Fishing is a popular pastime, but it can be dangerous. A commercial fisherman faces many challenges in the course of their day-to-day job such as weather conditions and life threatening encounters with sharks. With big money being spent on competitive fishing tournaments around the world, it’s no wonder these jobs are becoming more attractive for people who have an interest in working outdoors or want to escape from everyday life.
Commercial fisherman is a job that requires the person to go out on the water and catch fish. The salary for commercial fisherman varies depending on how long they have been in the industry, as well as their location. Read more in detail here: commercial fisherman salary.
We’re back with another installment of our So You Want My Job series, in which we speak with guys who work in coveted positions and ask them about the realities of their employment as well as tips on how men might achieve their goals.
Have you ever considered spending the summer in Alaska working on a boat and trying to earn a living as a commercial fisherman? Ivan Kuletz, a graduate student, has been doing it for the last seven seasons and now he offers us a firsthand account of what the work entails. Interested in seeing how well it mirrors the program “Deadliest Catch”? To go to question #11, go to the bottom of the page. Also, duck.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself (e.g., where do you come from?). What is your age? Describe your job, including how long you’ve been doing it, and so on.)
I was born in 1985 in south-central Alaska, and I’ve lately spent four years in Oregon with my wife. For the last seven seasons, I’ve worked as a commercial fishing deckhand in the Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon fishery (off the coast of Alaska). Bristol Bay is remarkable in that it is the world’s single greatest source of wild-caught salmon, as well as being continuously regarded as one of the best-managed fisheries.
Before we begin, there are two things to consider: 1) Because I’ve only worked as a deckhand in this one fishery, I’m only qualified to comment authoritatively on that experience. 2) For simplicity of writing, I’ll use male pronouns, but keep in mind that there are fisherwomen on the boats as well, and they’re just as skilled as any fisherman.
2. What inspired you to pursue a career as a commercial fisherman?
In the boat’s cabin, a $1 note is taped to the inside of a cabinet door. The statement “This is why we’re here” is written in Sharpie on it. I’d probably have approximately the same amount of money today if I had a dollar for every time I’ve thought about that $1.
Another reason is that it is my father’s work, which he has done for roughly 25 years. I wanted to experience that world and learn more about him. My father and I had a rocky relationship when I was a teenager, but fishing saved the relationship for both of us. Not just as father and son, but also as hardworking men, we earned respect and understanding for one another. We rebuilt the rest of our relationship on that foundation. That is something I will always be thankful to fishing for.
3. How do you go about getting a job in a fishery? Is there anything in the classifieds that shows vacancies, or do you have to walk up there and ask around?
Almost every crewmember in Bristol Bay acquired their position because they are linked to a captain in some way or have family connections who are related to a captain. My father is the captain of the boat on which I’ve worked for the last seven seasons, and I’m no exception. Many deckhands, on the other hand, sought work in other ways. I’ve met skippers who hired people through Craigslist ads, cannery workers who literally jumped ship, next-door neighbors who were told to be ready to fly out in twenty minutes, and a slew of other guys wandering the boat yards with nothing but a backpack and a beard, asking if we needed another deckhand. The best approach to find a job in the fishery is to know someone who already works there, ideally a skipper, and to get a position before the season begins.
4. What qualities do captains seek for when hiring a deckhand? Any advice on how to get the job?
A “fire in the belly,” reliability, physical and mental aptitude to execute the job, the fortitude to keep your head on a swivel, and the ability to change gears significantly from one second to the next without losing your cool are all qualities that every skipper seeks for in a deckhand. Being mechanically inclined, especially with diesel engines, hydraulics, electronics, and 12-Volt systems, is the frosting on the cake. Skippers prize people with certain talents, and they are compensated appropriately — as they should be.
5. What is the positional hierarchy on a boat? What does it take to rise through the ranks and become a captain?
I can only speak for how things operate on my boat, but it’s very straightforward: it’s a one-man democracy, and the captain is that one. The sole exception to this rule, and the only time a deckhand is required to overrule the captain, is when doing so would be physically harmful.
While practically every skipper has worked as a deckhand for a season or two, the only way to become a boat captain is to own your own boat and permission, which may be prohibitively costly even with a business loan. But, hey, this is from the viewpoint of the deckhand, right? Some boats feature a single deckhand who is effectively in control of the other deckhands, followed by a couple of guys who know the job but aren’t in charge, and perhaps a couple of greenhorns. Despite the fact that we have various pay grades on our boat, no deckhand is really in command, owing to the fact that our least experienced deckhand currently has three years of experience. Also, after a certain amount of time working together, you begin to function as a single, multi-bearded entity with gestalt intelligence.
