Here in Alaska there are a dozen or so companies in the business of buying salmon from the fisherpersons. To start the summer, the Aquanator has a two week contract with Inlet Fish Products. “Inlet” is one of the “mid”-size companies as compared to Trident and Silver Bay, which are two of the giants (I’ll discuss this issue in another post as it’s a controversial topic of discussion among fisherpersons).
Inlet is based out of Homer, Alaska which is where the salmon are processed and later shipped out to market. During the “Gillnetter” season Inlet leases dock space in Whittier (Gillnetter is the term used to represent Setnetters and Driftnetters ). Whittier is where all the salmon are offloaded from the tenders, sorted and placed in totes which are then forklifted onto trucks for transport to Homer (a three hour trip). What are totes? Totes are plastic storage containers resembling a 4 foot sided square box with a plastic lid; they stack easily and can be moved using a fork lift, boom or crane.
Before departing Whittier to the fishing grounds, the dock crew uses an enormous crane to load 12 to 14 totes full of crushed ice aboard the Aquanator, typically in stacks of two. The idea is quite simple: after the fisherpersons catch the salmon they place them into their below-deck fish holds using ice we provide to chill the fish. We come by in the Aquanator once or twice a day to pick up the fish and give the fisherpersons more ice. This process is repeated for 12 to 36 hours, depending on the determination by the Alaska Game & Fish Department of when a certain area is “open” to fishing. “Openers” typically start at 8am with all the Gillnetters jockeying for position. Nets hit the water at 8:00.0001am. Watching an opener is surreal and can best be described as organized chaos featuring boats and nets, near-collisions, and lots of shouting. The fish don’t stand a chance.
When the “opener” becomes a “closure,” we remain on the fishing grounds to offload all the Gillnetters. This process takes several hours after the fishing stops which typically have us departing the fishing grounds around 10pm. After a 4 ½ to 5 hour trip to Whittier we tie up to the dock for the offloading process at say 3ish?
To get the salmon off the Aquanator and onto the dock is an interesting process. This is especially true if it’s low tide because this puts the dock 12 to 14 feet above the Aquanator’s deck. The salmon are literally sucked up out of the Aquanator’s holds using a fish pump. A fish pump is composed of numerous sections of 12 inch diameter hosing, 4 inch diameter water return lines and a large metal tank which sucks and pumps the fish using pumps and electric motors. Fish pumps come in various sizes which will determine the amount of pounds of fish that can be sucked and pumped with each cycle. The one aboard the Aquanator has the ability to suck and pump 1,000 lbs of salmon with each 45 second cycle. The fish pump deposits the fish onto a fish box which separates the water from the fish, actually called a “de-watering box.” The fish then slide down the fish slide where 3 to 4 people sort out and pull the minor species of salmon tossing them into totes. The major species of the catch continues past the sorters ending up in the weigh box. Once the weigh box is filled the weight is recorded and the fish are dumped into totes for transport. Depending on the size of the weigh box this may be anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 lbs of salmon for each “dump”. Fish on!