Sunday, May 31, 2015

Blast from the Past: Alaskan Fishing Boats

So even though Season 11 of Deadliest Catch is currently airing, Hulu only has up to Season 10 available. Last weekend, Richard and I finished up Season 10. I enjoy watching the show because the fall after graduating college, I went up to Alaska and lived/worked on fishing boats as a government observer. Maybe I'll recognize someone (yeah, never happened).

So how did it come about? It was my last semester of college and an alumni came and talked to one of our classes about their experience as an observer. Given I hate cold weather, I probably would not go to Alaska for vacation, but if I was paid to go....this just might work! At the time, observers made about $3K a month, so for a college grad that sounded awesome (come to find out a recent college grad processor on the factory boat made about $10K a month....sigh....and well we all know how much the crab fishers make)!

So I applied with Alaskan Observers, Inc. (they have job openings, check it out here!) and got the job! I would be a National Marine Fisheries' Observer. The way the system is set up I worked for AOI, they receive their funding to pay me from the fishing boats, and my data was submitted to NOAA's ground fishery program. The purpose of the 'middle man' agency helps make the data more reliable. If one was paid by the fishing boat, there is potential for coercion to skew numbers in favor of a longer fishing seasons. If one was paid by NOAA, there would be conspiracy theories of the government overestimating catches to close seasons early.

Once hired, I went to Seattle for a 3 week training. Housing was provided (AOI had several 3-bedroom apartments that had 2 sets of bunk beds in each room....hey, you are getting ready to live on a boat with even less space....). We also received a per diem like salary while in Seattle for food/bus tickets/etc. During training, we learned about random sampling and collecting data; were assigned special projects (mine was collecting and preserving 100 fish stomachs (1/2 male/female); learned about prohibited species (essentially Halibut and 4 species of crabs....aka the big money makers); marine mammal sighting documentation. We also watched a LOT of movies of what to do when 'worse case scenario' happens (boat fires, running aground, mutiny). No one in our class bailed after all of these movies with 'real footage', but it did make sure you told everyone you loved them before you left for your ship! We were issued sampling and safety gear (including a survival suit). We even practiced donning a survival suit, swimming across a retention pond, and climbing into a life raft.

Finally, we flew to Dutch Harbor via Anchorage (my training classmates and I flew out at different times based on when our assigned fishing vessel left Seattle for Dutch Harbor). The Unalaska airport has a mountain at one end and the Bering Sea at the other. There is a road that has to be closed in order to allow planes to land. The runway has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous to land at (there are even YouTube videos and flight simulations based on this runway)!

AOI had an apartment in Dutch Harbor which provided you a place to stay before your boat departed port or a place to stop by and visit with others while your boat is offloading their catch. The first fishing vessel I was on was F/V Christina Ann. The main fishery my class trained for was the pollock fishery, which the season opened mid August 1997 and lasted about a month.

Check out the size of the trawl net that had just been pulled on board, most nets were about the size of a city bus....that is a lot of fish. The boat had 4 holding tanks the fish were dumped in and held before processing. Part of my data collection involved recording estimated total catch size based on the size of the codend of the trawl net (the captain/first mate would help me with that/allow me to compare numbers).

My work station was located below the deck where the holding tanks dumped out to the processing area. Directly behind me was the heading machine, luckily during my time on the vessel, nobody cut any fingers off. It was here at my sampling station I would get average weights of the pollock. I also collected my 100 stomachs here. I would measure the fish, slice them open to determine its sex, remove the stomach, place the stomach in a little bag with a slip specifying gender and length, place the stomach in my bucket of preservative, and then drop the fish onto the conveyor belt to be processed into surimi (imitation crab). I had a random number table that told me which sets I needed to sample (I started at a point on the table and from there went in progression, sample 2 sets, off 1, sample 3 off 2, sample 2, off 2, etc). It was extra fun since the boat fished 24 hours a day, so within about 4 days time, I went from day shift to night shift back to day shift.

Every day or so, I would go up in the wheel house of the ship. There was a computer up there that had some observer software loaded on it. I would enter my data for the day and hit submit. About once a day, the computer connected via satellite and sent my data on its merry way. Based on all observers sending in their data, NOAA determined when to close the season. So if my memory serves me right (it was 18 years ago), the pollock season lasted about 3-4 weeks. I remember we off loaded one time at St. Paul's was nice in that I had no work to do for 24 hours or so, but it was a bit torturous in that boat offloaded offshore. So I could see and smell land, but I could not go on land.

As I recall, we were fishing relatively close to Russian waters, so following the closing of the season, I got back into Dutch Harbor after a lot of my classmates had already left. When I disembarked the F/V Christina Ann, I had the option to head back to Seattle or stay and do a couple more trips. I opted to stay and do some more trips. Fishing vessels that are 60-135 feet long only need an observer onboard about 1/4-1/3 of the time (I don't remember exactly), so I worked on 2 smaller vessels.