In one way, our boat is unlike other boats: everyone on board (including and particularly the captain) prioritizes the needs of the other men and the group above their own. It works out in a way that is similar to Game Theory in that, although we may lose something (sleep, convenience, time, effort, etc.) as individuals, as a collective, we all come out ahead of where we would be with a more selfish emphasis. It’s crucial to us because when you’re stuck in a cabin the size of most people’s bathroom for two months with three other men, you’d better get along.
6. This is a seasonal employment for you. Is it possible to earn enough in one summer to endure the whole year? What do you and others do for the rest of the year if not? If you don’t mind sharing, what is the typical wage for a deckhand?
When I was an undergraduate student, I adored returning to my little rural college town with a large bank account. “I spent half my money on gambling, drink, and wild women,” W.C. Fields once said. “I squandered the other half.” Replace the gambling with “excellent pals” and you’ll be close to the mark. To cut a long tale short, I’ve been hustling for other job throughout the off-season in order to prevent showing up to the following season broke or worse. Some men are able to make ends meet without working additional jobs, mainly by relocating to Mexico or Thailand. During the summer, a number of instructors and students come up to fish since it works well with their schedules.
It’s difficult to define “average” compensation. Deckhands on a fishing boat are paid a proportion of the boat’s earnings, and the captain determines how that is calculated. Some captains pay their crew based on earnings after covering the boat’s costs, or they make them pay for their own flights, meals, gloves, gear, a proportion of gasoline, less the refrigeration bonus, and so on. None of these things are done by our captain. Except for penalty citations from the Troopers for mistakenly fishing beyond the line, we are paid our percentages from the total profits of the boat. On our boat, greenhorns get 6-8 percent, seasoned deckhands 9-10 percent, high-value deckhands 11-12 percent, and extra for continuously going above and beyond. It’s easy to observe how much a deckhand’s income is determined by the kind of skipper he has. My recommendation is to locate a trustworthy skipper who will address all of these issues with you and then put everything in paper, including how much you’ll be paid and when you’ll be paid. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard of dodgy captains defrauding their crews on the basis of a verbal agreement. Last year, we heard of a sad sack who left with roughly a hundred bucks in his pocket. I’m hoping his bar tab was taken up.
So, what are the products of boats? That’s an even more difficult one to assess. Bristol Bay fishing is basically a type of gambling in which you maximize your chances of winning by working your tail off. In the previous thirty years, the highest price per pound was little over $2/lb, while the lowest was under $0.50/lb. Last season, the price per pound was $1.50. The actual issue with that pricing range is that you don’t know what it will cost until after the season is complete. Let’s assume a boat captures 150,000 pounds of salmon in a season, and the price for Sockeye that year was $1.30 per pound, plus $0.10 per pound for chilled fish (which we do). So, for six to eight weeks of labor on our boat, [150k x 1.4 – Trooper tickets] x [your crew share] Equals about what you are paid. For a 10% stake, it works up to almost $20,000. We call the calculator the “Morale Machine” on the boat.
7. Describe a typical day in your life.
Long is the short version.
Version with the whole experience:
Assume you’ve only received four hours of sleep in the previous twenty-four hours. It wasn’t four hours all at once, though. It was more like two and a half hours of sleep, followed by seven or eight hours of awake time, and then another one and a half hours of sleep. And when I said you got four hours of sleep, what I really meant was that you were in your bunk staring at the ceiling less than a foot away or the backs of your eyelids, because the boat is anchored in about nine feet of water with a Small Craft Advisory wind (about 30mph) coming from the wrong direction, which means the waves have piled up to about five feet. Because you’re on a 32-foot-long boat, you’ve been bracing yourself in your bed, thinking about the dollar taped to the inside of the cupboard, how many days are left in the season, how weary you are, and what your love is doing instead of sleeping. Everyone is awake, but no one is moving or speaking since they’re all thinking the same thing, with the exception of the captain, who is also thinking about how the engine has been making strange noises recently and leaking coolant like a sieve, as well as how old the bilge pumps are. If there is such a thing as beauty sleep, everyone will leave their bunks a bit less attractive than they found them.
