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Jobs Watch: Working on the water

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, December 02, 2009

I caught up with Nick Furman while he was driving up the Oregon Coast this morning, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that he was liking what he was seeing: a gorgeous, clear day out on the water, boats working relatively calm seas, fishermen hauling in pot after pot boiling with Dungeness crabs.

“It’s a great sight,” said Furman, executive director of the Charleston-based Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “We’re off to a good start.”

With the unfortunate exception of the Manatee, a small wooden boat that sunk in Coos Bay (everyone was rescued, thankfully), Oregon’s healthiest fishery is looking healthier than ever this December. The price to the fisherman is starting at $1.75 per pound and expected to rise as the season progresses. The weather has been cooperative and boats are coming to shore early, loaded to the decks with big, meaty crabs.

This is good news for the 900 or so skippers and deckhands who get paid by the pound rather than the hour for their labor in the Dungeness crab fishery. It also bodes well for the buyers who market and process the catch, led by Clackamas powerhouse Pacific Seafoods, one of Oregon’s most successful private companies. Fishermen and processors have been known to duke it out over price, but this year it’s looking like there will be enough money to go around. Last year’s crab catch was worth $26 million to fisherman and Furman is optimistic this season will prove even more lucrative. This will boost coastal economies from Coos Bay to Astoria because the more money fishermen make, the more they spend.

I can tell you from experience that fishermen earn their money. As the result of an unusual career detour in my mid-20s, I ended up working in the industry seasonally for five years, fishing mostly for salmon but also for black cod and halibut. It was an adventure and the money was good, but this was not easy work. There’s nothing quite like waking up cold in total darkness to the sound of a huge diesel engine firing up and plowing straight into a vicious storm for uncertain reward. On the first day I ever fished, I got jellyfish juice in my eyes and we nearly lost our net because some greenhorn failed to hook it up properly. We didn’t even make enough money to pay for the spam we ate with our macaroni and cheese. Our Irish deck boss’s comment was that fishing is kind of like prison, with the added possibility that the boat could sink.

The job got better from there, good enough to underwrite my skiing, writing and travel habits until I wandered back into journalism. I came into fishing thinking of it as a sideline but quickly learned that it is serious business. This is capitalism at its most primal: The more wild animals you capture, the more money you make. Fishermen can’t control price any more than they can control weather. But they can control effort, and the ones who fare the best are the chargers. The highliner of the Southeast Alaska fleet while I was working it was a dry-lander from Arizona named Dave Jones, a mountain climber and marathon runner who fished the most brutal spot on the coast of Dall Island for all it was worth, opener after opener. We’re talking huge tides, crazy currents, vicious seas, the kind of stuff you see on The Most Dangerous Catch. And the guy was terribly prone to seasickness, constantly nauseous. Vomiting over the rail was just part of the cost of doing business for him.

I never caught the bug to that extent, but my brother Alan did. He earns a good living as a salmon fisherman in Southeast Alaska and recently made a smart investment in buying a share of Silver Bay Seafoods, a fisherman-owned processing company based in Sitka that has been growing like crazy.

People who believe the fishing industry is a thing of the past are as wrong as people who believe nobody in America is willing to do hard work anymore. A trip to sea on a crab boat could be a great eye-opener for anyone who holds those misconceptions.

Oregon’s crab fishermen have come a long way in modernizing their industry, to improve safety and gain certification as providers of sustainably harvested wild seafood. But when you get right down to it, their work is as wild as the environment they work in and the species they are hunting. I’m willing to bet that most of them wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business Magazine.

(Flickr photo at left by Dave Parker.)

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