The Entangling Net

Introduction to Chapter Five:

I’ve Seen People Die

July 17, 1982, Bear Island

This is the fifth day of a blow, a northeast at twenty-five to thirty-five steady, gusting to fifty at least. Fishing in this has been nothing but dangerous and exhausting. We take wave after wave over our bow and stern; we are continually showered by floods of spray, getting soaked through the neck of our rain gear down to the skin. The three of us, Ron, Duncan, and I are sometimes just barely able to stand and hold the line. Because these waves are steep and close, it’s hard to get their rhythm down to keep our balance. We watch every one of them, knowing that any single one could swamp and dump us in this mess of an ocean. I wonder continually if these little life jackets we wear would really float us. We have so much gear on and our hip boots would fill water immediately, weighting us like an anchor. Could we really stay afloat? In spite of these conditions, we have continued to pick all the nets. It takes so much longer. We’ve been fishing for thirteen days now. Working in this weather makes each minute seem an agonizing hour. And yet no one even considers quitting.

I don’t remember the first time I was scared on the water. Nor do I remember the first time I knew I was in danger. It’s been too long to keep that one memory separate from all the others. But the elements are always the same: out in an eighteen-foot skiff, in seas shrink those modest dimensions yet further, with waves breaking over the stern perhaps, add fog and reefs that disappear. If it is August and the late summer sun has dimmed, add the dark and nets still to pick and miles to drive with little visibility. Yet somehow it all seems manageable. After all, I am part of what is known as the “mosquito fleet,” setnetters who hum and buzz around in skiffs close to the shore during the milder summers, not the oceanic crabbers on the multimillion-dollar boats with names like Pacific Challenger, The Provider, The Dominant, U.S. Dominator, vessels that venture out in the dead of winter to the Bering Sea and to the westward tip of the Aleutians—the corner of the earth where the winds congregate only to think up more storms. There, danger is imminent. To tell exactly how close the risks looms, and to tell the whole story, I must begin with the statistics. My voice may submerge beneath the weight of the numbers in this chapter. So be it. Without them, we have no scale to measure the lives and stories that follow.

In 1992, forty-four vessels in Alaska sunk, eighty-seven people were rescued from sinking vessels, thirty-five died. It was an average year. In Spring 1988 forty-four died after ice fog moved in and consumed boats and crew. To put those numbers in perspective, the National Institute of Occupation safety and Health reports that the annual death rate for all U.S. occupations is 7 per 100,000 workers. For commercial fishing in Alaska, the rate jumps to 200 per 100,000, making it the most deadly job in the country. For crab fishermen, whose season runs through the winter, the rate climbs to 660 per 100,000, or almost 100 times the national average.

Many fishermen don’t know these numbers. I didn’t know them myself until I began to do some research. But no one who fishes in Alaska needs a set of impersonal statistics, graphs, and computations to remind them of who they have lost over the years: friends, brothers, cousins, sister…For many, risk wears a face. That face is often hidden though, hidden beneath a survival strategy that calls mostly upon the brain. To survive, to fish again and again requires an impassionate calculating, quantifying, and weighing of risk against reward. The risks, often so calmly enumerated, are these. Begin with the ocean itself, an unconquerable and unpredictable force. Next, layer on an Alaskan winter, whose winds freeze the ocean spray to instant ice that layers so thick and fast, a single wire can be nearly a half foot in diameter in a matter of hours. Too much ice and the vessel becomes top-heavy and simply, without warning, rolls over and sinks. For the big boats, the solution is baseball bats and crowbars in the hands of crew members, who smash and chip furiously, knowing their very balance in the ocean is at stake.

Other dangers that figure in: deckwork paced with a fury and a recklessness that is almost indescribable. Holly Berry says, “It’s like driving down the road ninety miles an hour and you have a split second to make a decision.” Gear is flying—hooks can snag you, anchor lines can drag you overboard. Crab pots weighing 750 pounds are muscled around the deck or moved by cranes whose lines sometimes let go. You can be trapped in a pot as it goes overboard. Anything can happen. Even fishing in a skiff, I used to have nightmares about getting caught in the net as it played out over the stern, hissing, at twenty miles per hour.

Reigning over this whole organized mess is the skipper, the demigod who decides the fate of the crew. There is no democracy here. The skipper may be cautious and humane or a modern-day Ahab, possessed and fanatic for the payload, running gear around the clock, depriving the crew of sleep for days on end. Exhaustion and greed drive up the statistics.

Whose idea is this anyway? Who invented this machine? Much of the fuel propelling what seems like fanaticism is the law itself. Fishing regulations carefully establish and monitor the seasons for each species of fish to prevent overfishing. If there is one word to describe each season, it may well be this—shorter. Halibut used to be harvested eight months a year. Then it was reduced to a few twenty-four-hour openings. Because boat payments had to be made, anything short of a hurricane was good enough to fish in. The Pollock season has been reduced from two-and three-month seasons to two-and three-week openings. The result? Higher fatalities and the kinds of inhuman and seemingly impossible marathons—routinely working twenty-four-hour stretches without sleep—that women like Theresa Peterson have mastered.

This dynamic has recently changed for some of the fisheries, however. A new system of fisheries management based on an individual quota system has replaced the short, intense, and high-risk seasons with longer, less competitive seasons. Fishermen can pick and chose their weather. The death statistics seem to be dropping.

Nearly every woman who fishes knows something about the statistics and has stories of her own to tell of fear, danger, exhaustion, death and injury. Many have seen boats sink. Almost all have seen people injured; some have seen them die; some have been injured themselves. All knew the risks firsthand. Yet somehow each of the more than twenty women I interviewed retained a sense of control over her life on the water. You can hear it in the voices of the four women in this chapter. Despite what seems to be extreme vulnerability—prey to the forces of wind and ocean, isolated, under the absolute authority of the skipper, completely without privacy—you will not hear either the worked or the sense of “vulnerable,” “victim,” “helpless.” The weighing and balancing of risk and reward has already been done, and for these women, the rewards have won. High on their list were money, excitement, and adventure. Even Holly Berry, who barely survived a fall between two boats, would go back in a heartbeat if her permanent disabilities from that fall allowed her to.

This chapter, then, is the story beyond the statistics. It is not just who was hurt and who was killed and which boat almost sunk and why. It is how the survivors, specifically the four women here who stubbornly kept and deep on fishing, live and think and work in the face of risk factors far beyond most people’s comprehension.