The alarm goes off (it may go off at any time of day or night; there’s no such thing as a regular schedule), and you hear the skipper wake up, which means you’ve got another ten minutes of listening to him whine on the radio with the other skippers in your fishing party. The engine then starts up, and the anchor winch engages. Now it’s time to commando-crawl out of your bunk, put on the same sweatpants you’ve been marinating in for at least five days, slap on another coat of deodorant because you haven’t showered in a week, wolf down some food, collect a few bruises and invent some new curses from pinballing around in the cabin, stomp into your Xtratuf boots, jam your heavy-rubber gloves on, clip on The temperature is at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind makes it seem like 20. Since it’s summer in Alaska, that means around twenty hours of daylight, it’s probably twilight out. It’s also likely that it’s pouring sideways.
You can see the fleet waking up around you or already blasting out from the mooring area to the district’s interior, eager to take advantage of the ten-hour drift gillnet opening that Fish and Game has set aside for your district. When the boat arrives, the captain will be competing with around 400 other boats, each attempting to place their 900-foot-long net in the same location as you, resulting in excess of 400,000 linear feet of net in a single square mile. To top it off, State Troopers are whizzing about in super-fast skiffs and swooping above in single-prop aircraft and dragonfly-like helicopters, looking for anybody violating the law. It becomes a bit frantic.
But that’s a problem for the captain to deal with. Your duty is to keep your head on a swivel so that neither you nor the other men are wounded, to set the net when the captain says to set it, and to carefully monitor the net as it pays out at breakneck speed to make sure it doesn’t snag on anything. If you are caught, the net will be laid out for you, and everyone will rush to help you since you may perish in minutes in the cold, fast, turbulent water. It’s usually drowning, although it might also be hypothermia. If the net snags on itself or the boat, cry “Backlash!” above the roaring engine to the captain, who will attempt to slow the boat down. Meanwhile, you bang on the drum brakes while someone else attempts to solve the situation so your net doesn’t come apart. The deck you’re standing on is tilting from one 45-degree angle to the other every few seconds since it’s still Small Craft Advisory.
The net is finally out, and the water around the corks is virtually boiling with fish — it’s a fantastic set, but there’s no time to rejoice. You must engage the hydraulic drum, descend into the cockpit, and prepare to respond in a split second to a variety of issues. Although the net has only been out for about 10 seconds, another boat is already setting up shop in front of yours like a bat out of hell, and they’ll be covered up in about the same amount of time as you. When the captain gives the signal to begin bringing the net in, you begin utilizing the hydraulics to roll the net up. The fish are flopping and writhing in the net, their gills, bodies, and tails tangled up. Your goal is to pull them out in under a second each while only loosing a single bar of mesh. You don’t have to think about how to do it until you’ve personally selected approximately 10,000 fish — it’s like riding a chilly, slimy, profitable bicycle. You have to pick up the fish from where they fall and dump them into the holds about twelve feet distant since your boat isn’t the newest or shiniest. Did I mention the boat is still tossing you 45 degrees?
When you hear the skipper swear, you’ve been plucking fish for a long. You glance up to see that the fish-heavy net is dragging you out of district due to the tidal shift and the wind forcing you about. It’s not looking good, even if you’re half a mile away from the line. A citation for crossing the line might cost up to $3,000 in certain cases. The captain yells, “Roundhaul!” You’re ready to bring the remainder of the net in by hand, spilling everything over the deck, fish and all. It’s the quickest method of getting the net in. You and the other deckhands aren’t going to stop until everything is on board. You grab a firm hold on either the cork or lead line, plant your feet, put your hood up, and keep your face as much as possible directed towards the deck — a jellyfish in the eye isn’t nice.
Then the roundtrip begins. Fish scream over the stern roller at head height, but you concentrate on crossing one hand over the other. You take a step back to make way for the net and the fish, which are knee-deep. The boat is already two-tenths of a mile closer to the line after just a few fathoms. “Faster,” says the captain, as he searches the area for the Trooper skiff. Your forearms and hands begin to burn, yet you can’t stop. Now we’re one-tenth of the way to the finish line, with a hundred and fifty feet to go. Everyone is gasping for air and pushing their leaden arms to continue tugging. Finally, the end buoy crosses the roller, allowing you to come to a complete halt. You’d pass out, but you’re covered with fish up to your waist, so there’s nowhere to flop. The jellyfish had it in for you this time, as your face burns in a painful, piercing manner. Blood, scales, and sea salt are all over your head. But it doesn’t matter since you just earned $500.
