Dead Fish

As I am no longer tied down to the demanding year-round training schedule of a collegiate ski racer, I've found time to pursue other interests. One of them is making money. Really though, it's tough to find a well-paying summer job that allows time for both morning and afternoon training sessions. With my new freedom, I took up an offer to work as a deck hand on a salmon gillnetting boat in legendary Bristol Bay.

Two short weeks after returning from the Alaska Range, I flew to Naknek to kill fish. Six weeks, and nearly 200,000 pounds of salmon later, I returned to Anchorage with calloused hands and the biggest paycheck I've ever earned.

Gillnetting is a very labor intensive way of fishing, but it's very sustainable, and has almost no wasteful bycatch. Instead of surrounding a shoal of fish with a trap net (called purse-seining to those in the know), gillnets entangle salmon of a particular species and size much like a snare. The mesh size of the nets is just big enough to fit over a salmon's head, then catches on the gill plates to pull fish from the water. It's almost impossible to catch fish or animals of the wrong species or size; they simply can't get snared in the net. Furthermore, escapement of salmon into the river systems is counted, and fishing openings are strictly regulated to ensure sufficient breeding populations. It's no exaggeration to say that gillnetting in Bristol Bay is the cleanest, most sustainable fishery on the planet.

But, it is lot of work. Every fish that comes onboard is ensnared in the mesh of the net. Somebody has to pull each stuck fish out of the net, and toss the fish into refrigerated holds.  I was such a somebody.

Fishing is one of the last jobs that has no guaranteed pay. No salary, hourly wage, signing bonus or pension plan. Just a percentage of a possible catch. As a first year deck hand, my cut was 5% of the total catch after fuel and groceries. The more we caught, the more I was making. The harder I worked, the more we caught. If we never caught anything, I would owe my share of fuel and groceries. But that's  what made this job one of the most satisfying I've ever had. Offloading our catch to the tender boats at the end of the period and seeing the total effort of our four-man crew hanging there in big slimy bags gave me a satisfaction akin to finishing a ski race and seeing my finish time posted on the scoreboard. All of our exhaustive effort culminated into one daily score, and this time the score had a dollar sign in front of it.

Thanks to Chris White: captain of the Vulcan, Mike Reitz: mechanic and first mate, and John Stetson: seasoned deck hand for their mentoring and for our shared efforts and experiences.

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