A stay onboard a commercial crab boat is described. The hardships of long hours, difficult work, odd sleeping schedules and seasickness are compared to tranquil horizon vistas. Sightings of humpback whales, seabirds and other marine life are noted. The balance between time spent fishing and the market price of sea catches is carefully monitored.
A FISHING INNOCENT CROSSES THE GULF OF ALASKA ABOARD A COMMERCIAL FISHING BOAT.
I am, according to one skipper, a “chicken farmer”–that is, not a fisherman. But when I was invited to spend a few weeks aboard a commercial fishing boat, I jumped at the chance. I naively assumed, based on a pittance of deep-sea experience, that I could not get seasick.
The Destination is a crab boat that, in the summer, moonlights as a salmon-tender boat. It would cross the Gulf of Alaska from Seattle to southwestern Alaska, where sockeye salmon fishing–and tendering–would begin in June. Although I would be on board primarily as a passenger and not as a deckhand, I expected to pay my way by helping to cook for the six of us and clean the 118-foot boat.
“We’ll leave,” said Shawn, my boyfriend and one of the deckhands on the Destination, “on Thursday or Saturday.”
This puzzled me. “Why,” I wondered, “not Friday?”
According to fishing superstition, it’s bad luck to leave on a Friday. And so is having women on board: “Unless, of course, they’re naked. Naked women,” Shawn continued, “calm the sea.” Needless to say, I made no immediate plans to disrobe. In fact, anticipating the worst, I had packed several layers of long underwear, fleece jackets, and wool socks. “No other area in the world,” according to the 1964 Coast Pilot, “is recognized as having worse weather in general [than] the Aleutians,” perilously close to our destination.
We would head, once under way, to the small town of Sand Point, in the Shumagin Islands. The Shumagins consist of nine large islands and a freckling of smaller islands. They are located just south and east of where the long finger of the Alaska peninsula breaks apart into the Aleutian archipelago. The Aleuts, who are closely related to Eskimos, have been living exclusively off the marine wildlife of these islands for at least the last ten thousand years. An infant in comparison, Sand Point began its existence in the late 1800s as a codfish shore station. And fishing, now generally for salmon, has been quite lucrative until recently, when salmon prices dropped. We hoped that the sockeye prices wouldn’t drop further.
We still had several days of work to do before we could leave Seattle. Fueling alone–sixty thousand gallons of diesel–took five hours of constant surveillance. The loading of interminable boxes of food was a long affair of organizing and reorganizing. And, in my case, stacking and restacking: I mistakenly stacked racks of cans into a tall tower, not thinking of the consequences of the boat’s rocking.
Half a day was spent loading crab pets, which would be left in Sand Point until the September crab fishery. According to many fishermen, the fact that crab pots actually catch crabs is “P.F.M.–Pure F–Magic,” explained Kerry. Weighing more than six hundred pounds, crab pets are essentially boxes of steel bars and netting with entrance holes on one side. The color of the netting is both “essential to success” and entirely “based on opinion,” according to Kerry, who once worked on crab boats as an observer for the U.S. Department of Fish and Game. Whereas some fishermen camouflage their pots, others attach fluorescent light-sticks–and most catch crabs.
On this trip, Kerry, like me, would be accompanying her boyfriend. Despite her “passenger” status, she was eager to help load the crab pots on deck. She jumped onto each of the swinging pots, which were held several feet off the ground by a crane. As the crane lowered the pot onto the deck, Kerry used her weight as a counterbalance to navigate it into proper position. It looked like fun, but caution is required. Crab fishing is reported to be the most dangerous job in America, and getting hit (and probably thrown overboard) by pots as they swing on the crane is one way that people are killed. Falling overboard is one of quickest ways to die: The cold water of the Bering Sea sucks the life out of people within minutes.
