Busting Guts

May 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Annie Anavilok, 61, takes a break between scraping fish. She rests a gloved forearm on the edge of the trough and trails her fingertips in the grey water, watching her co-workers. At the head of the trough, a man dumps out a load of fat char in ice. “Hurry, hurry, faster, faster!” he yells, and eight coverall-clad crewmembers take up their dessert spoons, cracking the spines of the fish and scraping the blood and guts from their pearly ribcages.

The cutting room at Cambridge Bay plant is spare and shiny, all white and stainless steel. A drain-grate runs down the middle of the floor and the ceiling is lined with hooks – hand-sized ones for fish; huge ones for the winter muskox harvest. By contrast, the floodlit central trough is a burst of colour and activity, endless joke-cracking and belly laughter. The more talkative workers switch seamlessly between Inuinnaqtun and English, while the quieter ones just listen, scooping out pink and burgundy organs and flicking them into the slush.

This year, more than 87,000 pounds of Arctic char will end up here. They’re culled from weirs in four local rivers, loosely gutted, then flown to town. Once at the plant they’re dumped into the trough 42 at a time, where the crew scrapes them clean, transfers them to a rinsing table, hooks them through the nose and mouth and hangs them in a minus-37-degree freezer. Today, they’re processing fish from Jayko Lake, the last harvest of the season. After this, most of the work will be part-time. Specialty shops in southern Canada will call and the char will be processed to order: filleted, cold-smoked, hot-smoked, candied, jerkied, all-dressed or shipped whole. But for now, at the tail-end of the fishing season, the crew works overtime, late nights, Saturdays and sometimes Sundays.

Still not ready to scrape, Anavilok stands up straight. She plucks a damaged fish from the discard bucket and slams it onto a small steel table. Two slits to the chin and spine, then she cracks open the base of the brain. Squeezing the open head like a change purse, she inserts a pair of needle-nosed tweezers into each ear cavity, just behind the eyes. The ear bones, each the size of an oat flake, come out with a stiff pluck. “Mom and dad used to collect them,” she says, smiling. “They’re just like ivory.”

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans requires the plant to provide the bones, called otoliths, from each harvest site, to determine the age and health of the area’s fish stocks. This afternoon, Anavilok will have 200 fish to dissect from Jayko Lake, but this one’s just to pass the time. “I like to collect them,” she says. “You can tell everything about a fish’s life from the ear bones.” She leaves the fish on the table and gets back to work, brushing the otoliths back into trough. Someone pulls the plug; the sink is squeegeed. “No! No! No!” cries a worker in mock horror, and the next load of fat fish tumbles toward them.

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