How to be a Commercial Salmon Fishing Deckhand in Bristol Bay, Alaska

In the "Alaska Trades" series we explore jobs in Alaska through the eyes of those who actually do them. Work in Alaska is often dirty and dangerous, but can be lucrative, adventurous, and fulfilling for the right person. We take you through what you need to know - the lifestyle, the schedule, the pay, the education requirements, and how to get your first job in one of these unique Alaskan careers.


Maybe you've heard about Bristol Bay, home to Alaska's largest and most lucrative salmon run where fortunes have been made and lost. Thousands of fishermen each summer try their hand at catching as many Sockeye as they can in a short window of just 5-6 weeks in one of the wildest, most dangerous jobs in America. If you want to join the fleet you must start as a deckhand. Here's what you need to know.


Meet Deenaalee

Instagram @Go_Barefoot

Deenaalee Hodgdon is our insight into the life of a Bristol Bay deckhand today - and is somewhat of a paradox in the commercial fishing industry.


One hand, as an Alaska Native hailing from South Naknek on her father's side, her people have been fishing Bristol Bay for generations. She grew up subsistence fishing for Sockeye there with her mother and father and extended family, and the land and waters of Bristol Bay are in her blood. Fishing the salmon run there is a natural continuation of her culture's long and rich history.


On the other hand, Deenaalee is a Brown University-educated woman. Commercial fisherman is an unlikely career choice for Ivy League students that are far more likely to angle for jobs in management consulting and investment banking. And commercial fishing is still a business that's dominated by men.


Deenaalee was kind enough to sit down with us to give us not only a perspective of being a deckhand on a Bristol Bay drift gillnetter - but also to talk about some of the real challenges women face in the business and to tell us what she thinks it means to be a responsible deckhand in Bristol Bay.


The Bristol Bay Salmon Run

Working Bristol Bay is "unlike anything else you'll do in your life," she says.


Forty-two percent of the world’s harvest of wild salmon and 80 percent of the production of high-value wild salmon species such as sockeye, king, and coho salmon, come from Alaska waters. For wild Sockeye salmon - no area in Alaska is more productive than the major river systems of Bristol Bay.


An average of almost 40 million fish return to spawn in these rivers each year, and commercial fishermen typically have just five or six short weeks to catch what they can. For the people there, and for the wildlife, the season is short, it's fast, and it's unforgiving towards mistakes.


Boats need to be prepared to fish, and fish hard, when it's open. That means everyone needs to be prepared to do his or her job - the skipper, the crew, and the boat - during those windows of time. A failure on any level could turn a promising season into a financial disaster.


The Alaska Department of Fish and Game ("ADFG") is responsible for measuring escapement numbers (a job which we covered here) and setting "openers" which are times when crews can legally fish.


To understand why it's so important that ADFG sets openers you have to understand the lifecycle of salmon. They spawn in a freshwater river. After an incubation period the salmon exit the river into the ocean where they feed and grow to maturity. When they reach sexual maturity those fish return to the very place in which they were born in order to spawn and die. They only have one chance at spawning since the freshwater, which gave them life after birth, in maturity causes their bodies to decompose while swimming up the rivers.



If fishermen were to catch 100% of the salmon and none were allowed to escape upriver, or if their passage was somehow blocked like is so common in the Lower 48, then that population of fish would be completely wiped out. So the state of Alaska invests in good population research and strict enforcement to ensure they get the return numbers they want and let the commercial fishermen go after the rest.


The Boats and Crews


There are several different types of fishing operations in Bristol Bay. There are sport fishermen who are catching fish with rod and reel, subsistence and commercial fishermen using set nets, and there are commercial drift gillnetter boats, which we will focus on in this article.



The size limit for a boat in Bristol Bay is just 32'. In order for skippers to cram a gillnet and reel, advanced refrigeration systems, several deckhands, big fish holds, and powerful engines into that space these boats tend to be wide and tall to make up for the relatively short length. Thus, the modern builds are distinctive in their bulky and towering profiles.


Deenaalee has always fished with a crew that contains one skipper and three deckhands, but she's seen boats work with just two deckhands and boats that have more than three. Each boat is different and crew size depends on available sleeping space, how the skipper runs his or her operation, and how the deckhands are willing to divide up the crew share.


Deenaalee tells me most skippers work in some sort of partnership with a group captains, known as a "radio group." While they're technically in competition with one another, it's important to have allies out on the fishing grounds who can help the each other scout for fish, who can share tips and advice, and who can help you in a pinch with a part or a tow if you breakdown.


Day-to-day

Deenaalee checking the net

Let me caveat this section by saying this is just Deenaalee's experience. Each boat works differently and its skipper has different expectations of the crew. No two boats operate exactly the same way.


Let's say there's a 12 hour opener set by Alaska Department of Fish and Game that starts in the morning. The skipper would be up early driving around for about an hour before the start of the opener looking for "jumpers." Salmon are known to jump out of the water when they're running and seeing a lot of "jumpers" is a good sign that you're on some serious fish.


