Commercial Fishing in Alaska: Bitter End, Working End

Bristol Bay. The fishery itself has an iconic feel to it, so many young men like myself have come out to these waters to try and strike it rich. Or relatively rich. The low hills that surround the town of Naknek leave you with the impression that you could walk forever without seeing much of anything. To the south and west the Bering Sea stretches out to eventually mix and mingle with the warm waters of the Pacific. Huge freighters from Japan charge through the channel between Akun Island and Unimak Island on their way to Seattle. I look at the topography of Unimak and consider what kind of wild adventures one could have traversing the island. The town of South Naknek is a ghost of commercial abundance and has the feel of a boomtown gone bust. An old three-wheeler roars down a gravel road adjacent to the dock and spins into the parking lot of The Pit, the only bar in South Naknek. The man is wearing a camo jacket, red basketball shorts and xtratuff fishing boots and looks ready for a good time.. or ready to forget about a bad time. I can’t tell which. Once royal blue onshore processing centers have decayed into a light blue mix of rust and broken windows. Many of the warehouses still store nets, gear and even boats but they seem long forgotten; an ode to a time of prosperity.

 

We dock up and begin unloading the gear we have on board for purse seiners as we won’t be using it for the next 36 days. The process is rather slow and cumbersome as much of our gear hasn’t been maintained from the last season: bolts get heated with the blowtorch and eventually sawn off, PB blaster is the day-saver and a fishpump fitting snaps off of the forepeak wall due to corrosion and rust.  This will be the tone for much of the season: as one component fails and is cobbled back together, another issue raises its rusted, neglected head. Over and over. We pry, beat and bend and eventually get the seining gear free to be lifted off our deck and onto the walk of the dock. I step to the far left of the giant steel tank being hoisted into the air by the crane and notice the tide is receding. They unhook the tank and I hear the cable rasping against the rubber tire that is attached to the end of the boom. I watch as the hook’s ever shrinking gyre comes to a clattering halt at its final terminus. For the moment I’m just glad to have work to do and to be relatively stationary. The endless cycle of sleep, steer, read have gotten old over the last 8 days of travel around the Aleutian Islands, it had induced a cabin fever of sorts. During this time I got to know my crew quite well. We were a ragged bunch but we made it work. Kind of.

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Hugh, our captain, was around 70. I can’t recall exactly how old he was but definitely old enough to cast a skeptical eye towards another season on a maritime vessel. Hugh had shown signs of weakness and a lurking sickness when I first met him back in the harbor of Homer. Those signs had grown into symptoms and a crippling ailment had emerged that kept him bound to the captain’s quarters for the majority of the trip to Bristol Bay. I’m not really sure exactly what was going on, but the basic idea was that he had went through heart surgery and then developed inflammation of the pericardium afterwards. The only reason he had taken the job was so he could pay off his medical bills which were astronomical. He was a good man and I had a lot of respect for him. He was good to teach instead of command. I think he understood that I was there to make money, just the same as he was, and that through helping me understand how to run the refrigeration systems, cranes and basic maintenance of the engines he was helping me gain value. It also made me more useful on the vessel which made his job easier. One of my favorite memories of Hugh is him telling me about his girlfriend in Seattle kicking him out of his own house: “Yeah, wasn’t too good. I didn’t take it personal though.” I found this hilarious as it seemed exceedingly personal. Hugh sadly passed away recently. He was a fine captain and a good friend. Here’s to hoping you didn’t take it personal man.

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Ed, our head engineer was probably about 67 or so and had the vibe of a roughneck intellectual. He was good friends with Hugh and they had worked together on and off over the last 40 odd years. Ed always took pride in the fact that he got Hugh his first job in a cannery. Hugh always denied it, which would spur an age-old argument into motion for the thousandth time. It was intriguing to see their friendship, although it was equally annoying to have a pseudo captain as our head engineer. It was almost comical at times, Hugh would give us direct instructions about a project only to have Ed come onto the deck and tell us to do the exact opposite. It happened so often it eventually turned into a problem. Ed was a good guy and a top-notch fix it man though. Although he wasn’t nearly as willing to part with his information, I’m convinced he was MacGyver in disguise. I helped him with a lot of projects that I was sure were hopeless causes, surely enough in a couple of hours we’d have bought another day of work with his ingenuity. He was a solid guy and for the most part I really enjoyed working with him.

