Blood spurts from the gills of the dying king salmon just landed onto the deck of my salmon troller. Cathryn Klusmeier, my new crew member, leans in closer as the iridescent purple and gold colors of life shimmer to blue and silver. Cathryn watches closely, enchanted by the beauty of the salmon as its life ebbs. For me it is a special little slice of skipper time when the future is revealed for this young woman who has pursued this fishing chance with dogged persistence. As Fred Sears, my fisherman partner, said to Cathryn earlier in the week about catching king salmon, “It’s addictive.” Fred knew what he was talking about. And I knew watching her watch the salmon — Cathryn was hooked.
The idea of mentoring crew emerged in a conversation with my son, Karl, in the winter of 2015. My wife had just retired after 40 years, and I was apprehensive about future crew. Karl suggested: “You love teaching. Take new people and train them.” The timing was right, and in 2015 we launched experiential crewing.
For the next three years, Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, helped connect us with young people interested in fishing. As the program grew, Linda suggested we merge my experiential crew program with her vision of a crew apprentice program. I agreed, and we have formalized the programs into the Alaska Crew Apprentice Program. Our mission: Prepare the next generation of fishermen for success through an inspiring crew apprentice program. Our vision: Create new fishermen and Alaska seafood ambassadors.
Consistent with our mission and vision, we strive to address the difficulties aspiring crew and skippers face. Accessing entry-level fishing is difficult for young people in Alaska, particularly young female fishermen. Inexperienced crew looking for commercial fishing jobs are often required to commit to a full fishing season without knowing whether they will take to the work. On the other hand, skippers run the risk of compromising a season if inexperienced crew don’t pan out.
Finding enthusiastic crew candidates with some experience who love the challenge of fishing and take to the work in Alaska’s spectacular environment is critical to success of our fisheries. Alaska’s fish are the finest quality food on earth. Sustaining the quality of this food from harvest to table requires dedicated, competent crews. Crew like Ellie Schmidt understand this. She said on her first day fishing, “I feel like I am paying the salmon respect for killing them by taking such good care of their bodies.” Or Alex Simon: “Crewing on I Gotta was a dream come true! I had never been commercial fishing before. I had never even killed a fish. The days I was fishing were filled with learning and fun. I learned how fishing works, the lifestyle, about salmon, and a lot more. The joy of those days were a highlight of my whole summer. It was fun to be on the water, to come to love fishing, to laugh with the other deckhand, to spot jumps and then find a school of fish! It was exhilarating, life-affirming and crazy different from anything I had ever done.”
Crew apprenticeships combine work, training, mentorship, and connections for training the next generation of Alaska fishermen and women. Apprentice crew are paid to learn practical fishing and seamanship skills with patient skippers and fellow crew mentors. Skipper training includes workshops on teaching, ergonomics and safety. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association recently secured a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to expand the apprentice program and share what we have learned. We are working to pass the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, which will support training and education for young fishermen.
Four seasons after her first trip, Cathryn has become my primary crew and fellow teacher. The freshness and enthusiasm of new crew have reacquainted me with the splendor of the place where I work and fish I harvest, because like Cathryn, I am hooked.