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US Fish Industry Worker Describes 'Addiction' To Messy Job - 2002-07-03


The state of Maine, in the New England region of the American northeast, is famous for its seacoast and its thriving fishing industry, which hauls in and processes nearly three million metric tons of fish every month. Most of this bounty passes through the Portland Fish Exchange, where it is unloaded from the fishing boats, hand-sorted by species and weight and set up in crates to be inspected, auctioned off and trucked away to restaurants and markets.

Ed Haven is one of four hundred workers at the Portland Fish Exchange. Tall, lanky, muscular and missing a front tooth, it is Mr. Haven's twelve hour a day job to supervise about thirty men as they do this messy and sometimes dangerous work.

"I am the operation supervisor for the Portland Fish Exchange," Mr. Haven explains. "We unload commercial fishing boats and set them up for daily auction. The buyers come in, they have their auction, and then we disperse the fish to wherever it's supposed to go from there. [It's] lots of hard work."

"It's like a sport," he continued, "And yet at the same time you're paid for it. Somebody told us one time we were industrial athletes. So I'll run with that. I never would've believed this. The amount of fish that are in the ocean. Fish are killed like bugs. Pretty much. Some fish are ten pounds. Some fish are only a half a pound. We average it out to about two pounds per fish. So if you have 100,000 fish on, you've got 100,000 fish sitting on that floor, that we have to touch one at a time. So we do push some 'product.' That's our number one goal in life. It's not about us. It's about the fish.

"But the guys who work here and who like it here, we become almost like a little family. It is. It's a real small tight-knit community. The guys who have been here a few years with us, we all know what each other has gone through so you can sympathize with somebody. 'My back is killing me today.' 'My arms are sore.' 'Can I do this today and not do that?' 'Oh yeah, no problem, don't worry about it.' I need to keep people here. Because this is a job that nobody wants to do.

It's cold. It's dirty. That's grunge clothing right there. Rubber boots up to the kneecaps, a pair of rubber overalls. Sweatshirt, long johns, rubber gloves. All kinds of different gear everybody wears in here. I've seen it all under the sun. When you leave here, you're gonna stink, even though you haven't touched a fish. All you gotta do is walk into the office. Sit in the car with somebody else. "The seafood industry. That's part of Maine. That's the way it is. We're the last hunting economy. Nobody hunts anything wild anymore and sells it, except for fish. Nobody thinks of fishing as hunting. They think you just throw your net over there and scoop them up. You gotta hunt. You gotta find where the fish is. And then, when you find where the fish is, you drop your net and you hope like hell everything works out the way it's supposed to.

"I wouldn't make fishing a career. Fishermen don't have insurance. I have a family. This place provides me with health insurance for my family. If I was a single guy, it might be a different story. They make good cash. They make real good money. But I make pretty good money doing what I'm doing here. And I get to go home every night. For the most part. [laughs]

"I see things in the morning that people never see. I see the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. It's more like an addiction than anything else. Once you get here, it's tough to get away sometimes. I don't know why. That's just the way it works."

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