In June of 2011, we rose early and met our skipper, Bart, along with the rest of the crew of the F/V Night Eagle, for our first foray into the fishery. Bart is an older man, in his mid- to late-sixties, well-known among other fishers in the area both for his gregarious demeanor and for his reputation as a ‘highliner:’ a consistently successful fisherman. Much like its skipper, the Night Eagle is a stout and aggressive looking vessel with an all-weld aluminum hull and twin overpowered diesel engines. The vessel is configured as a ‘bowpicker’ , with the cabin sitting aft of a large hydraulic reel that bears four 300- foot long lengths, or ‘shackles’ , of gill-netc. Even in the pre-dawn light of our early departure, the Night Eagle shined as new, which it was, at least to Bart. Bart had just acquired the vessel after losing his last one to a fire, and this was to be the first time that he and the Night Eagle had put nets in the water.
Depending on the timing and range of tides—Cook Inlet experiences some of the largest tidal ranges in the US—it can take several hours for a commercial fishing vessel to travel from the boat harbors at Homer, Kasilof, and Kenai to the allowed commercial fishing grounds in the upper part of the inlet. Fishing openings in the inlet usually start at 7:00 AM, so we departed from Homer well before dawn. Most of the crew spent the ride catching a few more minutes of sleep, but Bart remained awake and attentive, guiding the vessel north. Two short wave radios mounted above the dash at the helm—one for general communications and the other scrambled only for communication with Bart’s fishing group—remained quiet for the first half of the trip. As the daylight grew, so did the frequency and volume of radio chatter, and before long Bart was vigorously engaged in simultaneous conversations with several fishers. Much of the talk was not about fishing, but more like the conversation that one hears among friends and acquaintances when they are reunited after some time apart. One noteworthy point of good humor was that several people chided Bart on the excesses of his new “speed boat,” though Bart did not restrain himself from bragging that he would reach the fishing area earlier than everyone else in his group.
Fishing in groups is a common strategy in this and other small-scale Alaska fisheries (see e.g., Gatewood 1984
), and those we interviewed valued their groups and group members. These groups exist mainly for the purposes of information sharing, which is done via the scrambled short wave radios. Groups are loosely organized, not ad hoc
in composition but also not entirely unchanging, and can range in size from five or six to fifteen or twenty boats. The largest groups often have a mix of experienced fishers as well as relative newcomers. All of the drifters that we interviewed offered more or less the same set of reasons for fishing in groups, reasons that include improved fishing efficiency but also peace of mind. As explained by another fisher, Hank:
It is not as much about knowing where the fish are, but also where they aren’t. If nobody is catching anything, you know that you aren’t wasting time looking around. It helps you from second guessing yourself … which is especially helpful if you’re new.
Later in the season we noticed that radio conversations were more Spartan by comparison to the chatter we heard from Bart and his group on this day, limited mostly to within fishing groups and to matters of business. This morning, however, topics of conversation varied widely, from talk of families to the politics of the fishery. When asked later, nearly all the drifters that we interviewed explained that during the off-season, while they may encounter other fishers in passing every now and then, they rarely interact with them socially. The only exceptions were those who fish year-round. Thus, early openings are important to the relational dimension of social well-being because it is during the first few fishing outings that many Cook Inlet drifters reconnect with one another, and, if a fishing group has a new member these initial radio conversations can be their first opportunity to develop a rapport with their new group mates. Several fishers noted that good rapport and trust within groups is important also because fishers rely on one another for help if they are in trouble.
The politics of fishing were also a common item of discussion among Bart and other fishers on the opening day. As noted earlier, salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet seem permanently embroiled in contentious debates among commercial fishers, in-river sport fishers, tourist charter operators, and state fisheries managers. In 2011, a common talking point was a new “Penny-a-Pound” fundraising arrangement among some commercial fishers and fish processors to raise money to support a legal defense fund. This program is an initiative of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), an association to which two-thirds of the drift fleet are due-paying members. According to UCIDA, the intent of the legal fund is to provide financial resources to support litigation efforts representing commercial fishing interests in state and federal management dialogs. In a recent example, UCIDA sued the United States Department of Commerce, petitioning that they should exercise better and more legally adherent oversight of the State of Alaska’s salmon management, which they claimed was not meeting the federal fisheries management standards set out in the US Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (16 USC § 1851). Radio chatter debating the Penny-A-Pound program, and noting which fishers and fish processors had and had not already chosen to participate, recurred throughout the day.
A third topic of conversation that we noted on this opening day was the status of a different vessel, the F/V Aurora. It was the first year of fishing for the vessel’s captain, Rosie, and the Aurora was adrift because of a failed oil pump. Fortunately, weather was good and fishers abide by strong unwritten rules to take care of one another. As such, other captains were frequently chiming in with suggestions and support. One captain in particular spent a half an hour walking Rosie through various repair strategies, though to no avail. Ultimately, the Aurora’s fate was to be towed back to port without having set a single net in the water.
Not so for the Night Eagle, however. We set our nets in the water with great haste, though not necessarily with grace or expedience in the first few attempts. This was mostly on account of Bart breaking-in a new deck hand, Steven, who, while being both capable and attentive, was new to fishing. From our own experiences as deckhands, we know that it is simply not possible for a newcomer to anticipate the pace and choreography of commercial salmon fishing until they have experienced it. We observed this eager awkwardness in Steven, but fortunately for Steven there were not very many fish in the water that day. Too many fish would have been a problem, Bart noted to us later, overwhelming the opportunities for teaching and practice. Bart was patient, but forceful and encouraging enough with Steven such that by the third deployment of the gill-nets, Steven had settled in to his role.
The largest single haul by the Night Eagle that day was twenty-eight fish, which was more than enough for teaching, and to make us all shout when we saw the splashy chaos created by the fish hitting the net, but not nearly enough to pay for the fuel that the twin diesels consumed as Bart zipped across the inlet. Still, Bart’s enthusiasm never waned, and he drove the boat hard, repeatedly racing to and fro from one end of the drift net to the other, trying to scare the salmon into the net. Frequently Bart would leave his nets drifting and instead run the boat up and down other fishers’ nets, which delighted Bart but seemed to perplex some of the other fishers. He explained later in the day that he was trying to really test his new boat, evaluating how it performed when under pressure. This explanation notwithstanding, it was clear that Bart also enjoyed the thrill of speeding across the inlet in his brand new boat.
Coby, another drifter, later explained that re-familiarizing one’s self with the boat is an important and necessary habit:
Your boat has been sitting for the winter for the most part. So you put it in the water and if something’s going to break it’s probably going to break right away. So you want to figure out what that is. … I’d rather miss 60 fish than 600.
And another fisher, Stacey, had a different perspective:
Things don’t break on a normal day. They break under extreme conditions. Like bad weather, or when your boat is deck-loaded with fish. That’s when things break. You don’t want to be adrift in high seas, so you’ve got to know if your gear, and your people, can take it. So you stress them out some when the weather is good and when you don’t have to worry about fishing so much.
Though Bart clearly did not expect something to break, failure came anyway in the form of a coolant problem that scared us all by filling the main cabin with a foul and dense smoke. Fortunately the problem was not critical, but the sentiment impressed by Bart in the quote that introduces this paper, and repeated by so many of those whom we interviewed since, could not have been more effectively made than as it was by the long hours we spent limping back to Homer on only one of the two diesels: opening day is critical in both the material and relational dimensions to the safe and successful operation of the fleet.