Thursday, July 21, 2005

The trouble with cold storages.

Back in the late sixties the ILWU held sway over the cold storage workers and the workers could make a good living at it. I started work at the Kayler-Dahl Fish Co. cold storage the second day after I graduated from High School. (It would have been the day after except two of us tried to get to Wrangell in a skiff to see some girls we knew. Alas, it got too rough.) It was good money in those days, especially when you helped load a ship with frozen halibut or salmon. Then you could make the true longshoring wages.

I put myself through college working mostly in the cold storages. Whitney-Fidalgo bought the plant in '69, so I started to work all over the state after that. I started out at $3.85 an hour and that was big money. Overtime made it even better. The union lost it's grip eventually and now it's not the life-style it once was. Ben Berkely was my dad's cold storage foreman and he and his crew taught me how to work. Ben worked as foreman for almost 25 years there. I think at times I was the only non-native of the whole bunch. They were a well oiled machine, I tell you. (Not the after-hours "oiled.")

Another notable on the cold storage gang was Dick Kuwata. He could head a salmon in half a second with one deft, curving thrust of his heading knife. He kept his knife razor sharp. We had to try to match his pace when it was our turn to head, which we never could. But we cut the heads off that certain way to both increase recovery and leave a little cartilage on the body to protect the flesh near the head.

Quality really went down hill when everyone switched to heading machines. The switch came after the union left and you couldn't get good headers anymore at cannery wages. The word was that the guillotines were faster. They weren't though, but it did allow seasonal labor to get the job done. The guillotines make a straight cut through flesh, leaving meat exposed to oxidation and contamination, if that's what you want.

We also fletched out a lot of halibut. There was a crew of women who did this job. They would winch one up by the tail and fillet off the most beautiful big fillets. We froze them in metal trays to give them a more rectangular shape for shipping in cartons. A lot of them were too big though so they were frozen like the rest of the fish in the plate freezer.

Our company got the contract to run the new Yakutat cold storage when I was a junior in college, so I volunteered to go. I took my Harley-Davidson 250 to run on the ocean beaches. Like a lot of start-ups, Whitney didn't have seasoned management at the plant, so by default, I found myself kinda running the fish-house. We were getting a lot of halibut and fletching became a problem.

The bottleneck started before the season even started, when the accountant left all the 1,800 lb cardboard totes that were for the big halibut out in the rain. He figured we could make more money fletching so he purposely ruined the totes. I felt I had to tell the crew to fletch down to the 60 -80s. We really got screwed up then. We iced huge piles of fish on the floor, until my dad came up from Petersburg and explained a lot more of the details of running a cold storage to our manager. After all, my dad had started working in them when he was 13, back in about '28

There's nothing like having that depth of experience around. You can get in a jack-pot in a hurry and then it all goes down the tube and you're finished. I ran a plant in Juneau for a guy once because he had just had a heart attack. He didn't watch his recovery rates and equipment cost the first year, then he got sick. He got me to come to Juneau and dig the plant out of the snow, start it up as a going concern, and process tanners, all in two weeks time.

I got light years more recovery from the crab than he did the year before, just by weighing the catch, AFTER butchering. You gotta have the experience to be creative to make things work. Well, after I caught them up on their fish taxes, which they couldn't pay any of the year before, they figured they could manage by themselves. I went to work for the State after a little vacation and they went quietly into the night of bankruptcy by the middle of the summer.

But check out this URL about a cold storage project that I keep hearing about. It's in Petersburg and give them some credit, they are all passionate, one way or the other, or passionate about not knowing what to be passionate about. I'll have to write some more on cold storages later. I can be passionate about them because I left a lot of sweat and a little blood in them. No, now I recall it was a good deal of the latter one place.

I gotta make one comment on plant design, since Petersburg is going ahead on the design phase, after the City committed to leasing 8,400 square feet of filled tidelands. The plant in Yakutat had been designed by that old salt, Chris Dahl, and called for the plant to be adjacent to the dock. Someone in Washington D. C. or somewhere decided to move the plant about fifty yards back and up slightly. So it ended up being a real pain for the crew to wheel 500 lb fish buggies up the hill to the plant all the time. And you couldn't think of conveying anything there with a belt because you would have had to cross the traffic lane to the dock.

The most experienced operator around has to have the final say on design. And that's after you know what kind of products you're going to put up. These new initiatives need to have a niche that can yield more money for the product than the next guy, or why do it. But I hear the air freight problem isn't solved yet anyway. This new project in Petersburg might just add to the problems. But maybe they can get someone to run the plant that is good enough to solve problems with his left hand as well as his right.


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