A group of men standing in a section of a cannery where salmon is cleaned; bins filled with salmon and bins filled with water run in lines through a warehouse

A multicultural “China Gang” cleans salmon at the Diamond NN Cannery old Fish House ca. 1919. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Axel Widerstrom Collection.

THE FISH HOUSE: Slime Line Survivor

"For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of fishes which they had taken."

— Luke 5:9

Despair and Cheap Thrills

Production work in the salmon packing trade is a deadly blend of despair and cheap thrills, sixteen-hour shifts in damp surroundings. The despair comes when you stand shoulder to shoulder with similarly distressed people and slit belly after belly of an endless supply of headless salmon, remove the guts, attempt humor by flipping the heart across the conveyor belt at some other poor soul, hose down the fish, then pick up another, and another, and another.

One cheap thrill comes in your pay envelope, an amount based on how many fish your crew managed to push through the plant that shift or week. It’s very direct stimulus and response, and just about everybody who gets into commercial fishing spends time on a slime line to make ends meet.

The other, perhaps underrated cheap thrill starts at about hour eleven of the cruel sixteen when you can no longer deal with how bad your body hurts, so you retreat into your mind and begin to see things that aren’t there. Fish carcasses rise up like Disney characters and dance on their tails to the blaring rock ‘n’ roll from overhead speakers and the backbeat of the heading machine’s thump, thump, thump.

The gore has absolutely no effect on you. It’s just another blurred wall of color tinted red instead of the yellow splash of everybody else’s rain gear, and you’re kind of anesthetized, and then the fish are swimming instead of dancing, and you see them slide by in heaven’s river.

Just ask anybody who’s done it.

— Brad Matsen, Ray Troll’s Shocking Fish Tales: Fish, Romance, and Death in Pictures