In the "Alaska Trades" series we explore different jobs in Alaska through the eyes of those who actually do them. Work in Alaska is often blue-collar, highly-skilled, dangerous, lucrative and adventurous. 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.
Meet Captain Camron
The wind was blowing hard in Northern Enterprises boatyard when Captain Camron Hagen took a break from his long list of boat projects to talk to me on Instagram Live about a life and career aboard a Bristol Bay salmon tender boat.
May is the month that will make most people question the sanity of those working in commercial salmon fishing. Kings and Sockeye start running all over the state and captains are working day and night to get their boats in working condition. A boat basically requires all the maintenance of a large house and a large car combined, but is ten times as expensive with the added bonus of your life depending on the quality of your work.
On the F/V Kachemak Provider, Camron's 70 foot steel boat, he's attempted a litany of ambitious projects over the winter and when we spoke he was attempting to do stainless work, install wire chases, drop the RSW systems, and plumb and wire it all together - with the goal of dropping it in the water by May 25th.
How he got here
From the moment he stepped on a boat at age 18, Camron, now in his early 30s, knew he wanted to dedicate his life to commercial fishing. Growing up in Homer, he was surrounded by commercial fisherman. While he knew in high school, he wanted to try fishing, but his dad would not let him go out until he got connected with the right captain. A good captain would mean a summer of serious learning, discovery, hard work, and good pay, but a bad captain meant constant abuse, dangerous situations, poor pay, and a son who never wanted to fish again.
Camron found that good captain at 18 and after being a deckhand for several years he bought a small seiner called the F/V Firefly in the mid-2010s to fish lower Cook Inlet, just a stone's throw away from Homer.
He knew if he owned a tender he could have an advantage delivering from his own fish. However, as a first-generation fisherman, he did not have the money or bank lending relationships to run two boats at once. So, he sold the F/V Firefly and the next day bought the F/V Kachemak Provider, a 70' steel tender boat, with intention of acquiring another seiner to fish Cook Inlet again or Prince William Sound with his brother.
If you want to hear more of Camron and Colin's story go check out our podcast with them from back in December 2019 or stream it right here.
What is a "tender?"
To explain the next part of the story, and to tell you how you can get into the industry, it's important to explain what a tender does.
Depending on which corner of the maritime industry is talking, "tender" can mean different things. Broadly, a tender is a boat that is used to service or support other boats or ships, generally by transporting people or supplies.
If you were yachting in the Mediterranean a tender would look like small boat or zodiac that's used to bring people and supplies to and from shore and take people to areas inaccessible by the larger vessel.
In salmon fishing, a "tender" is a boat bigger than the fishing boats which has the capacity to carry a large quantity of fish from the fisherman to the plants where people process the fish. Tender boats often carry extra fuel, water, and ice to give back to the fishing boats as they use up their supplies.
The pace of work depends on the boat and the fishery. Camron's boat has a particularly tough job for a tender. Based on his speed, draft, and how much fish he can pack (110K lb of sockeye or 125K lb of pinks), the F/V Kachemak Provider is the perfect vessel for high-performing set net areas in Bristol Bay.
While big Bristol Bay driftnetters can hold 30K lb, set net skiffs can only hold a few thousand pounds at most. Therefore, his team must take almost constant small deliveries until they are full, speed over to the processor in Naknek, and return immediately to do it again. In the end, his tender takes far more deliveries compared to other tenders than can wait for hours for big deliveries from the driftnet fleet and fill up quickly.
How a tender makes money
Camron, as the owner of the F/V Kachemak Provider, is an independent contractor for Trident Seafoods. Trident is one of, if not the largest, processor in Bristol Bay. Given the size of the salmon fishery, there are at least 15 different processors in the Bay ranging from small fisherman-owned operations to arms of huge international seafood companies like Trident and everything in between.
Not everyone with a big boat can get a contract. The processors are looking to contract men and women with experience who have the equipment to quickly and efficiently bring large volumes of salmon to the processors.
Mark Caylor, fleet manager at E&E Foods and creator of the Galley Stories Podcast says his company thinks it's a 50/50 split between the captain and the boat. Both are equally important in deciding whether to hire a specific tender for a season. The captain needs to be competent, professional, and experienced and the boat needs to have modern, functional equipment, a large fish hold, speed, and a shallow draft.
Camron says being professional on the fishing grounds is the most important part of developing a good reputation. He makes it a point to treat everyone with respect and to minimize or eliminate the consumption of alcohol on his vessel, especially during busy periods.
Camron's contract is for 40 days and they are busy from start to finish. 60 days is a middle-of-the-road contract length in Bristol Bay, but since he is relatively new his contract is shorter until he gains more tenure in the fishery. Back in the day, he says, 90-day contracts were not uncommon in Bristol Bay, but, as the markets have invested more heavily in the peak of the sockeye run, contracts have gotten shorter.
