My Experiences Crab Fishing In Alaska

16 06 2009

I don’t write or talk much about the specifics of my job in Alaska. But I was asked to write down a few stories. I fished on several different commercial boats with many different captains and hundreds of deck hands. I was a deck hand for 6 seasons and a deck boss for 7. I have fished salmon, king and opelio crab, cod and halibut. I have had a fractured knee, two concussions, stitches in my hand, and multiple other injuries. I’ve seen former marines cry and I’ve seen grown men beg to get off the boat. I’ve seen more vomit than any frat house in the country.  Now semi retired, I primarily just go crab fishing.

Here are three quick answers to the most common questions I’m asked about my job: Yes it’s dangerous, “like on that show.” No you can’t come fishing with me just because you think it would be a fun experience. Yes you can make lots of money.

Captain Tyler Smiel was the captain I worked with for the longest. He was one of four brothers. His three brothers all died crab fishing, all in separate incidents.

Adam “the murderer” as I call him, is the most colorful character I have ever met. He is 27 years old with 4 kids that he knows of, and one on the way. He spent 5 years in prison when he was 17 for stabbing a guy to death in an Arizona night club. Adam the murderer is the least intelligent person I have ever met. In the 1970s and 80s, crab fishing was a little bit different. It wasn’t uncommon for deck hands who didn’t work hard enough, or angered the crew to be dragged from their bunk and thrown into a crab pot and locked in while the crew pushed the pot overboard. Obviously that person would never be seen again, and the crew would just claim he fell overboard accidently to his death. Adam confided in me one day that he had actually done this to someone once. And I believe him, because I hired a deckhand that wasn’t working very hard on the Alaska Spirit one year. I was going to fire him when we got into port but Adam requested to me and the captain that we put him in a crab pot and release him to the sea. I had to reason with Adam to convince him not to kill another person.

During crab fishing season, we are lucky to get a few hours of sleep every 40-50 hours of working. So When I was sleeping after a long shift I didn’t want to be fucked with. We had just worked a long 50hr shift and I went into my room to sleep. I noted a sharp pain in my eye and woke up to Adam smiling menacingly and pushing his index finger into my eyelid. I quickly got up and kicked him in the knee as hard as I could. He fell over and hit his head on the bed frame. He never fucked with me again and I have actually enjoyed working with him for the last 4 years. He is a dumbass, but he is a hard working dumbass. He is an unethical murdering asshole but, he’s not a bad co-worker on a fishing boat if you establish dominance.

A few years ago we were fishing halibut and I kept finding smashed batteries on deck. They began to appear more frequently until one morning I saw one of my deckhands, a scraggly guy with many missing teeth, smash a battery with a hammer on deck. He then proceeded to drink the battery acid out of the battery. This is the strangest way of getting high I could ever conceive of. I fired him on the spot. I’m sure he’s dead by now.

The summer of 2004 was a very lucrative salmon season. We had just caught over 50,000 lbs of salmon and we were offloading it to a tendor boat. When you’re offloading fish, the two boats tie up with line. One of our greenhorn deckhands ignorantly had his arm underneath one of the lines that was holding the boats together. The lines are slack when the boats are close together but it can suddenly pull tight if the boats drift apart a bit. The boats inevitably drifted, the line tightened, trapping Brian’s arm underneath. After about 10 seconds the arm popped off with ease. His arm was laying on the deck of the boat and Brian was screaming with pain grasping the top part of what was left of his arm. We put the severed arm on ice and the coast guards came and picked him up. I never found out if he got his arm reattached.

The worst incident occurred during a very bad storm. We were experiencing extremely bad weather. 50 ft tall waves and strong winds. We had just hired Mike, a 33 year old deckhand with two young kids. Strong waves were crashing down around us as we struggled to focus on deck. Then, blindsiding us, water came crashing from above and every one of us was knocked to the ground. When I finally stood up I was 70 ft away from where I was before the wave hit me. Everyone got up except Mike. I ran over to him and carried him into the galley. We took his pulse and realized he had stopped breathing. The wave came crashing down on him, apparently breaking his neck. I’ve heard of waves breaking arms and legs, but I had never heard of someone dying like that. The coast guards had to come in to pick up his body. We were working again shortly afterwards.

The strangest bar in Alaska is a place called the Salty Dog in Homer. When I was there we just had an extremely lucrative fishing expedition so my captain, being very pleased with me, flew me down to Homer via helicopter to drink at the Salty Dog. It was about 2am when I got there. The sun was out of course because it was summer and Alaska experiences about 22 hours of daylight during that time. It is common to hear people mowing their lawns at 2am. I was at the Salty Dog until 5am when they announced they had to close. Bars in Alaska are only required to close for an hour a day. The bar manager got up and locked everyone inside and kept the bar open. Between 5am and 6am, people were doing lines of cocaine off naked women and off the bar, couples were having sex on pool tables and of course more drinking. I stayed and drank with my fellow fishermen and at 6am they opened the doors again, and the place went back to “normal.”

The best parts about my job are when I get to be by myself and enjoy the beauty of Alaska. Driving the boat through Whale’s pass during sunrise when the rest of my crew slept was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. I have seen Humpback whales swimming with their babies. Killer whales circling around our boat. Schools of dolphins traveling next to us for miles. Hundreds of bald eagles eating together. Seals playing, puffins swimming. I’ve played with octopus’ that get caught in our pots and released them, seen crabs with wingspans larger than people. Helped untangle a baby beluga whale from a seine net. I’ve been stung in the hands, arms, legs, face and eye by jellyfish many times. It is all delightful.

Most fisherman are horrible conservationists. I’ve seen literally hundreds of large oil spills, and most boats throw their garbage into the ocean. Every time I see someone in my crew abusing the ocean I yell at them. i’ve fired someone for senselessly killing an octopus. I’ve gotten into a fistfight with Adam because  he was arguing that it didn’t matter if he threw unusable paint into the ocean. There is a ton of conservationist education that should be required learning for all fisherman. Fishing is fairly well regulated in Alaska. As far as overfishing is concerned, of course it is happening. There are over six billion human mouths on earth and they are all hungry. Six billion people tend to overuse the earth’s natural resources. But compared to the other fisheries, Alaska is pretty well regulated. Overfishing is a huge problem in Japan, and on the East coast of this country. You can’t even buy wild Atlantic salmon anymore because they have been so overfished. Atlantic salmon is now synonymous with farm raised salmon, and any that you see at a grocery store or in a restaurant is farm raised in Chile or Northern Europe. It is the same problem we face with fossil fuels and other natural resources. There is no simple solution. But I can ask my fucking crew not to throw paint in the ocean that feeds us.