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The Fishing Life

Rick Wood, salmon fishing in False Pass, Alaska. Credit: Credit: Chris Mullen

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.

The tenor of the industry has changed since I started out, mirroring what’s happened in American business at large. A steady consolidation of processing companies has greatly reduced the competition for our fish. The days of the small processor, who ran a single plant with a small fleet of fishermen are gone. We used to be on first name basis with the owners of the companies we fished for. Now it’s a handful of companies, owned by multi-nationals based in Japan, Canada and the U. S. The company I fish for was the last one in Bristol Bay owned and operated by its founder. Last year it was sold to Canfisco, a large Canadian concern. Icicle Seafoods, another company I’ve delivered to, a company that was founded and owned by fishermen from Petersburg, Alaska, is owned by a private equity firm today.

Still, I feel quite lucky to have been able to make my living fishing in Alaska. The most lasting reward has been the friendships that developed over the decades. I spend months every year living in a space smaller than most people’s kitchens, with two or three other men. We fish with a group of friends on other boats. While we fish we share our catch information — on radios with a scrambled frequency — so we can benefit from each other’s good (and bad) fortune. We have spent innumerable nights anchored up together, barbequing salmon, sharing a bottle of wine and telling stories of our past mishaps. These same men are the ones I depend on to come to my aid if I am in distress.

When I first started gillnetting Bristol Bay, we still hauled our nets into the boat by hand, assisted only by a feeble hydraulic stern roller. We had no Loran or GPS. Once offshore we had only the vaguest idea of where we were. Communication with home was done by mail. Now we have net reels that haul back our catch, sophisticated electronics, fish holds that circulate refrigerated seawater, showers and cell phones. There are new boats being built for Bristol Bay that cost well over $500,000 and come with comforts and capabilties we couldn't have dreamed of 30 years ago. The fact these boats are being built now is a sign that fishermen (and lenders) see how profitable the business can be.

Fishing is a very simple job: You put the net in the water, you pull the net out of the water. The more fish you catch, the more money you make. Fishing is also a dirty, difficult and dangerous job, often done in miserable weather, on a wildly rolling boat, with very little sleep.

I started fishing in Alaska the year Ali beat Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila, the year Squeaky Fromme tried to assassinate Gerald Ford. At this point, almost all the people I started fishing with are retired or have real jobs. I am ready to join them, worn out but grateful for the freedom fishing has given me and for the adventure it’s been.

Map of Alaska designed by Kate Thompson. Herring catch photo by Eleanor Saren. Click here for more stories in our commercial fishing series.

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