The last week has been a taxing few days of fishing jargon thrown about barstools and living rooms, fisherpeople saying this and that about fishing and people. It’s about the who can impress who, and who did what, can’t waits, have tos and wink wink nudges. Heather’s getting ready to run her boat by herself for the first time, and the old guys all have something to chuckle about the new girl in town. The ‘new girl,’ who grew up amongst them, just under the radar, working on the fiercest boats around. She’s one of a handful of female skippers in a fleet of 1600, and the preseason stress is as demanding as the fishing
While she prepared to send food and gear up on the barge, she evaluated her crew members, who, months ago, by some cosmic joke fell into a deep infatuation with one another – I heard one call it love – and wondered what she manifested. All this amongst our social goings-on with Bristol Bay’s finest.
It’s difficult to think of the commercial fishing world as any different than how I imagine other niche work cultures operating. Here, one needn’t search long to find evidence of a dominant patriarchy – in Alaska, it is typically fuelled by cheap beer and diesel engine oil. Every interaction with crew is somehow symbolic of the skipper’s authority. In the boatyard, crew is usually relegated to sleep on the boat, and report promptly in the morning to the skipper’s container van regardless of the previous night’s shenanigans. There they learn the day’s agenda, and set to it until the day is done. The PAF boatyard, indeed all of Dillingham, plays the stage for the preseason crescendo of net hanging, boat cleaning, oil changing, welding, and beer drinking. Deckhands install grates in fish bins, take inventory of food and nets, eliminate potential net snags, paint buoys. There are no clocks by which to ensure eight hour workdays, supervisory cameras, or days off. They work until the skipper says to not.
Most first-timers arrive to the Bay excited and ignorant and wanting to make a difference. Offer their suggestions. Reassure their skippers that they’ll be the best deckhands ever. Make promises like “I’ll wash the dishes every meal all season long,” as if it wasn’t already their job. We call these bright-eyed butterflies greenhorns. Lower case g. Like beautiful women, greenhorns need not divulge personality, for it will not be valued, and in many cases even acknowledged. There are reasons for this, and it suffices to say that greenies are appreciated for their hard work and ability to keep their mouths shut. Ideally for the entire season. Preferably two.
I preferred my first few years of fishing on unknown boats with skippers newer to the shores. I knew no one else who fished. Outside the doors of the airplanes on which I rode to and fro the season, I had no opportunity to talk endlessly about nets and cork lines, hydraulic systems and crew shares. When fellow travellers or students asked about my occupation, I told them about the magical vistas of the sea; the slithery strength of a salmon in my hands, refusing to die; that we delivered fish to the crab boats from Deadliest Catch, whose vacations were our peak season.
Back then, I knew few of my skipper’s quirks, or the dozens of his jolly mates. I happened to this folklorish world, one in deep denial of its impending armaggedon, by accident. A pebble skipped into the sea by some child within me. I’m getting polished in the breakers and taken out with the tide. When the sea spits me out she does so with a knowing smile that it’s only time before my return, and time matters to the sea not much at all.
And my acquiescence grows stronger every year – the stakes feel ever higher when I check in with myself about leaving the fishery. It seems now I’ve got so much more to lose. Like any relationship worth staying, I’ve built and with every interaction with fisherpeople am building a reputation, a career, a story. I fish with a legend, and he just gave me a raise in responsibility, pay and faith. His recommendation is stronger than iron in our microcosmic world of gruff pretension and unsubtle oneupmanship.
He sees that I don’t play the game, and moves his piece anyway, to gauge my reaction. I don’t need the job, I tell myself. I don’t need to participate in the dick-measuring games they play. It’s not that I’m above it – I just don’t love fishing that much.
And fear: with what other job on earth can I have a grand Alaskan adventure every summer, all expenses paid, and walk with a healthy five digit check?
Do I want to sacrifice the rest of my summers to fishing, what years there are left anyway before Pebble Mine poisons Bristol Bay beyond hope of repair, to end up like my ex-crewmate Bob, who at 50 wished he’d done something other than fish, only to quit and to make money sell the trinkets he’d collected from decades of world travel paid for by his seasonal lifestyle? Is that how I hope to become? It scares me that the answer might truthfully be yes, maybe.