A Day in the Life of a Commercial Fisherman

I originally answered a question on Quora in 2012 titled, “What does a commercial fisherman do in a typical work day?” I thought it would be worthwhile to rewrite the answer since I regularly get asked about my experience fishing on a salmon tender as a teenager and I think this is an accurate representation of a typical work day.

I come from a commercial fishing family. My father has been a fisherman for over 30 years and fishes for crab, black cod and halibut along the west coast and Alaska. When I was growing up, in the summer, my sister and I used to live and work on the boat with my dad in Alaska while he was salmon tendering, so I can speak to what a typical day as a salmon tender consists of.

Summary:

A salmon tender is a mid-sized boat (in my case 56 feet) that is contracted out by a cannery to navigate around the ocean or a bay and collect fish, typically from set-netters and seiners. The primary responsibility of a tender is to pick up all salmon along a specified route from a specified group of fishermen with a relationship to the cannery you are representing, do an official weigh-in of the fish being picked up, and write up a ticket (fish ticket) to the fishermen declaring how much fish was delivered, organized by species. The salmon fishermen use these tickets to get paid by the cannery.

The following was a typical work day, from my perspective, as a salmon tender, not from the perspective of a set-netter (which you could easily argue is a more physically grueling job)

Steps (this was my experience):

  1. Wake up around 6am and start navigating towards the first stop on your route. As a back-deck crew member, this is a time to do any prep work on the boat that needs to be done before you start taking on fish. This could be pressure washing the deck, organizing the deck or simply making coffee.
  2. Tie the smaller boats that have the fish up to the tender (larger boat) so you can begin the process of unloading fish.
  3. One of two scenarios will take place: 1) The fishermen will have their salmon presorted into bags (500-1000 lbs each), in which case we would simply direct a hydraulic crane attached to a scale to their boat and pick up the bags to weigh. Or, 2) The fishermen would not have their salmon presorted and we would attach a reusable bag to the scale that they would load on the spot. In this scenario, we would zero out the scale to accommodate for this bag, which is typically heavier than the fishermen’s bags because the reusable bag is constructed with an aluminum frame.
  4. After the salmon is loaded onto the hydraulic crane, the bags are brought onto the tender boat to be weighed. The weight declared by the scale, as read by the tender is the weight added to the “fish ticket” — which is the document ultimately used to have the cannery pay the fishermen.
  5. Once the salmon is weighed, a deckhand (in my case, me), unhooks the bag from the hydraulics and drops the fish into a refrigerated fish hold. These fish holds vary in capacity. In our case we could carry up to 50-60k lbs of salmon. Fish holds are typically cooled with a refrigeration system or ice. Our system was refrigerated.
  6. Repeat steps 2 – 5 until all of the salmon are removed from the salmon fishermen’s boat.
  7. Give the fishermen their fish ticket and move on to the next stop on your route.

In my case we ran through each route twice per day. Each route took about 5 hours to complete. That was including both labor and travel time to each destination.

Upon completion of the second route, our boat was usually close to full capacity for the amount of salmon we could store. In this case, it meant we had to do one of two things:

  1. Communicate to a bigger tender boat (100+ feet / 400k lb capacity) that we needed to unload our fish, so we could continue our normal schedule in the morning.
  2. Drive to the nearest cannery (which was an 8 hour drive by boat) to unload our salmon, so we could continue working.

In most cases we would drive to the nearest large tender to unload our fish. This is the part of the job that made the job unpleasant. We would get to the large tender boat no earlier than 10pm. In some cases midnight or later. So, there was an opportunity for a nap while traveling and waiting to meet up with the large tender boat. Once we were able to tie our boat up next to the large tender, the large tender would direct a very large vacuum system into our fish hold to begin the offloading process. The first step in the process to offload the salmon via vacuum took about one hour. This would offload about 35 – 40k lbs of salmon. By this time the water in the fish hold was about waste high and the fish were very thick. For the remaining 10 – 15k lbs of salmon, I would have to climb down into the fish hold and shovel fish into the vacuum. This process took about one more hour and was very cold because you are essentially in a refrigerated room, standing in refrigerated water. After this process was complete, we would drop an anchor in the nearest weather-protected area and sleep until about 6am, before we did it all over again.

For the most part, the job was 7 days a week for long periods of time, unless there was a closure on the fishery, which could happen for various reasons. As long as the season was open, it was an opportunity to make money, so there was no concept of a weekend, days off or sick days.

I hope this gives some perspective on salmon tendering. Tendering is widely considered to be one of the easiest jobs in commercial fishing because there is a consistency to the schedule and the weather conditions are generally better than those when you are working an actual fishery. It should be noted that weather played a huge role in the progress of a day. When the weather in Alaskan waters gets out of control, it makes the job (even tendering) incredibly dangerous at times and can add hours onto an already long day.

Then you wake up and do it all over again :)

 

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