Factory Crew

samoans on a fishing boat

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Factory – all greenhorns start here. I worked only as a packer for my first trip, so that I’d have a chance to get accustomed to the ship’s regime. I had about two trips to have a look around. Get familiar with everything quickly and learn as much as is possible – that’s where your pay will be derived from. Beginners get the greatest opportunity to learn when the catch is small. There’s no time pressure so you can try new things out. If you have the ambition to work on the deck and the net is empty, don’t go to sleep; help out on the deck instead. You may be inclined to moderate the amount of work you do so that you don’t exhaust yourself. This is my approach: the less easy I take it on myself the quicker I’ll get used to it and the easier the work will become. But also the more it hurts at the start.

I recorded most of the jobs for you, just keep in mind that other ships may have a different system.


The factory boss is one of the most experienced crew members. He was responsible for everything that happened in the factory including the safety conditions, crew moral, quality of the product and the speed of processing. He decided which factory worker deserved a share rise and by how much. Along with the engineers he solved technical problems in the factory and he also sorted out any disputes among crew members. He was constantly in contact with the Seattle office. He also decided who to send home and who will replace that person.


There were three foremen and each one was responsible for their own shift. Their main responsibility was assuring speedy processing of the catch. They also watched our performance and helped to decide on the amount of shares each one of us got.

BACKLINE CREW (backline)

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Backline was the first phase in the processing of the catch. Once the deck crew emptied their net into the lifetank, it was up to the backline crew to sort the catch into different types of fish and throw them into specific bins ahead of them. Everything was automated in the factory (hydraulics), and fish circulated around the factory by means of a conveyor belt. Those working on backline need to have great reflexes, the ability to quickly recognize between the different types of fish, and they must be quick with the knife. For example, it was necessary to bleed the Pacific Cod in a certain way so that its blood wouldn’t get into the meat. When the backline crew was not quick enough it slowed down the entire processing system. The belt couldn’t move any slower because that would mean workers in the other stationas would have nothing to do – that was unthinkable!

FLIPPER (cutting station)

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Once the catch was separated, it traveled along the conveyor belt towards the cutting station. There the heads of the fish were cut off. The flipper had to prepare the fish for the feeder by turning them in a particular direction so that the heads were pointing the same way, and do so as quickly as possible. This was not a very rewarding job. The faster I turned the fish, the quicker the feeder sent in more along the belt, and the less time I had to turn the following ones. Try complaining about not being able to keep up!

FEEDER (cutting station)

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He put the fish on the conveyor belt as quickly as possible. The quicker the better – no matter whether the cutter could keep up or not.

CUTTER (cutting station)

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Work dependent on accuracy and reflexes. The cutter had to position the fish on the belt in a particular way for the circular saw (found at the end of the section of the conveyor belt) to cut their heads off. Poorly cut fish was thrown out, so it was a high responsibility job. Also, there was a risk of getting the saw too close to your fingers. I witnessed an accident myself, where the cutter nearly lost his entire hand from the wrist. Safety keeps improving all the time though and with that the chance of getting hurt is reduced (longer belts, safety trainings…).

SIZER (packing station)

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Using their eyes and hands sorters separated the fish according to their size (S, M, L etc.) into bins in front of them. The faster the feeder moved, the more intense the job got, and the more sh** they got from packers (e.g. that the weight wasn’t correct – which is important for buyers). But nobody dared to say “slow down”.

PACKER (packing station)

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Packers moved fish from the bins into rectangular tin containers – pans. Each pan was filled up to weigh 23.5 kg and then it was placed on another belt heading to the plate freezers. This job was generally reserved for beginners along with some of the more experienced people. The more experienced workers were responsible for ensuring that the beginners didn’t mix different types of fish in the same pan. At first, I found it difficult differentiating between certain types of fish. Some types like Rock Sole, Yellowfin Sole and Flathead Sole look nearly identical on the first sight; and it’s the same story with Rougheye Rockfish, Pacific Ocean Perch and Northern Rockfish. Having one fish in the pan that did not belong there could result in a complaint from the customer, which would lead to a reduction in the money we got. In that, much responsibility comes with this job.

FREEZER LOADER (case-up area)

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Freezer loader moved filled pans into ten-shelf plate freezers. Every shelf fitted twelve pans. Our ship had nine freezers overall. Once the plate freezer was filled, a handle was used to move the shelves closer to each other, compressing the fish inside the pans. Then the freezer was turned on. The freezer loader also wrote down what time this was done at. Fish was frozen to -18 °C after about 3 hours and 30 minutes. The freezer loader position was usually given to the bigger crew men. Physically it was a very tough job, maybe the toughest on the boat, but you can get used to it.

FREEZER PULLER (case-up area)

This was one of the most dynamic and most physically demanding jobs on the ship. Fingers get easily smashed with a bit of carelessness, or your wrist might get hurt if your approach is too aggressive. I worked with a fractured finger for the last three weeks of my second contract. The freezer puller threw frozen fish pans from the freezer onto a conveyor belt as quickly as possible. This worker had to be as quick as the bag packer so that freezer rats wouldn’t freeze down in the freezer hall. A quick puller was able to throw over a freezer of 120 pans/ three tons within 12 minutes, and he would usually throw four of these in a row.

PAN BREAKER (case-up area)

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Pans with the frozen product were transferred along the conveyor belt to a breaking station. There the pan was removed from the frozen ‘brick’ using a hard blow. Great biceps workout. The pan breaker had the speed of the belt under his control, but he had to make sure to keep up with the bag packer, and try not to annoy the puller by turning off the belt too often.

BAGGER (case-up area)

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The bag packer (bagger) pushed frozen fish cubes into fiber bags which have been marked with a colored tape according to the fish type, noted the type of fish that was in it on a touch screen, printed and placed the label on the bag, then he sowed the bag and finally sent it down a slide into the freezer hall. The tape was important for deciding where in the freezer hall each type belonged. When the bag packer went too fast though, freezer rats got overloaded, and the conveyor belt got stuck as there were too many cases (bags) on it. Don’t you dare to tell him to slow down! On the other hand, when the bag packer moved too slowly, freezer rats froze downstairs. There’s much responsibility with this job, and it requires much attention, speed and finesse. The bag packer also needed to maintain the sewing machine in a good state.

FREEZER RAT (freezer hall)

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Shuttle walking/ running/ sprinting/ sweating in -20°C carrying 20 kilo cubes for at least eight hours. There were always two people working in the freezer hall. They had to put as many cubes i.e. money into the freezer as they possibly could. It is physically a very demanding job. On top of that, during bad storms it was also one of the most dangerous jobs on the ship. The walls of frozen fish cubes we built stood more than 2 meters high and weighed several tons. There were many times I had to run from these.

OFFLOAD (freezer hall) + BACKLOAD

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Once the freezer hall was full the ship returned back into the dock. There the catch was moved onto a ferry which was further headed to Korea, Japan or China. The entire factory crew took part in the offload. A crane was used to move the product from the freezer hall onto the deck. Work on the deck was organized by the deck crew i.e. they controlled the crane and made sure the product reached the ferry safely. 700 tons of the product was emptied from the ship in sixteen to twenty-four hours. After the offload came the backload; food, water, tools, machines (replacing broken ones), nets and everything else that was necessary. Backload was done primarily by the factory crew.