Crab fishing may not be ‘dream job,’ but worth the effort

Trevor, Don and Ryan offloading during king crab season.

A “dream job.” For the starry-eyed idealists who walk the docks hoping to land a job on a “highliner” boat, getting on a productive crab-fishing boat may fit the bill.

Just think: You’ll make lots of money in a relatively short period of time and, as a perk, live an adventurous life.

Perhaps a reality check from those who have lived the “dream life” will help these “dreamers” face the reality of the profession.

Some time ago, I interviewed two fathers and their sons who fished crab and other species in the Kodiak Archipelago and the Aleutians.

Bill Prout and his sons Ashlan and Sterling were the first father-and-son team I interviewed. After they shared their story, I interviewed crab fishermen Don Norton and his son Ryan. Another son, Trevor, was not part of the interview.

Don, owner of the Veikoda Bay and a partner in other fishing vessels, has been fishing for more than 40 years. He got in on the tail end of the king crab fisheries when “crab was king” on Kodiak Island.

For the Nortons, fishing is a family affair. The boys go crabbing with their father, and Don’s wife Susan and their daughters are on the boat when it is used as a salmon tender in the summer. 

In 40 years, Don has seen ups and downs in the fisheries, he said.

“Before you used to do king crab and Tanners, and, all of a sudden, we’ll do Dungeness and halibut. You diversify,” he said.

In more than 40 years of harvesting the creatures of the sea, Don has witnessed sinkings, drownings and a man overboard.

“The only thing I haven’t had was fire,” he said. “Actually, we had fire, but we put it out.”

In 1984, when Don was on the Buccaneer, the boat was taking on water as it fished Dungeness crab on Kodiak Island.

“There was a hole in the circulation pipes,” Don recalled. “No Coast Guard was called. We took care of it ourselves. We tried not to get the Coast Guard involved.”

Don said he responded to a “man overboard” while he ran the Midnight Sun out west in the late 1980s.

The crewman was “where he was told not to be,” said Don.

“He was tying pots. Guys aren’t allowed to be on the outside pots. He was on the stern. I was reaching for the mic to tell him to get back. The boat went over a big wave. The stern picked up and the crewman landed in the water.”

Don threw the boat in hard reverse.

“We had a big enough rudder so you could actually steer it,” he said. 

The incident happened at night. Luckily, the crewman was wearing a bright orange jacket.

“There was a sodium light on the stern. I started backing up and thought, ‘Shoot, I’m going to run over him,’” he said.

Fortunately, Don and his crew were able to rescue the crewman.

“They say you’re supposed to make a circle and come back around to (the crewman in the water). But at that time, if I had done what the experts said, he would have been gone,” he said. 

That incident was probably the most traumatic experience in Don’s fishing career. 

Air in the crewman’s rain gear gave him buoyuancy.

In the interview, the Nortons talked about close calls and the loss of friends and acquaintances in fishing tragedies. 

Because of their common vulnerability to the elements, fishermen have formed a band of brothers and sisters. 

Don said that even though some of his fellow fishermen may not be close friends, “you know them; you’ve heard of them, talked to them at one point or another. In your mind you try to figure out what went wrong ... that this could happen to us. In 40 years, I’ve seen a lot.”

In spite of its potential  for danger, fishing provides benefits, including monetary, when the price is right and the resource plentiful.

But with inflation creeping into the economy and significant increases in the price of necessary commodities such as fuel, fishermen have to work much harder to make a go of it. 

“You want to catch fish as quick as you can, even with IFQs. You won’t fish in a storm as bad as you used to, but you’re still pushing to get it done as quick as you can,” he said.

Don said that maintenance can be a big obstacle to fisherman.

“You have to keep the boat up. Once you get behind, you’re behind,” he said. 

In order for fishermen to keep maintenance costs down, they must learn the basics of vessel upkeep, such as refrigeration, hydraulics, electronics, “all of that,” said Don. “You’re a jack-of-all-trades, and king of none.” 

Unlike his children, who grew up around boats, Don was not exposed to commercial fishing when he was a child.

Don grew up in Waldport, Oregon, 15 miles south of Newport. His dad was in real estate. The family owned a restaurant. They also had a farm.

“I knew how to get up early,” said Don. 

Through a family friend, Don found out about fishing opportunities on Kodiak Island.

In October of 1976, Don and his friend caught the last ferry from Homer to Kodiak before winter set in. 

Once in Kodiak, Don got a job at the Skookum Chief processing plant. The late Dave Woodruff was the manager. 

Then Don got a job on the Buccaneer, owned by Ted Painter at the time.

When asked if he felt like a greenhorn on the boat, Don answered, “Yes and no. It was a whole new area that I had never been around in my entire life. The (other) young guys on decks were new too.”

Don said he had a good mentor on the boat. His name was David.

“There were four of us. He was the kind of (person) that got you going. He made sure you knew your knots,” he said. 

Another mentor to Don was his father, who taught him to develop a good work ethic. 

Apparently, Don has handed down those values to his children. Ryan admires the same quality in his dad.

Don said he and his wife Susan raised their children to do well and be competitive, whether it’s in sports or on the boat.

“Work ethic is a huge thing,” Don said.

A lot of crewmembers  don’t have a vested interest in the fishery.

“Whereas with family, I know what they can do. They’ve been on the boat for so long, I walk away, thinking of what has to be done and I’ll know they’ll get (the work)  done,” he said.

Ryan, who has been fishing since he was a freshman in high school, admits that crab fishing is not his dream job.

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s ‘dream job.’ I think they come for the money,” he said. “But considering its benefits, fishing is definitely worth the effort.”

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