There have been a number of times over the course of my 38-year career as a fisherman when I have questioned my choice of occupations.
Usually it happens when I am staring at my empty net strung out behind the boat while listening to radio reports which make it sound like everyone else’s net is on the verge of sinking with fish. It’s also happened when I’ve been on my knees on the back deck, seasick, waves breaking over the stern, puking as I try to run the hydraulics. Or one time when I was trying to make it back to Port Moller, Alaska, and a safe harbor as huge breakers towered over the boat, launching my 38-foot gillnetter airborne while we broke out the survival suits. Or when I’m in the engine room with the diesel roaring next to me — it’s 120 degrees down there and I’m drenched in sweat and bleeding from some busted knuckles and wrapped around the engine trying not to get caught up in a piece of machinery (which has happened) while I labor to fix some critical pump as we drift closer to calamity.
Then there are the countless times when I can’t ever imagine having done anything else with my life and feel grateful for the path that led from my first job on a purse seiner in Ketchikan to the present. I’ve watched walrus, sea otters and whales swim around and under my boat as I fished. I’ve seen lava shoot far up into the night sky from an eruption in the Aleutians. I saw the water around my boat turn red as a pod of orcas attacked a juvenile humpback whale, and watched a grizzly chase a pack of wolves off a walrus, dead on the beach, as we drifted just off shore with the net out. Then there’s the simple pleasure of just watching the net spool off the reel at dawn, happy that everything is working.
I knew at an early age that I wanted autonomy in my work, and that I needed an inordinate amount of stimulus, or reward, to stay interested in a job. Owning and running a fishing boat more than satisfies those criteria. The downside is that failure on a boat in Alaska leads to financial distress, or the loss of your boat — or worse. I am not unique in recognizing the names of friends on the memorial at Fishermen’s Terminal. Being away from my family is the other main drawback.
I fish in Bristol Bay now. It is a short season. I leave for Dillingham in early June to work on my boat and am home before the end of July. We store our boats on land over the winter as the waters of Bristol Bay freeze over for weeks in the subzero temperatures. In the past, I fished out of Dutch Harbor and Kodiak in the winter (for pollock, Atka mackerel and yellowfin sole), as far north as Norton Sound (for herring) in the early spring and out of Port Moller for salmon. I would leave home in May to prepare for the June 1st start of salmon season. Sometimes I wouldn’t return until September.
I once calculated the amount of time I’ve spent on a boat in Alaska: around six years. That’s six years of missing my children grow up, of summers away from my wife.
As I near the end of my career, I realize how fortunate my timing has been. When I bought my first boat and permit in 1977 the salmon fisheries in Alaska were just poised to make their recovery. Thanks to the Magnuson Act – which set a 200-mile limit, thus banning foreign fishing fleets from our coast – and prudent management by the state, the salmon fisheries have become a strong, sustainable resource. In Bristol Bay there were years when poor returns coupled with a low price for our fish drove many of my peers out of the business. More recently, we have profited from the growing awareness that wild salmon is a tremendous natural food, sustainably harvested. In 2012, more than four million fish went up the Kvichak River to spawn. We got a few days of flat, calm weather and had to pile Kvichak salmon on deck because our holds were full. I still get a thrill watching the net explode with salmon hitting it.
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