The Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery is fast and furious, lasting only a number of weeks each summer. Hundreds of gillnetters and their crew mine the waters in the far north for a potentially high-paying bounty.
How do you get a job in Bristol Bay?
Matt Marinkovich explains the fishery and the best ways to find work.
This is only a short excerpt from our in-depth interview.
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How much experience do you have in the Alaska seafood industry?
I crabbed for opilio and king crab for four years or so. Then I transitioned into longlining, fishing for blackcod and halibut in Southeastern Alaska and the Gulf. I still am a crewman on a longliner. It is really nice to serve as a crew guy so I don’t have to stress about every detail, like when I am running my own boat in Bristol Bay.
I also fished one seine season in False Pass back in 1988, which was a really good year and helped give me the capital so I could buy into Bristol Bay. I have also fished a gillnetter in Puget Sound, which isn’t a lot of money, but it is really rewarding because I direct-market most of the fish I catch directly to the people in my community.
What made you want to work in the Alaska fishing and/or seafood industry?
I have never had a "normal" job, but I think that I would be a tough guy to work with in any other job setting. I like to work hard, and I love the odd hours necessary to work on a semi-diurnal tidal schedule when we are gillnetting. When gillnetting in Bristol Bay I grind my crew to bone. I make sure they’re fed and comfy, not because I’m a nice guy but because I demand so much from them that they would collapse if they weren’t properly fed.
If I worked like that in most other industries I would be a freak. Since I’m in the fishing industry, I just blend in with the other freaks.
Tell us about the boat you work on.
No one could be more committed to a boat than one they own, and I own a wood boat in Bristol Bay, so it takes even more of a commitment to keep it in good operating condition.
How many crewmembers?
I usually fish with three crew on deck. This is a lot for a gillnetter, but I fish aggressively and in highly competitive areas close to the boundary line, so there are many incidents where not a second can be wasted, which makes the larger crew necessary. Plus, the more sets of fingers picking fish, the faster the fish come out, and the sooner the net can be set back into the water to catch more fish.
What’s your job title?
I’m the boss. Sometimes I’m called other things.
Describe the job? Your responsibilities specifically.
I am responsible for absolutely everything that happens on my boat. Even if is something "that I could do nothing about" or "I had no control over" I am still responsible for what happened. I take this responsibility seriously, so I guess that is where the stress of running a boat comes from.
When we are out fishing, I pretty much stay on top on the flying bridge and bark orders. I have to because things happen so fast that I can’t leave the controls.
What roles do other people play on the vessel?
I like to have the crew rotate jobs. Last year with my out-of-the-box crew, they didn’t rotate, which ultimately created some less-than-optimum situations. If I wind up with the same crew next year, they will be rotating.
The job of gillnetting in Bristol Bay is simple: Throw the end of the net over to start the net setting, watch the net as it pays out, then haul it back. Sometimes we "drum" the net aboard with the net reel, in which case we pick the fish out as they come aboard, and other times we "stern haul" the net aboard, which means to pull it over the stern through the power roller (which makes it easier to haul aboard), then pile it on deck with fish still in the net; then the fish must be picked out as the net is cleared from the pile.
Did you receive any special training or preparation for this job?
One of my favorite aspects of fishing is that anyone with the notion can gear up and go fishing. There are people from every demographic involved in the fishing industry, especially in Bristol Bay because it is such a short season.
What are the terms of your employment?
If you’re hired on with me, you are expected to be in Naknek, AK with "bells on" on June 1, and you will be staying until I determine the season is over.
The first two weeks of the season consists of getting the boat and nets ready to fish. The last solid week consists of putting the boat and all other aspects of the fishing operation away properly so they will be ready to start anew next June 1.
Is it possible to land this type of job without any direct experience?
ABSOLUTELY. If you have the gumption to travel jobless to Naknek, camp out in the "Tent City" provided (water provided) (just stick your thumb out and say "Tent City" when you hitch a ride; it’s near Peter Pan Seafoods) (bring bug spray; FYI: "Deet" is TOXIC!), I’ll just-short-of-guarantee you will get a job.
I’ve NEVER heard of anyone who came jobless to Neknek who didn’t get a job.
Besides actual ‘on the job’ experience, are there any personal qualities you would need in order to get into this unique line of work?
Anyone who is willing to work hard can do this. A good attitude is everything. Wimps need not apply.
Would you recommend this line of work to others, and if so, then why?
I personally can’t imagine doing anything else, so of course I would recommend it. I like the radical hours kept, being out on the water, eating fish for dinner (and lunch and breakfast) every day for three weeks, and the hard work.B
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