The crew might get up and going with the captain or might try to maximize sleep and wake up just thirty minutes or so before the opener when all hands are required on deck. Deenaalee would use that time to slide into her rain gear and brew up a pot of coffee to help feed the serious caffeine addiction most fishermen have.


Speed is the name of the game. If you're on a lot of fish you likely won't be alone. You might be surrounded by ten other boats all trying to capture the same group of fish. The second the clock strikes the time of the start, a deckhand tosses that buoy overboard and the captain starts unspooling the net.

It's hard to articulate what "setting the net" looks like exactly so I found a cool Youtube video that shows what that looks like.



In a typical operation that has modern hydraulics and three deckhands, one deckhand might be responsible for running the hydros and the other two are picking fish while the skipper is driving. If the deckhand running the hydros is really fast and effective, or the other pickers are particularly slow, that person will help with picking as well.


Being a good picker is at the core of a drift gillnetter deckhand's duties. You have to pick fast and with finesse or, as Deenaalee says, "pick clean." If you're a bad picker trying to go fast you're cutting or tearing fish out of the net, popping meshes, and bruising the meat. Damaged fish could affect your bottom line and a damaged net has to be repaired by the crew, so every time you cut a fish out or pop a mesh you're adding more work for the crew to do later. If your crew is good you won't have to repair the net too often.

Throughout the day deckhands will prepare food for the crew, clean the deck, and eat as they can. There might be short breaks if you leave a set open for a while or have to go deliver to a tender when your fish hold is full. But in short when fishing is open catching and delivering salmon comes first, everything else comes second.


Close Quarters

Deenaalee taking a moment alone

Living on a 32' boat with three other people is no easy task. Deenaalee says that most fishermen and young people that choose this lifestyle know how to live in community with one another. Besides fishing each summer she, for example, has lived in close to others in Native villages, in her college dorm, and in an intentional living community.

The trick is managing your relationships with the rest of the crew with the added stress of the job. If there's one word I would use to to describe the Bristol Bay salmon season it's "intense." People are operating for weeks on lack of sleep under the pressure of a physically demanding, dangerous job that requires long hours of work.


The best thing a crew can have is chemistry, Deenaalee says. That means you need to be able to articulate your feelings to your crew and communicate. If someone makes you mad you have to take the time to work it out with your crew, because the skipper doesn't have the time or energy to referee problems between the deckhands. For a job that seems to be all about hard work, being a good deckhand also requires a high level of emotional maturity and communication skills.


Danger, Danger


Working on net skills

Commercial fishing is a notoriously dangerous job, and the Bristol Bay fishery in particular has a fatality rate that's 23 times the national average.


With that in mind, Deenaalee tells me there are a number of ways she stays as safe as possible on the water.


The first thing is to have body awareness, and to be fast and agile and adaptable. That means maintaining a certain level of fitness before you go into the season. She relies on her outdoor training as a raft guide and a mountain climber to react to unexpected situations where help isn't immediately available. Her experiences in the outdoor industry and fishing have taught her to think quick on her feet.


She also wants to have a fresh working knowledge of the vessel she's on. Each season she makes sure she knows where the fire extinguishers are, how to deploy the life raft, where the drysuits are, and how to put them on.

Finally, she says, she maintains her rope skills and knowledge about emergency situations - for example she knows not to throw water on a grease fire.


While the industry has plenty of safety regulations - which have gotten much more stringent in the past few decades - each boat is its own island and each skipper maintains his or her own safety practices. As a crew member it's your responsibility, Deenaalee says, to maintain this knowledge on your own even if the captain or more experienced crew won't sit you down or teach you. You can do your own research and make it a point to ask the skipper about different safety features on the boat.


A good idea is to make safety practices as fun as possible. One example is to get together with the crew and race to put your drysuits on and jump in the water together.


Pay


Mo' fish = mo' money

Most people, Deenaalee says, get involved in commercial salmon fishing for the money because it has the opportunity to be so lucrative for young people in the short summer break they are not in school.


It's important to note, she says, that she is not involved in fishing solely for the money. As someone who grew up in Bristol Bay she's gotten involved with the fishery as one of the few economic opportunities available locally and uses the job to have a deeper relationship with the ocean and natural world there. That said, she says her crew share has helped her pay for her education and afforded her the opportunity to travel around the world, and it's an important aspect to any job.


Long story short, deckhands don't make a salary or hourly wage, they get paid "crew share." Crew share is a percentage of what the boat makes, often minus the grocery and fuel bill for the season. Thus the pay depends on three factors: 1) what your "crew share percentage" is 2) how many fish your boat catches and 3) the market price for fish that year.


Crew share percentage varies pretty dramatically depending on the operation and your experience as a deckhand. Most "greenhorns" AKA newbies to the industry will earn 6-8%, she guesses, although 5% isn't unheard of. She was paid 6% crew share her first year but looking back thinks her experience picking fish in her family's set net operations probably made her more valuable than the low end of that scale. The top deckhands - sometimes called the "deck boss" on a boat - can earn 12-15% crew share. That will only come, Deenaalee says, after at least 3-5 seasons under your belt and consistently exceptional performance.


