It was likely only a matter of time before Andrew and Sophie found themselves working as first-time deckhands. They’d spent the last year in Sitka, after all, a town where people talk about fishing the way other towns talk about the weather — that is to say, constantly.
“It’s so clear, whether you’re just a visitor who stops by and sees Sitka’s five harbors, or you live here, that salmon are the lifeblood of southeast Alaska,” Sophie told me. So why not tap a vein and see what it’s all about?
I met Andrew and Sophie, both 23, last spring, a couple of months before they enlisted themselves as salmon trollers (not to be confused with trawlers). Though we all went to the same liberal-arts university, all the way on the other edge of the continent, we were just getting to know each other over a potluck Sunday dinner and a hard-scrabble game of Bananagrams in Alaska’s southeastern corner. They were there with a group of peers, fellows, and Americorps volunteers all working in the small community, and I was there on a story. Naturally, we all talked about fishing.
But after a year taking in the sea breeze and small talk of Sitka, Andrew and Sophie really had no idea what they were getting themselves into when they signed themselves up — and that’s exactly why I wanted to talk to them. We caught up near the end of their first season at sea about what they learned, what they loved, and what took a little getting used to. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation:
Q. How did you decide to go fishing?
A. Sophie: I’d been working for a year as a community organizer for the Sitka Conservation Society. One big thing that I work on is trying to get people to wrap their head around the idea that the Tongass National Forest — which we are surrounded by and is the biggest national forest in the country — isn’t just a timber forest that produces board feet. It’s a salmon forest. Eighty percent of the fish that we catch in southeast Alaska come from the Tongass National Forest.
[And those salmon] sustain this community. So as an active community member and someone who really wanted to sink their teeth into what this community is about, fishing was the way to do that.
Andrew: Having grown up on the ocean, I always thought of myself as an ocean-oriented person, but when I got here I realized I knew nothing — at least about what was going on around here. I felt like an outside observer to this huge chunk of Sitka.
Q. So, as first timers, what’s life on a fishing boat like?
A. Andrew: When it’s fishing season, you pretty much have to go nonstop.
Sophie: It forces you to be flexible, which I think is something all of us need more of. There are so many variables in fishing; it’s mind-boggling. From the depth that you’re fishing to whether you’re using bait, and what kind of fish you’re going for, in which area. There’s so much to know.
Andrew: Where the fish are will affect, obviously, where we go. There are certain groups that only talk with one another, and if someone finds fish they’ll tell their friends. There’s a lot of communication and a lot of secrecy involved.
Sophie: You’ll see boats and people will have their binoculars out, looking at you, trying to figure out what kind of hoochie [Editor’s note: It’s not what you think!] you’re using or how many fish you’re pulling.
Eric was telling me that he’s caught more fish [on the best day of the season] than his dad did [on his best day ever] when he was younger. And not because his dad wasn’t a skilled fisherman! It’s just because the technology today is so much more advanced — I mean, even GPS changed things because fishermen could know exactly where they were in the ocean.
A lot has changed, but we’re still pulling fish right out of the water with our hands. A lot of the basics have stayed the same for decades.
Q. About those hands — is there a dark side to killing all those fish?
A. Andrew: I mean, it’s beautiful, but it’s dirty work.
Sophie: You’ll just be covered in blood from head to toe. When you’re fishing for king salmon, it’s a cleaner process. You’ll see the line jumping, so you’ll bring the fish close and you’ll conk it on the head and gaff it and bring it on the boat. For the most part, they’re conked out, so they’re not flipping everywhere. And you’ll clean them right there, so you’ll dispose of all the guts and stuff right there. When you slush a king salmon, it’s beautiful and clean — and that’s it!
We’ve been fishing chum salmon since July 8, which are awesome but there are so much more of them. Unlike kings, we can deliver chums to the processor without cleaning the fish. So you just essentially stab it in the gills, and then put it in the hold. Sometimes the deck will just be filled with chums, because you’re pulling them and you haven’t put them in the hold yet, and they’re all flipping everywhere, bleeding everywhere.
Andrew: They’re pretty hard to kill, too. We try to hit ’em on the head and at least knock ’em out, but they’re tough.
Sophie: At the end of the day, l’ll look down and I’ll just have gobs of blood and scales on me. I found a scale on my ankle last week and I haven’t been fishing for a bit.
Fishermen — some of them just look so clean. I never look clean.
Q. What’s it like to feel completely out of your depth?
A. Sophie: It’s good, it’s a humbling experience. We’re smart in some ways but then we are totally green [in others]. Where do you gaff the fish, how do you conk ’em? But it’s a skill that doesn’t take too long to pick up. If you want to get good at cleaning fish, go out for one day of the king opener — by the end our wrists were so sore. I just had T-rex arms.