Initially, I watched–and got in the way–as the crab pots were lowered, trying to figure out how to help. Then, after the skipper left for a final meeting with the boat’s owner, I made myself useful by baby-sitting his son. This task soon proved to be the harder job: Patrick was a precocious handful. As the crane lowered each pot to the Destination’s deck, the five-year-old barked orders with fearless authority.. “Go up, slow down. . . . This way, over here.” This was Patrick’s last day on the boat. He seemed to be making the most of it. When I later spoke with fishermen in Sand Point, the inevitable topic of conversation was not the low salmon prices but, to my surprise, their children. As these “tough” men spoke, fondness smoothed wrinkles of fatigue from their faces.
Because we were still loading crab pots and food on Saturday morning, I surmised we wouldn’t even think about leaving until Sunday. I began wondering whether fishing superstitions concerning delayed departures encompass religious holidays. But a few hours later, miraculously, our work was finished. Abruptly, engine alarms sounded; we pulled up the lines.
BRAVING THE LOCKS
Ballard Locks is the bottleneck that boats go through when traveling between Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Built in 1917, this lock was instrumental in establishing Seattle as a major western port. Puget Sound’s water level can be twenty-six feet lower than Lake Washington’s, depending on the tide and lake level. A valve is opened at one end of the enclosed chamber to drain water and allow safe passage.
The lock is both the first step and the technical crux of any trip originating in Lake Washington. As we approached, tension on board was thick. We were all aware that the boat’s owner was watching our performance from somewhere nearby. I got the feeling that time was of the essence and learned quickly that I was most helpful if I stayed out of the way.
The boat’s lines must be thrown to lock officials standing on the concrete walls. The lines must be thrown precisely when the officials want them; if you try to anticipate their demands, they get angry. On the Silent Lady, which was ahead of us in the chamber, a deckhand was having problems with a stern line. He looked a bit handed. To help him, another deckhand jumped off the boat onto the chamber’s wall. He walked along it to the boat’s stern . . . and incurred the wrath of a lock official. Meanwhile, our skipper was maneuvering the boat through the lock. He had just witnessed a close call between the Silent Lady’s stern and the wall. He seemed, understandably, a little anxious. Chuck is a respected skipper with a lifelong knowledge of boats; the Destination had no problems.
From the Destination’s bow, I watched tourists standing in observation areas below me. As the water level dropped, I was face to face with them and then below them. Chuck and his watching wife exchanged shouted goodbyes, and we entered Puget Sound.
I passed the rest of the afternoon reading on the sunbaked deck and watching the boats around us. Sailboats, in training for a regatta, whipped past us and, at one point, nearly into us. Another capsized just off our starbeard. As night fen, however, we left other vessels behind. During the rest of the crossing we saw fewer than five beats.
While traveling along the border between Canada and Washington, we kept our keel in American waters. Yellow streaks from distant lighthouses periodically raked the darkness. Gazing out at the black water, I felt as if I were on the only boat in the world. Meanwhile, Chuck told stories about American fishing boats that had been confiscated by the Canadian Coast Guard. The American skippers had, unknowingly, broken a new Canadian law when they crossed the border without informing the authorities. Although Chuck conscientiously obeyed all the laws, he decided to remain “in the house” to navigate and monitor the radio for Coast Guard announcements while the rest of us went to bed. We would have our chances to navigate later in the trip.
When I woke in the middle of the night and discovered that anything would be better than how I was feeling, I realized that I could get seasick. Very seasick. In the twenty-foot swells, I tried to, wen, surf the beat. It would have been fun if I hadn’t been so desperate to make it to the head. I marveled at the grace with which the experienced fishermen (i.e., not “chicken farmers”) defied death while navigating the hallway between our berths and the galley.
Soon though, I had no appreciation for anything. Lying comatose in my bunk gave me no respite; it simply meant that my eyes were closed. The weeklong crossing suddenly seemed very long to me. And jumping overbeard started looking better and better. But luckily, Shawn had brought along some over-the-counter motion sickness drugs, which he graciously offered me. After a day and a half of hibernating in my berth, I felt better.
