Dirty Work: Fish Processing
Disemboweling Pays Well on the 'Slime Line'
Listen to Elizabeth Arnold's report.
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Aug. 22, 2002 --
Before the last fish you ate reached your plate, it had to be de-headed and disemboweled. Gutting fish is cold, wet and monotonous -- and it is not the work of machines. It is done by people, like the workers on the "slime line" at Taku Smokeries in Juneau, Alaska.
NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports on work as a slime line worker as part of Morning Edition's series on "dirty work."
By 8 a.m., the slime line at Taku Smokeries is awash in salmon. The line consists of a dozen workers in bright orange rain gear, splattered with blood and fish entrails.
Armed with knives, spoons and hoses, the workers scrape and spray the bright red upturned bellies of hundreds of fish. The noise is constant. The fish keep coming. And the smell can be overpowering.
But many workers don't mind -- because the money is good. Bill Razpotnik certainly doesn't. His salary, with frequent overtime, allows him to feed a family of four.
"The smell," Razpotnik says, "What smell? It doesn't bother me. I've slimed several million fish and one fish is just another fish, that's what I always say. Another day, another dead fish."
Like Razpotnik, most employees handle the disadvantages of the job because of the overtime. When the fish come in at once, they have to be cleaned at once. At $12 an hour, plus time and a half for overtime, the money adds up.
"There is a challenge of sorts by making it through a season. A lot of people don't make it, and if you're willing to put in the hours, the money can be quite good," says Larry Williamson, who emigrated from Holland 30 years ago and has been working fish in Alaska ever since.
Typically, the workers at the plant are either older, like Williamson, or very young. They are a mix of cultures --- a Mexican immigrant stands next to an Alaska native, an old Filipino man stands next to a white college kid.
Sandro Lane is president and CEO of Taku Smokeries, a company that began as a one-man slime line in Lane's garage. Now, on a given day, Taku Smokeries produces as much as 50,000 pounds of fish.
Lane says he would prefer to be cutting fish on the factory floor rather than sitting in an office stressing over payroll. And he is understandably defensive about his workers, who, he says, appreciate the steady work and decent pay.
"Who's going to do those jobs if we're (all) too hoity-toity to bend down and clean the toilet? Same thing with fish," he says. "Fish processing has always gotten this stinky, slimy bad rap. Other people don't see it that way."
Browse more NPR stories on fishing.
Taku Smokeries Web site.
Learn about the different job stations on a slime line.