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I remember the first moment I met Jason, my crewmate. He walked into the galley with a sleeveless shirt, worn out Dickies and a shaved head with a mohawk. We introduced ourselves and shook hands, he fit the bill of a sailor without disappointment.”See this tattoo, I got this one night after I slept with 5 Russian prostitutes.”  “Did I tell you the one about how I got arrested in Tijuana for accidentally sleeping with a ladyboy?” The stories rolled on and on across the oceans we crossed. When he ran out of stories he started over. At first it was funny but eventually I found him to be immature and obsessed with himself. I also found out as we worked together that he had a predatory nature towards any sign of weakness. I once asked him if my rope coils looked alright and he grilled me about being a greenhorn for a week. I learned from this and made it my goal to outwork him, out-shit talk him and not give a damn what he thought.  Although I wasn’t always successful, I believe this was the correct approach. He talked a lot about not a whole lot and overall was one of the most difficult people to be stuck on a boat with that I could have imagined. Jason and I cultivated our strange relationship of hatred towards one another but eventually worked out a friendship over a mutual hatred towards another coworker later in the season. To be fair, different personalities counteract each other at times and I’m sure I annoyed the piss out of him as well. I’d have Jason’s back in a bar fight any night of the week and I believe I can say the same for him. Good dude in general, terrible dude to be stuck on a boat with.img_2499

 

After a few repairs on the vessel we head over to Clark’s Point, which is where we’ll spend the majority of our time for the contract. During this time I tear my MCL pretty badly when my foot slipped into a fish hold. I managed to keep myself from falling the 8 feet down but racked my knee badly. This made work a little more interesting as I wasn’t able to bend my leg very well. Or really at all. Once we arrived, we were put to task and began taking fish. In all honesty our first day was everything I had hoped for: terrible weather, rough water and a long line of boats waiting to drop fish. I was excited by the novelty of it. That first day was a rodeo, a wild bucking barrage of gillnetters riding up beside the vessel with hands reaching for thrown lines and waves tossing the boats in acrobatic form along the crests of the brown water. Three lines were snapped, a couple buoy bags imploded and one fisherman had a cleat snap off his stern. In the midst of this, we continue hooking onto bags of fish with the cranes and swinging them over to our deck to release into our fish holds. After that first day the rest of the season seemed mild in comparison as most days went by with reasonably good weather. As with any job, I made mistakes while I was rounding the learning curve, most of these due to developing a better sense of awareness and attention that is required on any maritime vessel. I picked up more responsibilities on the boat, got more efficient with my duties and things were going well under the midnight sun.

 

Jason had a long list of things he did that annoyed me, but atop that list was his response to any sound that could be mistaken for an approaching gillnetter. Upon any sound that could be a boat, he would spring into action knocking things over and kicking chairs out of the way in a most dramatic fashion. It drove me up the wall, but given, one does have to be fairly alert at all hours for approaching vessels who need to unload fish or refuel. This makes for an interesting work schedule as you’re up most hours of the night receiving fish or delivering fish to processors. Other than that, working on a Tender boat is surprisingly easy. Disappointingly easy, actually. Of course there were time periods when we were slammed and busy but there was way more chill time than I anticipated. There were also some memorable moments that came along through the season, or almost memorable at least: Almost destroyed a human and his boat with a swinging 600 pound bag of fish on a dark and stormy night, almost had my knees taken out by the anchor of another boat when they slammed into us on a mail drop, almost got into a few fistfights with Jason, almost fell down a 30 foot ladder while I was reeling drunk after a night on land and lastly we almost lost our contract when our captain got the boat stuck on some shoals during low tide. It was fun, rowdy, miserable, confining and boring all at the same time.

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About 3/4 of the way through the Bristol Bay contract Hugh had to call it quits. It was simply time to throw in the towel.  His feet and ankles were swollen so badly he couldn’t wear shoes and could barely get out of bed. He hung in there for as long as he could though. This put us down one man so Trident Seafoods had a couple of Quality Checkers come on board to give us a hand for the rest of the season. Working alongside the “new” greenhorns, I realized how much I had progressed and learned as a deckhand. There was a pride that came with the realization, although Tendering is the easiest gig in the commercial fishing racket, I felt like a mariner. And it felt good. Ed took over and we finished out the contract, albeit with more miscommunication and yelling than usual, but we finished it successfully and on good terms with Trident. When we cut lines for the last time to leave Bristol Bay I had a $4,000 check from Trident Seafoods sitting in the top drawer of my dresser; a portion of my pay for any bills I might need to stay on top of. The horizon of the sea opened back up before us as we descended the western coast of the Alaskan Peninsula. Spirits were high, we were glad to be on the downhill portion of our season and on our way to Kodiak. The Bering Sea wouldn’t be as docile and welcoming as our entry passage though, the winds started gusting and the waves crested fifteen feet. We settled in for what would be a taxing and enduring series of events to come.

Til next Time,

Mike

 

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