A Woman's Story of Life on a Salmon Troller
This is the story of one woman's adventures aboard commercial fishing vessels in Alaska.
Learn what it's like to work on a salmon troller. This three-part interview highlights life on board, the different types of jobs, tips to help your job search, and how trollers harvest salmon. This is Part I of our interview.
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How much experience do you have in the Alaska seafood industry?
I've fished in Southeast Alaska for twenty-four seasons, from when my parents rigged up our sailboat as a hand troller in 1984, to currently running a boat with my partner and self-marketing our frozen-at-sea salmon. I've trolled for salmon, shrimped, and longlined for black cod and halibut.
What's your job title?
Describe the job?
Trollers are small operations. With two people on board, there's a lot of overlap where the captain and I share job duties. I run gear, the actual "catching" of fish. (There are some captains who won't allow first-time deckhands to run gear, based on the risk of personal injury and losing fish/gear.)
I clean fish: every salmon should be bled, headed, gutted, and down into the freezer within a half-hour of hitting the deck. I do all of the work in the fish hold: "glazing," dipping each fish individually into a salt water glaze, preserving freshness, and unloading our catch when we get to town. I do all of the deck work like scrubbing, keeping everything free of bacteria, and helping maintain our gear, sharpening hooks and polishing lures. I also do the meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking.
What roles do other people play on the vessel? Describe as best you can.
The captain is ultimately liable for our safety and success. He does all of our mechanical maintenance like the changing of oil and filters on the engines. He plans where we'll fish and the gear we'll run. He shares much of the deck work with me, running gear and cleaning fish.
What's a typical day like on the fishing boat, if there is such a thing?
We're up before the sun. In July, we're up by 3:00 a.m.; by mid-September, we might sleep in until 5:30 a.m. We run to wherever we'll put the gear in and get our hooks in the water.
Trollers drag four main lines behind the boat; each main line trails a series of hooked "spreads," the number depending on the water depth. Sometimes, a single line might have twenty spreads. All day long, we run these lines up and down, landing salmon, making sure the hooks are clean, free of jellyfish or kelp.
As soon as any salmon are on deck, we're getting them cleaned and down into the fish hold as quickly as possible. We do this until sunset. In July, these can be eighteen-hour days. When we're really catching, there are days we don't stop moving.
On a freezer boat, we stay out until the fish hold is full. These can be twelve-to-twenty day trips. Ice boats, who deliver a fresh product, have to unload every fifth day.
Is it possible to land this type of job without any direct experience?
Absolutely. I see green deckhands every season.
On the occasions you have down time, how did you spend it?
When we're in town, the goal is to take care of our town-chores as quickly as possible and get back out to fish. But when personal down time is available, I definitely get some alone time away from the boat. I take showers and do laundry at the processing plant, catch up with friends online, visit the library and stock up with books for the next trip, or take myself out to a meal. I might go for a hike, stretch my legs and explore the area.
Take advantage of local cultural events. As a fisherman, you're getting paid to be in a region that millions of people dream of seeing. Take advantage of your surroundings and get to know the community beyond the boundaries of the harbor.
Would you recommend this line of work to others, and if so, then why?
I think that everyone should experience Alaska at some point in their life. If you're not afraid of hard work, are able-bodied and mentally sound, are detail-oriented and take tremendous pride in your work, knowing that you're responsible for providing some of the highest quality salmon to people all around the world, then trolling is an amazing way to experience Southeast Alaska and make a little money while you're at it.
What personal benefits/rewards do you find from working in the Alaska fishing industry?
I've worked with captains and crewmen who I didn't trust or feel comfortable with. I'm not a big fan of spending all day working in sideways rain and a miserable ocean. And frankly, I don't like killing for a living.
However, I love our lifestyle. I love the physical demands of the work and pushing myself beyond perceived limits. I love that my office is this amazing environment with which we develop a personal relationship, a wild landscape that other people have no idea exists.
I'm proud of the care that I devote to each fish, the quality of seafood that I provide to people who, before tasting one of our salmon, hadn't dreamed of how good fish could be.
I'm thankful for the opportunities of our off-season, that we work so continually for four to five months and then enjoy the kind of leisure time that other people work their entire lives to achieve.
Truly, the things that I dislike are minor compared to the gifts that commercial fishing has brought to my life.
Talk about opportunities for women to work on fishing boats.
In the early 1990s, my mom was one of the only female skippers in the troll fleet. It's still a male-dominated industry, but many more women are crewing and running their own boats these days.
On the other hand, an increasing number of male skippers say they prefer to hire female crew because they've found women to be more conscientious workers who are easier to get along with.
Many other captains are equally open to hiring men or women. Male or female, a deckhand should always trust their gut about whether they want to leave the dock with someone, and if possible, ask around about a captain's reputation.
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