On day three, I took up my duties as the boat’s baker and cook. My daily exercise consisted of stirring brownie batter and grappling with large, frozen chunks of red meat. For the first time in my life, I enjoyed cooking for other people: Good food (especially red meat) made them happy. What a stereotype–a woman, a “galley wench,” cooking for a bunch of men on a fishing boat! Not so long ago, I might have been uncomfortable cooking, unsure of whether I was being stuck with a role. Lucidly, people, including me, grow up.
When it wasn’t pondering the deeper meaning of women in the kitchen, my brain was feasting on the bland diet of a gray horizon unmarred by land or other boats. The subtle interplay of light and clouds was the only scenery. Tom, one of the deckhands, commented while gazing at the silver disk surrounding us, “Doesn’t the world look small from here?
“It would take twenty minutes,” he added as we skimmed the surface of thirteen thousand feet of water, “for a steel wrench, dropped overboard, to reach bottom.”
We neared land on the evening of day five. We were greeted by tufted and horned puffins and by penguinlike murrelets. We were not, however, anywhere near the Shumagins. Instead, we were approaching the fog-shrouded coast of Kodiak Island, which is in south-central Alaska and more than three hundred miles from Sand Point. Shortly before leaving Seattle, we had learned that the Destination’s fish pump, an essential piece of tendering equipment, was in Kodiak, for a reason that was never clear to me.
The fish pump was on an old, wooden, river scow. The army built the scow in 1942, “for the war in the Aleutians,” said the bearshaped but jovial skipper. During World War II, fishermen were indispensable in protecting the Aleutians, and canneries often provided the “existing installations” for military maneuvering. We docked parallel to the scow and proceeded to crane the pump over to our deck.
After we had finished with the fish pump, Chuck allowed us a few hours to explore Kodiak. First, however, we had to make it off the boat, an exercise that was harder for some of us (that is, me) than for others. Dave and Shawn maneuvered off the Destination by nimbly walking along narrow steel railings and traversing a rope between it and the neighboring scow. Something about balancing on a rope over twenty feet of air, below which is fall-in-and-you-will-die water, really didn’t appeal to me. It dawned on me that I’m not a chicken farmer, I’m a chicken. Later, I learned that more people fall overboard and die each year while crossing between docked boats than while out fishing. Most of these people are drunk, however, which is one reason that many fishing boats, including the Destination, are now “dry” even in pert.
After I struggled across the yawning chasm, Kerry and I went to a local bar to hear live music (not to guzzle beer) while Dave and Shawn went for a walk. Kerry is pretty and wholesome-looking–and fishermen seem to notice. While walking down the street in Aleutian fishing towns, she had received marriage proposals. Thus, we entered the bar with a little trepidation. The bar was mostly empty, however; we were off the hook. Dave and Shawn soon joined us.
When the fog lifted, revealing the silver light of dawn, the four of us headed back onto the Destination. We pulled up the lines. As the light intensified, we moved out of the harbor. Out on the ocean again, we cut through floating flocks of seabirds that parted like the froth of waves across our bow. Two humpback whales, a mother and a calf, surfaced sequentially nearby.
It took us another day and a half to reach Sand Point, and I never got sick again.
BOOMTOWN GONE BUST
First: “Are you married?’
I replied that I had a boyfriend.
Then: “Where is your boyfriend now?”
The Alaskan expression “You don’t lose your wife, you just lose your turn” sprang to mind. I suddenly realized that I was a woman in a town composed almost entirely, it seemed, of men. I began to understand Kerry’s trepidation and considered preparing myself–how, I don’t know–for an onslaught of marriage proposals.
Kerry informed me that farther out in the Aleutians the situation is even worse, at least from the male perspective. “There’s a woman behind every tree,'” she explained, “is the saying …. And, of course, there are no trees.”
Sand Point has lots of trees, if you count eight-foot-tall bushes of alder and willow. As I explored the town, which has a population of about a thousand, I walked on a sidewalk made of wooden planks. Multicolored, clapboard houses were scattered in groups over tundra-covered hills. Outside the bar, a sign read NO WEAPONS. A graveyard sidled into a hill by the grocery store; a few of the crosses–many have the slanting lower limb of the Russian Orthodox Church–were falling over. Wildflowers grew everywhere. On the north side of town, steep rocky cliffs met the sun-glinting gray of the ocean; the snowy peaks of the Alaska peninsula were hazy in the distance. As I walked beyond the town at midnight, the setting sun lit sprays of purple lupine. From a distance, the town looked rich in the gold light.