The captain looks at his GPS and sees that he is 30 feet within the line. Today there will be no ticket. He whoops and informs the crew that he’ll be motoring in-district by a few miles, and that he wants to set the net when the boat arrives since the opener is still five hours away, unless Fish and Game grants an emergency opener extension. Someone can cook some hot supper for everyone after the re-set. But that’ll have to wait. You just have two hours to pluck all the fish out of the tangled pile of net and get it ready to set again, and every minute counts. Stretching, cracking tight joints, and poor jokes aside, you and the other deckhands start to work. The wind and rain have subsided, and if it was growing dark when you awoke a few hours ago, dawn is breaking through the steely gray sky. It’s just another day at work.
8. What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
The tales I’ve heard. My life is made up of tales. The friendship. Every summer, I see the same obnoxious mugs. The sense of accomplishment I feel from doing successfully at physically demanding tasks. Because of the nature of my employment, I am forced to live in the present. The unadulterated beauty of it all. And there’s the money.
9. What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
I’ll be gone for two months from my wife. Not being able to get a good night’s sleep. The human olfactory system is being pushed to its limits. Okay, I’ll probably quit now.
10. How do you strike a work-family-life balance?
My work requires me to be away from my wife for two months in a row. When I first began, the only reliable means to communicate with those on the outside was through letter, which might take weeks. We’ve had constantly better satellite phone coverage for the past several years, to the point where I’ve kept my ambitious vow to contact my wife every day for the last two seasons. It’s difficult to keep track of the day when you don’t know what day it is. It’s generally a minute-long phone conversation at an odd hour of the day, with me shouting “I’m OK” over the static and rumbling engine and my wife responding “Everything is well at home” before we lose service. When we’re not fishing and the motor is turned off, I sometimes get fortunate and get a nice signal. Then we may converse for a long — giving up sleep to hear her voice is totally worth it.
11. What is the most common misunderstanding about your job?
“Wow, is it something out of Deadliest Catch?”
I promise, the next man who says it will be hit in the face with a fish. It’s not like “Deadliest Catch” on Discovery Channel. The trouble with programs like that is that excellent fishing techniques don’t always translate to good television. The History Channel contacted us about doing a Deadliest Catch spinoff program, but we declined since our boat isn’t large enough to handle even one more person. Some of the people who did allow them on their boat for the season told us that they were always urging them to perform ridiculous or unsafe things “for the photo.” They also produced scripts for the captain and deckhands to give the impression that they were fighting or in danger. In summary, reality television is a load of nonsense that may lead to death. The second issue with programs like that is that in terms of sheer chaos, weirdness, excitement, laughter, courage, and astonishment, real life will always surpass fiction. But you’ll never be able to capture it until you go there and experience it for yourself.
12. Do you have any other advice, recommendations, observations, or anecdotes to share?
Every genuine fisherman’s first concern, second only to the safety of the boat and crew, is the preservation of the resource. To that reason, Bristol Bay fisherman have nearly universally opposed the Pebble Mine project, which would place one of the world’s biggest pit mines at one of the region’s headwaters. My days as an active fisherman are limited since I’m returning to school to get a master’s degree in wild fisheries policy. I’m delighted I had the opportunity to compose this piece before I had to go. I’d want to express my gratitude to Brett and Kate McKay for providing me with this chance. I’ll leave you with a poem that is one of my favorites.
Robinson Jeffers’ Boats in the Fog
Sports and gallantry, the theatre, the arts, the antics of dancers, the enthusiastic voices of music, have allure for youngsters, but they lack nobility; it is painful sincerity that creates beauty; the intellect, as an adult, knows. The ocean was muted by a sudden fog-drift, and a pulsing of motors passed through it. Finally, between the rocks and the fog, a stone’s toss away, Shadows were relocated one by one. Out of the darkness, fishing boats track each other, looking for direction on the rock. Keeping a tough route between the dangers of the sea-fog and the dangers of the land And the foam against the granite of the beach. Six people snuck by me one by one, followed their leader. Out of the haze and into the real world The sound of their engines was muffled by the fog, and they were careful and cautious. All the way around the peninsula is a coastline. Back to the Monterey harbor buoys. Pelicans in flight Is there anything more beautiful to gaze at; the flight of the planets is nothing more noble; all the arts lose their virtue when confronted with the fundamental truth of beings going about their business amid equally earnest parts of nature.
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