fly by me on the line.  Not sure why. The males swoosh by nose first.  Those teeth will destroy my rubber glove if I’m not careful.  A hole in the glove means a cold finger till break time.  Shoot-slime and ice cold blood will absorb into the cotton of my under-glove. Seems that Dr. Hyde of a fish wants to take a bite out of something, even after death.

Spawning Coho: Male – top, Female – bottom

When the shoot is full, and the fish are stopped up in front of me, a sea of clear dead eyes stare upward looking for a fight.  After the line ahead opens up I stretch an arm out and push them along to the left, forward, to be filleted. Their challenge ignored.



Eggs Photo credit: NWFSC and NOAA by Jen-McIntyre

This is my first week here.  My job is egg removal.  As the males zip past, needing no attention except to keep it moving, the females have their bellies opened by the dorsal-fin-cutter person, then slid into the egg gutter lane in front of me.  The average Coho holds 2500 eggs.  All the eggs are collected into a gutter that drains into a bucket.  The buckets are filled quickly enough to have a dedicated  “bucket guy” whose only job is to bring us empty buckets and dump the full ones into a large holding crate.

To remove the eggs from the fish I reach my hand into the body and rake ‘em out.  If I’m lucky the eggs will still be in the thin membrane.  With two gentle tugs at the top of the sack I can pull out all the eggs with two moves. (see photo)  Otherwise you just rake and rake with your fingers until you get them all.  But you really can’t get them all.

eggs in the membrane

The fish slide in front of me all day on a long steel table covered in this cosmic mix of melting ice, fish slime and blood, fish sperm and loose eggs.  Everything runs smoothly if all the fish are pointed nose first.  Sometimes a fish turns sideways and stumps them all up like a scene from Keystone Cops.




We stand, all day in a cooler, geared up with gloves, long plastic sleeve protectors, rubber boots, a body length stiff plastic apron, long underwear under the clothes and a hat for the head.  In this place I am not cute.  There is no need for me to comb my hair; it is under a hat all day.  Make-up is unnecessary and perfume is not strong enough to rise above the stench of fish.  All day a grey spotted sea gull laughs at me from the back gate, as it stands on a crate outside hoping for some fish to drop.

Picture 236
My apron back on it’s nail at the end of the day

There is still much to learn about this operation and my part to play in it.   I expect all next week I will stay on the egg gutter.  Haven’t asked too many questions, nor received any feedback, but the boss did ask if I was coming back.  The season ends in January.  Wondering if I can make it that long.  I took this job because they hired me right away.  After the lay off in September I needed work fast.

Coho smelling their way home

Since I returned to my state of birth, five years ago, I have been laid off three times.  While my professional life suffers, my volunteer work is prospering.  In the last two years I started hosting a successful poetry group, producing radio shows on a community station, and my first poetry book was published, February 13′. Like the Coho I have mutated to spawn, out of a primal urge to survive and pass on my traits.

Slowly I step on this human ladder… I climb, and climb and climb, with hopes of reaching the final destination: to plant my eggs, my ideas, my hopes.  Will good fortune find them at the bottom of the river nestled among the rocks and multiply my efforts?  I hope so.  Spawning takes the life right out of ya.


 Isn’t there a little fish is all of us?