A local tour guide has launched her own walking tour company where she leverages her past experiences as a biologist, museum guide and fisherman to connect people with Kodiak’s commercial fishing industry.
Ani Thomas, who started the Kodiak Connections-Kodiak Walking Tours, has lost a number of her friends, neighbors and acquaintances to the ocean, she said as she pointed to some of their names engraved on plaques on the Kodiak Fishermen’s Memorial — the last stop on her Kodiak Commercial Fisherman Tour.
“Everything (in Kodiak) is centered around fishing. And everyone is connected to the fisheries,” Thomas said during a tour Friday.
She arrived in Kodiak 20 years ago with a backpack, a bicycle and a desire for adventure, she said.
Her tour began at the ferry terminal, the original entry to Kodiak where ships, Russian fishermen, Alaska Natives and others would first arrive on Kodiak.
She then spoke about the devastating 1964 earthquake and tidal wave that destroyed parts of Kodiak.
During the tidal wave, water rose up to the Kodiak History Museum’s boundary, swirling buildings, cars and boats. The water was violent and moved “like white water rapids,” she said.
A 90-foot vessel called The Jaguar was seen “cartwheeling down the channel” that now passes the modern ferry terminal and Kodiak Hana Restaurant. The boat was later recovered by Brechan Enterprises construction company, and is in use to this day.
After the tidal wave destroyed the town including the canneries, Thomas said the fish processing plants needed to rebuild quickly, so they brought in a World War II Liberty ship and converted it into a floating processing plant, which is now part of Trident Seafoods Corp..
Walking past the plant, she explained that the primary products are fish roe and headed and gutted fish, exported mostly to China.
The fish heads and guts are sent to a plant about 1 mile outside of town, where they are processed and exported, again mostly to China.
As she stood in front of the processing plant, a potent stench wafted out of the building.
“You can smell the fish. That’s money,” she said.
And money is what put Kodiak on the map for king crab, another major fishery based in Kodiak, she said.
The fishery was founded in the 1950s by a World War II Navy seaman who tasted fresh king crab during the war and wanted to market it to the American public, which didn’t eat much crab at that time, she said.
After figuring out how to catch, cook, process, ship and market the crab, he had a booming business.
“Into the early ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Kodiak was the capital of king crab,” Thomas said.
At the fishery’s pinnacle, up until a moratorium was called for the king crab fishery, deckhands on a king crab boat could make from $50,000 to $100,000, Thomas said.
During that time, the bars would act as banks where people would cash checks — and spend most of their money, she said.She told stories of a wild society, where money, drugs and brothels were everywhere.
Even the bars’ janitors could make a lot of money back then.
“Janitors would sweep up $100 bills,” she said.
Despite the wealth created from the king crab industry, the dangerous profession has a dark side, she said.
Each metal, square crab pot weighs about 700 pounds and each one costs about $1,500 with its rigging, Thomas said.
“If you imagine a boat with 100 pots, that’s $150,000 of just your pots, not (including) your permit or your boat upkeep,” she said.
"When you get out to the Bering Sea, you have a stack of these (pots) on the boat and somebody has to climb to the top of the stack and untie each one,” Thomas said. “You put a hook in (to the pot) and you swing it across the deck to the launching pad. You have to time the swing with the waves because you're rolling.”
If the ocean rolls differently than the fishermen expect, they could be knocked into the open sea.
Workers have to go inside the crab pots to bait them, which has also led to deaths.
Thomas told stories of fishermen dragged across boats from swinging crab pots, or men launched into the ocean while still inside a crab pot.
“This is still one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but it’s getting safer,” she said. “All our fisheries are getting safer all the time.”
Thomas walked to the harbor-facing side of the Trident processor building where plaques recounted Kodiak fish processing history.
She spoke about the various ethnicities of people who have worked in the processors throughout generations. Originally, Native Alaskans — the local Alutiiqs — worked in the processing plants and on the boats. Then, Chinese laborers began working in the plants.
At one time, there were a number of Italians and Scandinavians who fished on the boats — often pitted against each other, Thomas said.
“The (processor) might tell the Norwegian fisherman that they would give them better boats and higher pay” than their Italian counterparts, she said.
Eventually, the Chinese laborers in the plants were replaced by Filipino workers, she said.
Thomas’ tour continued down to the harbor, where she meandered through the docked boats and fishermen power-washing their boats. There, she explained different types of fishing from seining to longlining.
She told stories of her own experiences working on fishing vessels and as a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as well of stories of famous Kodiak residents and her friends.
During the tour, she stopped to speak to local fisherman who had recently returned from weeks of fishing, giving insight into the daily grind of commercial fishing.
Thomas also spoke about the status of women on fishing boats and female skippers who used to run all-women fishing vessels.
Her tour finished at the Fishermen’s Memorial, where she spoke about about the ever-improving fishing safety protocols, even showing how to put on a survival suit.
She explained that the Fishermen’s Memorial shows just a fraction of the fishermen who have been lost because of safety protocols not in place, lack of knowledge, or just unlucky circumstances. But times are changing and every year safety protocols improve.
With each tragic accident comes more knowledge about how to stay safe when fishing, Thomas said.