The smallest tender boats might get paid based on the amount of pounds they carry from the fishermen to the processing plants, but most, including the F/V Kachemak Provider, make a straight day rate. This gets divided up between the boat owner, captain (not always the same as the owner, I'll talk about that in the next section), engineer and deckhands.
Positions and Pay
There are typically four distinct possible distinct positions on this type of tender. With the exception of the captain everyone gets paid a certain day rate for the duration of the contract:
Owner. The owner owns the boat obviously. The owner negotiates the contract with the processing company, collects the payment, and hires the crew. The owner gets to keep everything after paying insurance, maintenance, operating, and crew costs. They may not even be on the boat during the length of the contract and fully hire out a crew.
Captain. The captain can be an owner-operator or a gun-for hire. Boat owners might own a small fleet of tenders or own fishing vessels and tenders, but can only captain one of them. The captain has the majority of responsibility on the vessel. On top of ensuring the boat and its equipment are in good working order his or her focus is on communicating with fishermen and processing companies, transporting, oil rigs, etc.
According to Camron, captains need to earn a baseline of $350 or $375 a day minimum in order to be properly compensated, but he's seen experienced captains make up to $600 a day.
Engineer. Just like the captain may be the owner of the vessel, the captain may also be the engineer, but sometimes they're separate positions. The engineer has a little less responsibility than the captain, but it's still a very important job. Besides helping conduct deliveries and other day-to-day operations on the tender the engineer is tasked with maintaining and fixing major systems - such as power (engines), electric, RSW, and water.
An engineer's pay starts at the level of an experienced deckhand around $200-$250 per day and goes up to almost the level of a captain at $400-$500 a day. Camron's even seen a very skilled engineer make upwards of $600 a day.
Deckhand. On the F/V Kachemak Provider Camron is the captain, the owner, and the engineer. So he runs the boat with three deckhands, two of which help him with engineer-like duties. Deckhands are responsible for all the normal functions of the boat like taking deliveries, filling fuel/water, tying up, driving the boat when necessary, and cooking/cleaning. They do anything and everything that is asked of them, no matter how dirty or unpleasant the job is.
Deckhand pay can start as low as $150 a day, Camron says, with experienced deckhands making upwards of $250 a day. He starts his hands at $200 a day, which seems to be the most common pay level in that position.
Working your way up to Captain
You don't technically need certain licenses to buy and run a fishing boat or a tender, but you are likely to spend an egregious amount on insurance if you don't have both a 100-ton license and a lot of experience. Not to mention without proper experience you'd be putting your life and the life of the crew in danger.
If he were to hire a captain Camron would look for confidence in the face of adversity, a cool head, and extensive experience in the fishing industry. He doesn't want people who freeze in intense situations, which are all-but-inevitable when fishing Alaskan waters, or who scream at their crew and shift the blame when things go wrong.
A Family Affair
One special note about the F/V Kachemak Provider is Camron and his wife have turned it into a family affair. Besides the three deckhands he also brings his wife and four children on the boat each summer.
He says the experience helps his children to build character and he believes there is a certain richness in commercial fishing families that is hard to explain. The kids, he says, seem to be more capable as adults with a deeper appreciation of the natural world because of the hard and wild experiences they have as children onboard.
He also doesn't want to leave his family each year to go to the fishing grounds. Unlike most fishermen, the summer is when he gets to spend the most time with his family during the year as they all work, eat, and live together on the boat. Life is short and this is a way he can soak it up with his family.
How to get on a tender as a deckhand
Getting into this line of work is all about making connections. There are very few ways to apply for a job on one of these boats online.
The most effective way to get a job is to show up in a port town in Alaska and persistently walk the docks starting at least several weeks ahead of the season. The people Camron respects the most are those who really go for it - who move here and live in a tent or their car and walk the docks to find a job. Those people, if they are persistent and capable, will soon find a need they can fill in the fishing industry.
Even if you don't have the means or the courage to move on a whim there is no excuse not to move forward with contacting people online.
First you need to learn about the fisheries and when the season runs. You can't be calling people for jobs a week before they're about to get on the water - no one is likely to give you the time of day. If you can get ahead of the start by a few months you're going to have a better chance of talking to a captain with open crew spots.
Then, he says, you should spend the time doing research on social media for who works in the industry. You will be able to find countless people who work in the Alaskan seafood industry through platforms like Facebook and Instagram. And if you take the time to message them - although you will likely face a lot of rejection or people ignoring you - you will eventually find a sympathetic ear through perseverance.
Camron has had someone reach out to him from out of the state looking to get into the industry, and he has connected that person with a captain looking for crew. If he helps someone like that he expects them to act quickly, within hours or days, and call that person. If someone waits weeks or a month it shows him they didn't want the job that badly.
Go follow Captain Camron on Instagram @Camron_Hagen