The F/V Kevleen K is a crab pot boat. It was before the start of crabbing season and it was being used to catch pot cod (aka Pacific Cod). According to the internet, F/V Kevleen K is the only green crab boat left in the Bering Sea fleet!

Look familiar? So I weighed and counted the catch and bycatch that they dumped out of the pots. When I was done with the bycatch I would throw it overboard. I have to say, halibut are big, strong, slippery, and feisty! I had a sampling station in what the fishers called the shower. It had a nice place to hang my scale but when a large swell hit the boat, it came over at that spot. I did get drenched and went sliding across the deck once, but I managed to stay on the boat, keep hold of my basket and not lose any of my fish! I was on the crab boat for 1-2 weeks.

The last ship I was on was a blue and white longliner F/V (I need to reference my photo album to figure out the name) fishing Pacific cod as well. I had two samplings stations. One right where they were landing the fish and I randomly weighed and measured the intended catch (plus they hand to land the bycatch for me also, which I then recorded data on and threw back overboard). It was a lovely location, they would bleed the fish there....and new ones would flip there fins and give me a lovely bloody misting. My other sampling location was above where they landed the fish. I watched what fish came up, on my clip board I had 4 little counters. I wrote the most common species next to them. As a fish came up, I clicked the counter and recorded it. The bycatch was then knocked off the hook and the Pacific cod was landed onto the boat. If there was a species other than my four, then I just wrote it down and made tally marks. If a shark or orca had eaten one of the fish, leaving just fish lips on the hook I had to count that as catch as well. I had a nice comfy buoy to sit on, but on rough seas I was unable to sample since my seat was spring loaded to throw me overboard (and I do have this awesome set of photos of the bow going straight down into a wave trough and then straight up at that the sky).

The last boat was super fun in that it did not have a water maker on board. So the water we left port with needed to last the whole undetermined time we were out (ie, however long it took to fill the tanks). I was the only person to shower that trip....I took 2 short (ie 3 minute) showers and we were out to sea for about 3 weeks. There was one deckhand that didn't shower before we left port...he smelled....."lovely". The first mate/engineer/chef made red beans and rice with every meal. He rotated what meat was served with the red beans and rice. Given I was vegetarian.....I ate red beans and rice for 3 weeks.....but they were delicious.....I have looked for a similar recipe but I have yet to find one that matches that taste I remember.

Between boats, I had some time to explore the island of Unalaska, where Dutch Harbor is located. There was a lovely Russian Orthodox Church.

One of the smaller boats I was on, the Captain had two trucks that needed to be moved from one dock to another. While the Captain moved the boat, a crewman drove one truck, but none of the other crewmen had a license so they asked if I would move it. On my way, I also saw my first wild Bald I stopped and took a picture.

Of course, I have to mention the marine mammals I saw. On our way out of Dutch Harbor I got a shot of a seal (sorry for the picture quality....I used to work in a photo shop and things that are off drive me nuts!). On the first day of the pollock season, I saw Sei whale spouts in the distance....too far away to get very good picture.

Dall's Porpoises are nearly impossible to photograph their bodies when they are traveling. They do a behavior when surfacing called rooster tailing. The way the surface they just make a spray of water. A Dall's porpoise looks like a miniature Orca.

Speaking of Orcas, I saw wild Orcas three times while out in the Bering Sea. One day when on the long liner boat, a mother and calf followed our boat for several hours, unfortunately by the time I finished my sampling they went on their way (but I was able to get a snapshot....given my old Pentax had a fixed 50mm was pretty close to the boat).

Following my third boat, AOI did not need anymore observers. So I headed back to Seattle for de-briefing. On the way back, I ended up with a piece of missing luggage. I can still remember the look the airline agent's face when asked to describe my missing luggage and it's contents (white paint bucket, sealed lid, contents?, 100 fish stomachs). My bucket of stomachs was delivered the next day to my apartment. I had 2 weeks in Seattle, to turn all my equipment in, I meet with some people to go over my data sheets in case they could not read/understand anything. They did mention that not many people take filing out the marine mammal sighting forms as seriously as I did (that was the best part for me; sightings of Sei whales, orcas, Dall's porpoises, and seals!)

I really enjoyed the experience. I knew I was going to be cold when I put my long underwear on to go out on the deck of the boat in late August. I survived a little over 2 months in Alaska...on fishing boats (I think I only spent 2-3 nights on land). Following my time in Alaska, I moved to California for a internship at the Cetacean Behavior Lab...much more up my alley. I had money in the bank to cover me until I found a job!

Note: I took a lot more photos with my old Pentax film camera, I just don't have any digital copies currently and my albums are in storage, so some day in the future, I may update this post with more photos.


  1. What a cool chapter of your life! It's right up there with international spy in my book - grimy, high adventure, high stakes, tall tales- but at least you can tell them, right!?!

    1. Very true! Spies do have much better clothing is really not my color....and I could never get the fish smell out!

    2. I thought you wore it well.

  2. I really enjoyed your story. My son just flew to Seattle to start his training tomorrow. I hope all goes well with him.

    1. It was definitely something I am glad I did! Best of luck to him!