Gearing Up

By Norris Comer

A letter from a deckhand of the F/V Carmalee, a salmon tender working Chignik Lagoon, Alaska.

Note: Roy was a suspender wearing, volunteer firefighter and avid angler of the Lake Minnetonka area of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was the author’s non-blood related uncle who took him fishing back in the day. Roy passed away in 2004.

Dear Uncle Roy,

I sit on my porch watching the sunrise and think; are the fish biting on Lake Minnetonka? Of course, when I think about the lake, I think of you. As they say in Minnesota, how the heck are ya?

At the time of this writing, the Alaskan commercial fishing season is gearing up. I don’t know if you heard through the family grapevine, but I got a job this summer as a deckhand on a salmon tender way out there in Chignik. The F/V Carmalee calls Cordova homeport but we’ll deliver her to Seward to stock up on groceries then transit west past the Kenai and Kodiak Island. She’s owned by an old friend. We were high school-age greenhorns together in the summer of 2008 purse seining in Prince William Sound – me the slab-of-beef deckhand working the lead line and him the capable operator of the skiff. Now he’s a professional mariner and vessel owner and I’m an on and off deckhand who goes to sea when the freelance writing schtick gets lean.

The F/V Carmalee has a contract with Trident Seafoods and looks like a sweet little ride. Built in 1978 by Gulf Coast Fab Marine, she’s a fiberglass 52-footer that weighs 28 tons gross. That may sound big by laker standards, but for a commercial salmon tender that’s pretty modest. She’s got a single M.A.N. D28940 LXE V-8 turbo-after cooled diesel engine with a decent 680 horses and 20 tons of self-contained refrigeration for the hold. Seems like a good “get ‘er done” boat with minimal overhead. I’ll take gear-related notes and talk shop with the fisherfolk I meet to pass on what I learn in my letters. I know you like that stuff.

The F/V Carmalee is a two-person work setup, my buddy the owner, is only planning to transit with us. We’re all looking forward to the trip through what Alaskans call “Real Alaska.” The hired skipper is a retired guy in his sixties who lives in Shoreline, just a short drive north of me in Seattle. We’ve only talked over the phone, but he reminds me a bit of you. He is working because his wife lost her job due to the ongoing pandemic recession, a double gut punch of public health and economic disasters hitting just about everyone right now.

The skipper has lung problems and diabetes, so he grilled me about if I’ve been self-quarantining. I’ve followed all the rules since Governor Inslee issued his stay at home order in March. We’re keeping a pulse on quarantine-related regulation that may affect us. Right now there is no mandatory two-week self-quarantine in Alaska, so we should be able to do the job relatively normally. Once in Chignik Lagoon, the two of us will be living off the hook. In many ways, we’ll be the kings of quarantine. Will I need to wear an N95 mask on the job? I’ll do whatever keeps the skipper alive.

The scuttlebutt is that Chignik is a salmon run ghetto these days. The last two years have been lousy. I found an Anchorage Daily News article online from last year titled, “Chignik Bay is ‘hanging by a thread’ after a second year of scant fishing” (August 3, 2019). Reportedly, there wasn’t a single opener in 2018 and only a handful of openers in the second half of 2019. Of the fishery, a local Alex Kopun said, “It’s hanging by a thread…everybody has to really take a serious look in the mirror and say, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Another Anchorage Daily News article from 2018 mentions that larger fisheries to the east, like Bristol Bay, broke red salmon records that same year. A fisherman named Jamie Ross in the article said, “The problem with Chignik is…we are the itty-bitty little area stuck in between…” and that nearby are “…much larger fleets, much larger fisheries that our fish travel through in order to get to Chignik.” For this year’s projection, Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates a range between 226,000 and 1.1 million sockeye to return on the early run at Cape Igvak. If the counts are below 600,000, which seems likely, there will be no opener for the early half again.

This analysis confirms what my buddy the owner told me. We’ll get to Chignik Lagoon in June but don’t even anticipate openers until July. Expectations are low. I’d be more disheartened, but I remember summer 2008 in Prince William Sound when I pounded the docks for a week asking for a job. Most folks thought that season was going to suck and advised me to try something else, but it turned out to be the best in years. The way I see it, if you got a boat, permits, and crew, you got to try. A one percent chance at payday is infinitely more than zero, right?
The nice thing about tendering is that payment minimums seem pretty standard. Plenty of tender deckhands I talk to don’t get a crew share, rather a fixed daily rate. I’ve got a modest minimum coupled with a crew share, which seems like a good combo for a potentially low return fishery. My setup is a bit like getting the thrill of gambling at the casino but not having to be permanently all-in at the craps table like the crew-share-only fishermen for whom we’ll service. They could win bigger than me, but at least I can’t lose it all.

I recall my time on an albacore troller out of Westport, Washington, in 2015. I averaged between $3 and $50 a day working 12-hour days 100-plus nautical miles off the coast of Oregon for 20 days straight. The damned warm water Blob really put the hurt on everyone then. I don’t know if you know this already Roy, but sea surface temperature is important when chasing albacore. Tuna hang out in the warm water because they are warm blooded and burn fewer calories to maintain their high-performance, homeothermic lifestyle. But cold waters are more productive and host most of the food they eat, so the tuna “ride the edge” of where warm water meets cold to live in the warm and feed in the cold.

The Pacific Northwest has an albacore fishery because an edge seasonally forms off our coast, but not when there’s a giant warm water Blob camped out there. The fleet looked like a Three Stooges sketch, everyone zipping this way and that looking for wherever a new edge might form. Few, and none that I talked to, were successful.

Bottom line is that I’m glad to have a minimum. However, there are mutterings of more contingents being applied to our minimums, or even reductions. We’ve already signed contracts and the minimum is starting pretty low anyway, so I’m not sure if there’s much meat to carve off the bone. I hope the skipper doesn’t walk. It does seem unfair to ship out someone for three months only take away the promised pay security only a few weeks out, especially in these pandemic times when the grocery stores need the food. Skilled operators are in short supply and probably turned down other job offers at this point, so it’s best to do right by them. Oh well, we’ll see how it plays out.

On a personal note, I always felt good about getting folks food as a fisherman, but there’s an element to it in these times that’s got me fired up. The term essential worker is getting a lot of play lately, but I hope it’s not a fad. America seems increasingly a nation out of touch with what is actually essential for good living, including sustainably caught seafood. Fisherfolk, farmers, and those who keep apparatus civilization humming aren’t generally treated well. We’re going to sea and bringing in the crops – often without basic healthcare or a living wage – while Congress refuses the basics of being in session, even remotely, to do their jobs. Are they calling themselves non-essential? If Congress wants to insult itself so honestly, I know few Americans who will stop them.
I’ll keep writing throughout the summer so stay posted. If you were younger and in better shape (no offense) I know you’d be champing at the bit to head up there too. My first dose of true fishing action was when you took me and the cousins out on the pontoon boat. You know the day I’m talking about; we slayed sunnies by the dozens and had a big fish fry! Who would’ve guessed that pint-sized me would make a kind-of career out of this stuff?

Thanks, Roy.