FIFTEEN OR TWENTY YEARS ago, thousands upon thousands of college-age kids migrated to Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet in the late spring, pitched tents in parking lots, and beat the docks until they secured a site on a drift boat or seiner. In those days the salmon runs were incredibly strong, the ex-vessel price was over $3.00/lb., and work abounded.
If you couldn’t find a site, then the tender vessel or the cannery certainly had a position for you – a less lucrative one to be sure, but good work nonetheless. Crab fishing in the wintertime offered similar opportunity. A young man could get on a plane in Anchorage and have a job before he landed in Dutch Harbor.
Boats made so much money they could hire an extra guy on a half-share basis just to make life a little easier for everyone. It was relatively easy for an able-bodied guy to get a site, even if he didn’t have any fishing experience.
Things are quite different today. Regulations, oil spills, an economic emphasis on imports, the crash of the Japanese economy in the mid-90s – all of these factors have drastically changed the fabric of the industry over the last two decades. But the romantic allure persists and the risk/reward factor is still intense.
The job can still be quite lucrative for the right person, and the best way for you to land your site is still to simply SHOW UP! Skippers don’t troll for employees on Monster. There are websites dedicated to finding “fishing” jobs in Alaska, like Alaskafishingjobs.com, alaskajobfinder.com, and others.
Some of these charge a membership fee though, and most of the positions are on factory processors owned by giant seafood corporations like Trident or Peter Pan. This might be a good place to start, but in truth, the chances of getting hired on a proper fishing boat, sight unseen, especially if you’re “green”, are about zero.
There is no application process, we’re going straight to the interviews. So if you’re starting a career or just taking a sabbatical from the cubicle, here’s how to go about it.
1. Do your research first
You want to be in the right place at the right time. Herring season kicks off in Togiak in April. The salmon run in Kenai starts in July.
Last year I worked with a guy who flew into Kodiak in mid-May, went to the city employment office (hint, hint), and had a site on a seiner the next day. He said he made $25,000.00 in ten weeks. Now that was a fortunate scenario, but he made his own luck by showing up at the right time, just a week or so before the season opened.
An e-visit to the city in question should provide you a timetable, provided it’s a big enough place like Homer. A smaller burg like Naknek will require some extended effort. National Fisherman publishes monthly articles, filled with tons of data on the volume and value of almost every fishery.
Visit NationalFisherman.com and check the dates. There’s even a small classifieds page there. Local and regional newspapers always carry a story or two as well. Be creative with your search.
2. Pack appropriately
Functionality is key. Even in the summer months the weather will be unpleasant at times, and you’re there to work. Go with some sweatpants, hooded sweatshirts, comfortable, durable socks, and some rugged footwear. Bring a light, rain-resistant jacket.
You want layers of versatility stuffed into one semi-large pack. Remember, you want to be mobile, and the vessel on which you land your site isn’t going to have a lot of extra space for storage.
You can easily get your slickers and gloves after you’ve landed your site. In most cases the boat will even charge it, then just take it out of your first check.
Under Armor is great stuff, too. (Make sure to keep every single receipt for ANY related purchase. Find an accountant familiar with the maritime industry, there are all sorts of deductions for commercial guys.)
3. Be professional
You’re ready to swashbuckle like Captain Jack Sparrow, but this is still a business. The number one issue for boat owners and captains is the dependability of their crewmen. Beat the docks early, and without a hangover.
You want to stress your reliability and your eagerness to respond to a good opportunity. If the man asks you if you have any experience, just say “No” or “Not yet.” Do not tell him how you went sailing on your uncle’s yacht one summer. Do not tell him that you are a hard worker and a fast learner, he’s heard it a million times. He’ll be more impressed with directness and honesty.
Do you have any relevant skills? Maybe you can “turn a wrench” or you’re familiar with electronics. If you’re not mechanically inclined yet, don’t sweat it. The number one attribute for fresh hires? Cooking. If you can whip up a nice meal for three or four or five guys on short order, your prospects just improved significantly.
Now if the boss listens to what you have to say and still tells you to ease on down the dock, don’t take it personally, some skippers wouldn’t hire Superman if he hadn’t been on a boat before. But I’ve worked for a lot of skippers who liked to hire “clean and green,” because they knew the guy was going to be trouble-free and they could train him up how they wanted.
You might not land a site right away just by beating the docks, so you’ll need to utilize your resourcefulness. Check the fishhouses and canneries, a lot of skippers will post their “want-ads” in the offices there. Talk to people. You need to drum up as many leads as possible.
I worked with a guy who made his contact in line at the post office. Another guy put up his “resume” on the bulletin board at the coffee shop and had calls within 24 hours. Their combined previous experience: 0.
If you’re not getting any breaks, maybe you need a change of scenery. Another guy I worked with beat the docks of Cordova for two weeks and couldn’t get any action. He finally jumped on the ferry to Kodiak and found a site on his third day in town.
Persevere. There are tens of thousands of commercial fishing boats and hundreds of thousands of sites in Alaska. But they aren’t going to come to you.
Once you’re in, your performance will propel you wherever you want to go. Maybe you’ll settle in on a big ship that works year-round. Maybe you’ll network to different sites in different fisheries for different seasons.
Just like any other business, the owners and captains all know each other and who needs crew, and when. Build a good name for yourself and you’ll have it made in the industry for as long as you want.
So now you’re ready! It takes a lot of confidence and determination to find substantive employment in this manner. You need to be alert, assertive, and flexible. If you can’t handle what it takes to get the job then the job isn’t for you. Good luck.