What could be more dangerous than land mine removal, working in a mine or being a search and rescue worker?
For the last three weeks, I have been training to be an observer on commercial fishing vessels. Fishing operations are especially dangerous in Alaska where the seas are rough, the wind cuts you to the bone and between the sea spray and rain, you’re almost always wet. Unlike fishing in warmer waters, if you fall overboard, the cold water could shock you into not moving or if you do move, you tire yourself out quickly. Hell, we’re the reason the Coast Guard even has a search and rescue team.
Although I’m on a confidentiality agreement (meaning you probably won’t see too many posts about my job after this post), I’m permitted to share what training is like.
First, the non-safety aspects of my training…
Sampling methods: different kinds of gear (trawl, longline, pots) call for different kind of random sampling methods. We must know how to randomly choose hauls to sample and how to randomly select what part of the haul to sample. These are often practiced through some hands-on activities.
Species composition sampling: within each part of the haul we sample, we must know how to account for all the species there and identify sex, maturity, weight, length and more in a select number of individuals. These are often practiced through some hands-on activities.
Fish and crab identification and specimens: with that, we must know how to properly identify the fish and crab in our haul using a dichotomous key. For some individuals, we must take otoliths (tiny bones by the brain) to send to the lab and remove snouts from certain salmon that have escaped from fish farms. We must also know how to identify marine mammals and birds of interest. We got to practice using preserved specimens in lab.
Forms, forms, forms: we must know how to properly fill out the paper work for everything we do.
Data entry: we must know to enter the data into our computer program and send it daily. This is one of the only fisheries where they use live data for management rather than taking months or years to process it before they act.
Homework and tests: we have directed reading questions, practice forms and activities to take home… as if nine hours in class wasn’t enough. We also have several tests to gauge our knowledge along the way. It is completely open book (we will have a textbook-sized sampling manual while we’re on assignment), but you must get an 80% or higher to pass. Some people were dismissed from the class halfway through for not passing the midterm and one girl was even dismissed a few days ago for not passing the fish test. This is serious stuff.
Now, for the fun bit: the safety training…
First of all, at least three times a day they said that our safety is their (and our) number one priority. If you’re not feeling well enough to sample, you should stop working and contact the company. They won’t fire you. Also, of all those who died in Alaska the past few years, none of them were wearing lifejackets. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
General health: we were taught how to properly deal with being seasick, experiencing sleep deprivation and the living conditions on the boat and in the North Pacific including how to respond to cold water near drowning and hypothermia.
Immersion suits and water activities: on the very first day of class, we were introduced to immersion, or survival suits. They are essentially insulated dry suits that keep body heat in and water out in the unlikely event of abandon ship. We were taught how to properly don them and throughout the week on a blow of a whistle at any time, expected to put them on in under a minute. In the first week of training, we also got to go in the water with them to practice swimming around in them, getting into rescue helicopter baskets, boarding a life raft and more. It was so fun! The suits feel like a suction cup around your body and you stay completely dry, it’s such a weird sensation. Although, I hope I don’t have to experience it again outside of the yearly training recap…
Abandon ship drills: similarly, in the last week, we were assigned groups to preform abandon ship drills. We would all get certain tasks depending on our position (for example, I was crew member #3 and my duties were to grab the First Aid kit and launch the life raft) and do them in a timely manner. However, the instructors threw some curve balls at us… for example, when we finished our drill, we realized we were one person short. Our “engineer” was told to go outside and see if anyone noticed. The moral of the story was that even though role call was her task, it’s important to have an idea of what everybody has to do and items to have in the case of an emergency.
Fire drill: we got to put out live fires! Granted, they were tiny, but good practice.
Regulations: finally, we learned how to spot infractions on the boat, with fish handling and catch composition and regarding behavior of the crew.
These last few weeks have been very intense but I’m proud of myself for passing the course and excited to start my assignment in Alaska in a few days.
Photo by Connor Robertson.