I had the fortunate opportunity at the end of last summer to head back out to Cross Sound, the third time in a year, to photograph power trolling and a little bit of tendering. Nelson Merrill, a long time commercial fisherman and friend, was headed out to Cross Sound after finishing up an extensive season of longlining around the state and welcomed me aboard his new boat the F/V Imperial. To meet up with Nelson, I hitched a ride out to the Cross Sound fishing grounds with an old friend, fishing buddy, and tenderman Ian Fisk and his crew on the F/V Morgan Anne. Ian and his crew were kind enough to tolerate my presence on board, as I got the full treatment of what its like to work aboard a tender.
I’ve spent plenty of summers delivering fish to tenders, but never had the opportunity to see first hand the day-in and day-out operation. In Bristol Bay, a tender is a nice reprieve from the swaying, heaving, rocking and pitching of our small boats; it’s the closest we get to the sensation of stepping onto dry land. In Bristol Bay the visits are fast and furious to offload the day’s catch, refuel, and purchase any provisions that the boat is lacking. The tenders are a lot like a full service gas station on the water that just so happens to take fish. By contrast in Bristol Bay there is an almost constant lineup of boats to deliver fish at the end of an opener, sometimes a string of 20 boats or more will be trailing behind a tender, so time is in short supply. The more time you spend delivering fish, the less time there is for eating and more importantly sleep. In Southeast, Alaska the pace is a little different, especially when it comes to the trolling fleet.
Trollers for the most part have no loyalty to a specific processor, which is great for them as the processors are pushed to meet their needs and demands. Whoever sets the highest price usually gets the most fish, and these salmon are the best quality you’ll ever find. The salmon cruising around the outer coast of Southeast Alaska are fresh out of the Pacific Ocean; hell they’re plucked right at the edge of the North American continent as it spills into the vast depths of the Pacific. The amount of pride each troller has for his profession and his catch is highlighted by the care that goes into cleaning each fish and belly icing it so that it will stay as fresh as possible for the consumer.
The tenders servicing the troll fleet around Cross Sound are constantly picking up anchor to position themselves to wherever the fleet is catching fish. This way the fishermen don’t have to run hours to deliver fish, only to have to turn around and run to an anchorage close to the fishing grounds, and in so doing losing valuable time for sleep. Not every troll fishery or tender works this way, but Ian and his crew on the F/V Morgan took every effort to stay in communication with the fishermen and accommodate their needs. An impressive effort to say the least, I only wish it was the norm rather than an exception, as anything that makes the life of a fisherman easier is a welcome change to a profession fraught with discomfort and struggle to make a living. This isn’t to say that the tenders are there to wait hand-and-foot on the fishermen, but there is certainly a fair amount of down time on some days.
It’s a lot of hurry up and wait as the tenders scurry to position themselves ahead of the fleet and standby at the ready for the boats to deliver. This often means chunks of days are spent reading, watching movies, and napping only to have to work 14 hours straight to unload all the fishing boats, refuel, and ice holds. Many times right after unloading, Ian and his crew spent another couple hours rendezvousing with another tender to swap the fresh fish for fresh ice, so that the fish could be taken straight to the processing plant. With all the back breaking work and long hours, they still managed to find time to go for quick deer hunts and sunset kayak paddles on a stretch of the Alaska coastline that few ever get a chance to visit, let alone spend time marveling at the beauty of the remnants of the grand expanse of the North American continent as it transitions and spills into the vast Pacific Ocean.