But in reality, Sand Point is a boomtown going bust.
As I returned to the docks, I walked past houses with two vehicles parked in the driveways–this on an island where the longest road is five miles. I was reminded of a T-shirt I had seen in the bar in Kodiak: FISH HARD, DIE RICH. These days, the fishing is still hard, but dying rich is no longer a given. One schoolteacher I talked to told me, “Some of the kids used to make more money than I do …. Now I make more money than some of their parents [adult fishermen].” Her salary hasn’t changed.
This year, conditions seemed worse than usual. Salmon prices were low due to large surpluses of canned salmon from previous years and wavering demand from the largest salmon market, Japan.
Norm, a fisherman who grew up in the Shumagins and whose son now fishes out of Sand Point, told me that the Japanese “have us over a barrel.” Although I knew that the Japanese had large shareholdings in many of the fish-processing companies, I didn’t quite understand what he meant until I picked up National Fisherman Magazine at the Sand Point library. “An ominous cloud,” it stated, “hangs over the biggest money maker, sockeye. Fishermen in Bristol Bay [in the Bering Sea], which boasts the largest [sockeye] salmon run in the world,” have been involved in a class-action lawsuit against sixty companies, mostly owned by the Japanese. The fishermen alleged that the companies have been price-fixing. The Japanese, perhaps as a consequence of the suit, became very interested in farmed salmon from Chile. The sockeye price continued to drop.
While the Destination was being readied for the season, rumors were flying. The fishermen are going to strike; the fishermen are not going on strike. Meetings were held; the town seemed to hold its breath. Everyone had an opinion. When I asked who the fishermen, who are independent business-owners, would strike against, some people seemed confused. Perhaps the answer was too obvious: Fishermen go on strike against the price–against, essentially, the economy, it seemed to me.
Once the fishermen united and decided to strike, however, their strategy worked. The original price of forty cents for a pound of sockeye was eventually raised to sixty-five cents a pound. Sixty-five cents, however, was less than a third of what they received several years ago.
During the weeklong strike, no one fished–or made any money. Many fishermen were on the verge of quitting for the season, pessimistic about the strike’s success and not willing to risk their necks for forty cents a pound. When the strike broke, no one was exactly joyful–at ten cents less than last year’s price, who would be?–but optimism hung in the air. According to Norm, there were years in the 1940s “where we were getting nineteen cents for a [whole] red salmon …. So yes, I have seen it worse than this …. But back then, we didn’t have the insurance costs–the liability, that kind of thing–to worry about. . . . Don’t know how we’re going to do it now.”
TENDERING AT LAST
One of the only reliable ways of earning an income while working in the salmon-fishing industry is by working on a tender boat that is contracted by a fish-processing company. A set wage is paid for each day of tendering, but no wage is paid during a strike. Shawn and the others on the Destination were, therefore, as eager as the independent fishermen for the strike to break. For my part–as selfish as it seems–I wanted to see some of the tendering that I had come so far to observe. I would soon be flying home.
As a tender boat, the Destination is essentially a middleman. It is responsible for getting salmon from the smaller purse-seine and gill-net boats, which often don’t return to shore for weeks at a time. It then brings the fish to a representative of Trident, the processing company that contracts with the Destination’s owner.
Sometimes, like overgrown barnacles on a whale, four or more small fishing boats were docked onto the Destination while waiting to transfer fish. Transferring fish was accomplished with the fish pump, which sucks fish from the boats’ holds through large-diameter hoses. On the tender, the hoses dumped the fish into a large tray, along which stood deckhands and a “fish tech” employed by Trident. The deckhands sorted the fish quickly. During the sorting, Shawn and I often played a little identification game: “What’s this one, Oakley?”
