Gone fishing: Rugged job can pay

Fishermen call them the "Shumagin Flats" — a vast, underwater plain between Alaska's Kodiak and Shumagin islands.

Sometimes, in the old days, commercial fishermen fished this featureless shelf in the Gulf of Alaska for weeks not knowing exactly where they were. To get their bearings, they'd make a run to the mainland, determine their position and plot a course back to port.

Being lost didn't worry fishermen so much then. Instead, they minded hooks, gaffs, knives and weather while going after halibut and black cod, also known as sablefish.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't predict too bright a future for the nation's 53,000 commercial fishermen. Yet some, notably longliners who fish for halibut and black cod, have redefined their occupation, making it, their catch and their lifestyle more sustainable after years of derby-style fishing and Dutch Harbor benders.

While longliners now have more amenities, it isn't — and never will be — an easy living.

Since 1989, 32 lives and 53 halibut and black-cod boats have been lost in Alaskan waters.

Longlining remains an extremely manual form of fishing. Every day, thousands of hooks are baited along about 8 miles of line. The gurdy, or main winch, reels in the line, which might have snagged 50,000 pounds of halibut in a single day.

"Last year was probably the best year our industry ever had," said Bob Alverson, manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association in Seattle. Halibut sold for an average of $3 a pound. Prices were equally good for black cod. Both fisheries were helped by the recovering Japanese economy and a growing appetite for fresh halibut in North America.

Good prices for the fish make longlining a sought-after fishing gig because crew earnings are based on the catch and the price of fish.

Halibut skippers can attract high-caliber crews. Novice fishermen usually start out on processors or bigger boats before moving to smaller crews. Landing a job takes a fishing trip of its own, beating the docks at Seattle's Fishermen's Terminal or Dutch Harbor, Alaska, asking around for any crews short a man or two.

Among the boats at Docks 5 and 6 at Fishermen's Terminal readying for fishing season is the F/V Quest. Its six-man crew has fished together for 15 years. The newest member is the son of one of the original crew members who fished the Quest's first season.

Dean Adams, Quest skipper and owner, makes a point of working on deck alongside his crew.

"Every crew that I've been on has been a team," said Adams, 47. Getting along with shipmates is crucial for a crew that will live within feet of each other for weeks at a time, sharing a single cabin. There usually isn't room for separate crew quarters for women, and few ever work on longlining crews unless they are from fishing families.

"If you are a problem and you can't get along with people, you are probably not going to stay with the crews," said Alverson.

Homecomings and camaraderie first drew Adams to fishing. As a young boy, he went down to the docks to watch fishing boats arrive home.

"I got to see the fun part — the boats come into Seattle. I'd watch this festive occasion where families were reunited," he said. When he started in the fishing business, he said he felt like he belonged. His brother, Jon, works with him and as the relief skipper.

At 15, Adams started working summers aboard his uncles' halibut boats. When he was 23, he made a down payment on his own boat, with the backing of one of his uncles.

With the exception of one year, halibut prices since then have risen steadily. Higher prices attracted more fishermen, and a get-rich-quick mentality emerged. Where 20 years earlier the season had lasted about four months, the halibut fleet became a mob and crews hauled in the annual allotted harvest in just a few days.

Many fishermen took risks, some losing their boats and even their lives.

"It became so intense that people were getting killed, and the entire livelihood was becoming very crazy," Adams said.

Adams explored his onshore options. He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's at the University of Washington School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences. If fishing stayed as it was, he thought he might find a land-based job in the industry. But in 1995, the National Marine Fisheries Service went to an individual quota system for halibut and black cod. The quotas granted fishermen a set portion of the annual catch. The season is now roughly eight months long, opening at the end of February.

Adams is among 3,475 quota shareholders who bring in the halibut catch, this year set at 76.5 million pounds. Quota shares for the black-cod catch are held by 886 fishermen, most of whom are halibut shareholders as well.

As long as the fishery stays healthy and farm-raised halibut don't take away market share, it's good money.

The U.S. Coast Guard implemented new safety measures for fishing vessels in 1991, but the smaller boats, including halibut schooners, aren't inspected. Safe fishing depends in part on a boat's condition, gear and how well it's run. Global Positioning System equipment lets fishermen know exactly where they are. Boats stay in better touch with long-distance radios and satellite telephones.

"If I need him, I can usually get him within the hour," said Adams' wife, Lori, a retired pilot for Alaska Airlines.

She remembers the years when she and her husband were out of contact for as long as two months at a time. Both struggled with demanding schedules and the long-distance aspect of their relationship. "When we were younger, it was hard," she said.

Lori understands what her husband faces at sea.

"If I let myself worry, I would drive myself nuts," she said. "I am well aware of the risks, but I also don't dwell on them. I have confidence in both the boat and Dean's ability."

Fishing is more family-friendly now, and there is less partying and drinking among fishermen after extended trips.

Like many, the Quest is a dry boat. It's also nonsmoking. Aboard are snow skis and mountain bikes for healthy shore excursions.

Every summer after fishing's done, the Adamses and their family and friends set out aboard the Quest for a few weeks of adventure in the Gulf and San Juan islands. The only lines getting much use are the water-ski and inner-tube tow ropes.

They bring a few rods for salmon fishing from a skiff, but Adams isn't very good at it.

"I really don't enjoy sitting there with a rod, fishing for sport," he said. "I'm a very frustrated salmon fisherman."

Sarah Anne Wright: 206-464-2752 or swright@seattletimes.com

The lure of fishing

Pay: Crew members on halibut and sablefish boats averaged about $80,000 last year, according to the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association.

Working conditions: Formidable, with Alaskan seas, small boats, small crews, miles of line and thousands of hooks.

Benefits: Extended off-season, exciting environment, close-knit fishing community, good eats in the galley.

Education: On-the-job training is mandatory, but valuable areas of study include diesel-engine repair, firefighting and thermal properties.

More information: National Marine Fisheries Service, www.nmfs.noaa.gov; Pacific Fishing magazine, www.pfmag.com; Deep Sea Fishermen's Union of the Pacific, www.dsfu.org; International Pacific Halibut Commission, www.iphc.washington.edu/halcom