Andrew: I’ve never been that sleep deprived and physically exhausted at the same time.
Sophie: I remember the first king salmon that I brought on board — you see this fish and it’s huge, and you have to conk it on the right part of the head and bring it over. And if you lose that fish —
Andrew: It’s a horrible feeling.
Sophie: That fish is often worth a hundred bucks! And if you lose that fish, it is on you. I remember the first time I was going to gaff this fish, I was so nervous, my legs were shaking. But the feeling of conking it right and gaffing it right and bringing it onboard — and it was this beautiful fish. There are few moments in the year that I felt so proud and happy.
Q. So is everyone out there just catching loads of fish?
A. Sophie: Not this year!
Andrew: Especially not trollers, so far — because coho salmon just hasn’t shown up in the numbers they normally expect. That doesn’t mean it won’t, but it hasn’t yet. And chum salmon, which is the big thing after king salmon, has only recently started showing up.
Sophie: Alaska had the warmest year on record this past winter. Some people are speculating that there’s not enough snowpack that’s feeding the rivers, so water temperatures are much higher than they typically should be. We’re definitely not catching as much fish as we should be.
No one seems to have a definitive answer as to why. There are so many mysteries in the fishing world for why certain fish aren’t returning at the same rates. We had a ton of king salmon this year, but no one can figure out why. And over the course of the last decade or so, the average dock weight for king salmon has decreased dramatically — want to say from about 16 pounds to 12 or 11. So is that a consequence of overfishing, or are we doing something? What’s going on?
Q. What about ocean acidification and global warming?
A. Sophie: [My skipper] Eric and I talk about it all the time, because there’s evidence of it everywhere. You’ll look at a hillside and you’ll see a bunch of dead yellow cedar trees, and that’s caused by climate change. We’re having a huge problem of yellow cedar die-off in southeast Alaska because winters aren’t cold enough and there’s not enough snow, so roots are exposed — and that kills the tree.
Eric’s been fishing for so long that he’ll look up at the mountains and go, “I remember when this was just covered in snow.” And I’ll look up and I won’t see snow anywhere. It’s really visible when you’re out at sea and you’re looking at the land.
Andrew: That just shows the difference in conversation on different boats. It isn’t something that has come up much on mine.
Sophie: When you’re working on a troller, conversations don’t just last an hour — they last hours, or days, or sometimes weeks. We talk about climate change on our boat all the time — so we have an ongoing conversation. Topics will come up over and over and over again.
Andrew: Yeah, ours hasn’t been ocean acidification. More like the state of pop music and the Republican primaries …
Sophie: And we have a ton of Hillary vs. Bernie conversations.
Q. Are fishermen actually good stewards of the ocean?
A. Andrew: They’re very conscientious of what we need to do to regulate and respect the rules, because it does protect their way of life. That being said, once a place is designated as being open for fishing, they want to kill every single fish possible in that area. I mean, that’s your living.
Sophie: When you’re out there, of course, you want to take in as many fish as possible — you go, go, go. But I’ve talked to so many fishermen, and I think most of them, when they’re out there and it’s a beautiful sunrise or a beautiful sunset, people really soak up where they are. Aside from the money, there’s a reason a lot of people fish: You get to be out on the water every day — orcas and otters are everywhere! Whales are everywhere! That is where you get to spend your time, and that is something I would say every fisherman is aware of and respects.
Andrew: The coolest thing I think I’ve had happen so far — it was a rainy, dreary day, and I wasn’t too excited to be out on the stern of the boat, pulling lines in. I was just doing my work — you develop a routine that’s very repetitive … Then I realized I thought I saw something, and I looked up — and probably two hundred feet away there’s a whole whale body, just in the air.
You just sort of realize how small you really are when there’s a whole whale in the air.
Q. Would you do it all again?
A. Andrew: As far as temporary employment, it’s one of the more convenient things to do, once you already know how to do it. People are always looking for deckhands, people are always fishing. And it still has what was exciting about it for me: It’s cool to be out on a boat all day. It’s exhausting, but it’s also exciting. Am I going to be a career commercial fisherman? Probably not. But I would fish again, if the circumstances were right.
Sophie: Yeah, I would love to. It’s given me such a greater appreciation for this place, and for the people. Before being on a boat, I didn’t understand all the rigors of the job, and how demanding it is! I just feel so lucky that I was given the opportunity to do it.
But I think by the end of September, everybody is ready for a break! Even if you love it.