“Sockeye?” I’d guess. I could barely remember all the names for each salmon species–sockeyes, a.k.a, reds; humpies, a.k.a, pinks; chinooks, a.k.a, kings, and so forth–much less how to identify them. But with Kerry’s help, I began to learn.
After being sorted, the salmon were pushed down a chute and into a scale with a gate on the downward side. Occasionally, they spilled over the sides; Kerry and I helped by throwing them back into the chute. After the fish were weighed, the scale’s gate was banged open. The fish spewed forth and slid down into the tender boars holds. Samples of a hundred to two hundred salmon were sorted–sockeyes, chums, cohos, chinooks, and humpies–and weighed in purselike nets to get an estimate of species proportions; both this estimate and the total salmon weight were recorded and then relayed by radio to the Department of Fish and Game.
Timing hinged on the fish pump, which worked slowly at best. Often, there were long gaps between arrivals of fish in the sorting trays, and the deckhands were left standing around for hours, waiting …. but unable to leave their station. I learned quickly that my “Mocha Thing”–a combination of Cool Whip, ice cream, chocolate syrup, and coffee–was a crowd pleaser during these long afternoons. Loud music and suntan lotion were also crucial. Tendering, obviously, is not a particularly dangerous or hard job, especially when compared to crab fishing.
Like most aspects of fishing, tendering requires long hours and strange sleep schedules. To keep the fish as fresh as possible, whenever a fishing boat wants to offload fish, the tender must respond. After a long day of tendering, there is more to come: The fish must be off-loaded to the processing plant. When we returned each night to Sand Point, generally at 1:00 or 2:00 A.M., the fish were sucked out of our holds by Tridents fish pumps.
One night we returned to Sand Point to find that the Destination had been slated by Trident to head to Bristol Bay, in the Bering Sea. She would be leaving as soon as the fish were unloaded. Since I would be flying out of Sand Point, I would remain behind. The men were, I think, sorry to see the maker of the “Mocha Thing” departing.
For my last disembarkation, the chasm I needed to cross to get onto the dock seemed larger than usual–perhaps because I was leaving Shawn behind.
The season only got worse as the Destination headed out to Bristol Bay. “Many fishermen haven’t even made enough money to fly out of here yet,” said Shawn when he called me midway through the season. Had there been fish, the fishermen might have compensated for the low price with large catches. But because of higher-than-usual water temperatures, perhaps due to the El Nino effect, the sockeye weren’t running in Bristol Bay. The bay typically “accounts for more than 33 percent of total value of Alaska’s salmon fishery,” according to National Fisherman Magazine.
In mid-July, in an effort to get federal relief money, Alaska’s gevernor, Tony Knowles, tried to de. clare the Bristol Bay area a disaster zone.
Fishing is like the nursery rhyme my mother recited to me when I was little and prone to a temper. You know the one about the girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead, who when she was good was very, very good, but when she was bad, was horrid.
Prior to coming to Sand Point, I rationally understood, to a small degree, the fragility of the fishing industry. After living among fishermen while traveling in the Shumagins, I am more aware of the emotional side of the industry and of the current devastation. I remember Norm, gentle and smiling, even when he said, “Checking the net for fish doesn’t take long if there’s nothing in it”; Tom, who called me “sir,” who would complain, “Your smile keeps getting in my war’; Dave, a “sensitive guy” underneath armfuls of intricate tattoos; and Bob and Tudy, an older couple with whom I lived for almost a week and who treated me like a daughter.
I remain a chicken farmer. I have a lot to learn about fishing and about fishermen, who seem tough on the outside but often are gentle inside. Or maybe I just met the right people. In any case, the next time I cross the gulf, I will be a little less ignorant… and will count on being seasick. As Kerry, who gets violently seasick and still keeps on fishing, says, “It’s a good weight-loss program!”
Oakley Cochran is a reporter with Tundra Drums, a newspaper serving western Alaska. She has a master’s in glaciology and is still waiting for an onslaught of marriage proposals.