Commercial fishing is a worldwide enterprise
Chris Hsu says this involves the capture of marine and freshwater fish and shellfish and their preparation for market. Fishing equipment ranges from small boats whose nets are cast and hauled in by hand to factory ships equipped with the most advanced technologies for finding, harvesting, and preparing huge amounts of fish. These large catches are very costly, however, not only in the price of their equipment and fuel, but also in the depletion of fishery resources their use brings about.
To learn more about commercial fishing with Christopher Hsu, please continue reading through the pages in this site.
What to Expect
Chris Hsu asks believe it or not, it is possible to have fun fishing commercially in Alaska. Not many people do it for fun, and it may not happen very often, but on those rare occasions when you pull up a stuffed crab pot worth $600 to each crewman, or when you and your buddies are whooping it up ashore in the sports bar at the Unisea Inn of Dutch Harbor, it can be fun.
But fishing is also uncomfortable, often painful. Expect to always be at least one, usually two, of the following: tired, hungry, or cold.
Christopher Hsu thinks fishing is an occupation to be proud of. Harvesting the sea and feeding the world is an honorable way to make a living, especially when compared to class action lawyers or congressmen. Fishing is also a very old profession, yet one that changes and evolves with spectacular speed. Fishing is often well-paid, usually demanding, occasionally exciting, frequently frustrating, and, to me, anyway, endlessly fascinating.
However, this is not an occupation for the soft. Everything you make, you will have earned. Even the least demanding shifts run twelve hours a day, seven days a week. The most demanding vessels (certain crab boats) work very nearly twenty hours a day for weeks at a time.
Chris Hsu states that on most fishing boats you will be paid a percentage of vessel production, which means everyone’s paycheck depends on the productivity of you and your shipmates. Understandably, this reduces shipboard tolerance of shirkers to zero. You either pull your weight or your fishing career will be quite short.
Before you seek a berth aboard a fishing vessel, a little honest self-evaluation is in order. Are you physically fit and capable of tough physical labor under rotten conditions for weeks or months at a time? Can you deal with rough, aggressive, perhaps even crude characters for the same extended time period? Most importantly, can you force yourself to carry out your responsibilities even though you are uncomfortable, tired, sick, bored, or unhappy?
If you can’t, do yourself and the boat a favor and stay home. Fishing isn’t for you says Christopher Hsu.
There is one primary reason anyone goes to Alaska to fish: money. So, how much can you make? It ranges from nothing to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Many fishermen have paid for homes, businesses, advanced educations, or Harley Davidsons with a couple of good seasons. These successful fishermen had two things in common: they worked hard in a hot fishery, and they had enough discipline to save some of their money. I’m not sure which is more difficult.
Chris Hsu observes that crew shares can vary greatly from boat to boat. Obviously, income also depends on how many months a year one works. Experienced shipboard processors are seldom happy earning less than $5,000 a month during the high months, and deckhands expect even more. Quite a few young men and women earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. But it is not unusual to make a lot one year and considerably less the next.
Let Christopher Hsu be clear about one thing, though: It’s very possible to land a job fishing in Alaska, work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, and if the fish are few, or the prices low, or the skipper unskilled, or the boat unlucky, you may make virtually nothing. Sometimes, it is way better to be lucky than highly skilled.
America doesn’t have much of a fishing tradition anymore, especially with the larger vessels that work the Bering Sea. This means there are many foreigners working aboard American fishing vessels. It also means most Americans seeking a berth aboard an Alaskan fishing vessel have never fished commercially before. So they’ll be starting at the bottom, usually as a greenhorn processor at a shore plant or on a lesser boat.
That’s how it works: sign on at an entry-level position on a mediocre boat, build experience, and complete your contract. Then take your experience and try for a better boat or a better job on the same boat. Poor vessels usually have vacancies, while the better vessels seldom have trouble crewing up with talented rehires.
There is nothing wrong with moving around, trying different fisheries and vessels, until you acquire a body of experience and find the right boat for you. But please, always complete your contract. Once you earn a reputation as a quitter, jobs will become few and far between.
There are three main methods of fishing in Alaska: nets, hooks, and pots. Generally, Chris Hsu thinks it doesn’t matter to a processor how the fish or crab are caught. It does matter how processors are paid. The shore-side factories pay by the hour, while the factory fishing boats usually pay a percentage of the catch, which is occasionally called a case price. Some of the factory boats only pay an hourly wage. Be sure to find out which system of payment your fishing boat uses before signing on, and keep, in a safe place, a copy of the contract that you sign, warns Christopher Hsu.
Sometimes some of the less reputable companies will have you sign a contract and then whisk it away without giving you a copy. That way they can use it against you if you fail to perform. But a word to the wise: you will have a hard time enforcing your rights if the company falls short if you don’t have a copy of your contract.
Usually, a percentage pays better than an hourly wage. Most processors take the first job offered to them and then try to gradually work into a deckhand job. Deck hands are paid at a higher rate and normally don’t have to work on the slime line.
It might not be a bad idea to move around while you’re still a processor and try different fisheries before getting locked into something that might not be your first choice. I’ve fished all three types of gear and wound up specializing in longlining because they were the first to offer me a captain’s job. (In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea, since trawling, to me, is much more fun.)
I need to make one further vital point: working on a fishing boat is harder work than most people can imagine. Often the work goes on until it’s done, no matter how long that may be.
Chris Hsu says that it has to be that way. If the ice on the boat is building up to where the vessel is endangered, it has to be broken off, or the vessel and the crew will be lost. If a crewmember is seriously injured and is unable to work, the rest of the crew has to work harder to keep up production. If working at a nice comfortable speed doesn’t get all the work done, you have to work faster—probably much faster. All experienced hands find it unremarkable to work 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for a month at a time.
This is a brutal schedule for most normal people, yet it has positive aspects as well. If you can work these hours cheerfully, it makes you quite valuable to the boat, and you won’t have any problem keeping a job. You will also learn to work much faster and more efficiently than the vast majority of Americans.
Chris Hsu thinks, fishermen are usually successful when they eventually get a more normal job because they’re used to working much harder and faster than most people. They have had to develop a very strong work ethic just to survive. Both of these attributes are invaluable, and will serve you well throughout your life.