Different skills will make you more valuable as a deckhand - skills like mechanics, being capable with tools, fitting, aluminum welding, boat experience, gillnetting experience, and the ability to cook.


The second thing that impacts crew share is how much your boat catches. If, for example, your boat breaks down for half the season and you catch well below the average - you're going to get paid below average. If everything is humming along and you're putting big poundage in the fish hold your pay is going to go up. It's as simple as that.


Finally, the market price affects crew share. If you have a good market year and restaurants all over the US are buying up Sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay then the markets will be paying a good price per pound to the boats. 2019 was a record year at $1.35 per lb for Bristol Bay Sockeye.


So what can a deckhand make in a season? It's difficult to truly know because people are naturally secretive about how much their boat is catching and what their crew share percentage is. There is no real "average" - the best boats will catch multiple times what an average or below-average boat will catch. That said, Deenaalee thinks if you're making greenhorn share (AKA first year, 6-8%) on a small boat that doesn't fish very hard you might make $10k or even less in the season - about what she did in her first season.


At the same time she's heard of top crewmembers on top boats making $50-$60k in that same season. There are probably deckhands out there that made even more. But before you get too excited know it's unlikely for anyone who is new to the industry to be sniffing those kinds of numbers. That's reflecting a substantial crew share on a top-performing boat - positions on which are not typically available to greenhorns.


Women in Fishing



While women like the Salmon Sisters, Claire Neaton and Emma Laukitis, have risen to prominence in the fishing industry and gained more respect, there are still challenges to being a woman in the industry. Deenaalee feels some "old-timers" tend not to respect the opinions or input of young women.

There is also the real risk of sexual harassment or assault when 15,000 people, mostly men, descend on an area for months at a time. She witnessed two sexual assaults last summer alone. While many people don't want to talk about that side of the fishing industry it's important to acknowledge it does happen. Women, she says, have to have some grit and be prepared to deal with men who take a certain attitude with them.


Fishing and the Indigenous People of Bristol Bay

Deenaalee's chin tattoos are traditional Alaska Native markings

Besides being a woman in fishing Deenaalee can be conflicted about the fishery from her culture's perspective. This industry has flourished in her people's lands, and as fishing technology and Sockeye prices have improve over the years, and as the rivers have seen historic runs recently, being a deckhand has provided her with opportunities to pay for school, see the world, and enjoy the trappings of modernity.

At the same time it's also divided up the spoils of the land to 15,000 mostly-foreigners (from outside of Bristol Bay, the state of Alaska, and even the country) who sometimes come into conflict with the interests of local people.


Deenaalee has lifelong history with the area. She grew up as an Alaska Native girl in a low income household with a single mother. Her family is from South Naknek on her dad's side, but when her parents got divorced she moved with her mother to Anchorage and would go back to Bristol Bay every 2-3 years in the summer to stay and fish with family as money allowed.


Deenaalee has many memories when she was younger of subsistence fishing. They would bring salmon up on the beach from the set nets, cut them, process them, and smoke or package them for freezing. She'd known from a young age that Bristol Bay would always be in her life.


Her first taste of commercial fishing in the Bay was working her grandmother's three commercial set net sites in her early teenage years. As she went off to college on the east coast she came back to Alaska to work in the summers.


After being a rafting guide in Denali National Park for a year Deenaalee got on a drift gillnetter as a deckhand in the Bay through a connection with her aunt. That season was rocky - she left four days before the end of the season due to concerns around alcohol and her safety on the boat - but fishing was in her blood and she couldn't quit. The next season she jumped on a different boat within the same radio group and has been working the Bay every season for the last several years.


Unlike her rich family history in the area, most deckhands breeze in for the summer from the rest of state or the west coast of the Lower 48 where the fishing communities have connections to Alaska. Processors will come from all over Eastern Europe, Asia, and even rural areas in the lower 48.


While the fishery generates a lot of economic opportunity, the Indigenous people of Bristol Bay deal with a lot of issues familiar across the state of Alaska. There is no state income tax, so besides the fish tax that is paid on delivery, the incomes from the fishery are not taxed and most are not spent locally as workers leave with their pay after the short season.

Locals also sometimes come into conflict with outsiders about the environmental impact of the fishery and the systemic out-migration of permits from locals to outsiders.


To talk about some of these issues in Bristol Bay and across Alaska, Deenaalee started On the Land Podcast. Her show dives deep into Alaska Native and Indigenous issues which are not often heard. It's centered on speaking to Indigenous folks and providing enough background and education for people unfamiliar with the issues to learn how to be allies to Indigenous people. Besides the topics above she also discusses subjects like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the impact of Covid-19 on local communities on the show.


Episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find more at OntheLandMedia.com or on Instagram @On.The.Land


You can find Deenaalee on Instagram at @go_barefoot


Keep Learning


If you're interested in being a responsible deckhand in Bristol Bay, Deenaalee says, the best place to start is to learn the history of the place. Learn about the Indigenous people and understand the ecosystem and the business and its impact on locals. Fishermen are part of the ecosystem in the Bay and she encourages those who make a profit from the area to consider how they can give back.

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