(Photo courtesy of Connor Smith)
Political science senior Connor Smith wrote this first-hand account:
My day begins early, around six or seven in the morning, to the voice of the captain telling us it’s time to fish.
I throw on a heavy coat and make my way to the stern of the seiner where we tie the skiff (a skiff is a small open boat, around 16 feet long, that works together with the big 58-foot seiner to tow the net around fish).
I warm the skiff up by starting the engine and letting it run for a while (in cold weather it’s necessary to give engines time to warm up before they run hard). While I let the motor run, I hook up the 100 fathom net (one fathom, the unit fishermen use to measure length, equals 6 feet), which is stacked on the deck of the big boat, to the stern of my skiff and put on my raingear.
It’s my job to drive the skiff, which attaches to one end of the net while the big boat attaches to the other; we make a circle around the fish with the net and then purse up the bottom so the fish can’t escape. We’re fishing for herring right now, but later on in the summer we will begin the salmon season.
By the time the engine is warm, and I’ve put all my gear on, it’s time for me to sit in the skiff and wait for the opener to begin (an opener is the amount of time the Alaska Department of Fish and Game opens the fishery for). Today we’re fishing for nine hours, which means that I have to stay in the skiff for nine hours, constantly ready to be released and begin fishing (being released, or ‘chang-ing the skiff,’ means pulling a pin that cuts the skiff loose from the big boat).
Today is also what we call a “rodeo opener,” which means that all the fish our pilots could find (seiners use spotter pilots in small airplanes to locate schools of herring in the ocean) are in a very small area. Once the opener begins, all 45 boats that fish in Kodiak will be competing for fish in the same small area.
With only 10 minutes left before the opener, I stand ready with my hands on the controls and listen for my captain’s voice on the radio, which will tell me when to go and what direction to drag the end of the net. With one second left until the fishery opens, my captain yells to release the skiff and I push the throttle wide open, spinning the skiff 180 degrees to pull the net off the back of the boat.
I have to turn hard to the left at first to dodge another boat setting its net, but I immediately twist the skiff back on course and work with my captain to guide the net around a school of herring.
The rough water and a strong southeast wind make my job very difficult. I try to keep the bow pointed into the waves as best I can, while pulling the net into a circle.
The ripples and splashes near the back corner of our net tell me that we are around our target (fishermen commonly call the school of fish they are trying to catch their ‘target’) and I begin to close the net by towing toward the big boat.
I pull the skiff up to the starboard (righthand) side of the seiner and pass the line attached to my end of the net to one of the deckhands. He ties the rope off and I cut my boat loose from the net, leaving it in a perfect circle around the fish.
With some difficult maneuvering, I find my way to the other side of the boat and pick up a towline I will use to keep the seiner in place while it purses up the bottom of the net and hauls the fish onboard.
After the net is back onboard and the fish are pumped into the hold, I tie the skiff back up to the stern of the boat and prepare to make another set. I barely have time to take a few sips from my coffee before we’re fishing again.
I try my best to keep my fingers warm between my thermos of coffee and thoughts of home. I find myself daydreaming about a few weeks from now, when I’ll have a couple days off in port where my parents will buy me dinner and tell me stories about when they were my age and what fishing was like then.