Once Again, Debunking Commercial Fishing Stereotypes

Two years ago, I wrote an informal post about one of the most common commercial fishing stereotypes, which is the drunken fisherman. You can access that post by clicking here. It’s been a while since I’ve come across anything unusually offensive concerning our industry and lifestyle, but last week I was reminded that some people still just don’t get it.

I walked through the doors to pick up my five-year-old daughter, Eva, and my almost-four-year-old-son, Vincent, from one of their summer activities just as one of the teachers was helping Vincent put his boots on the correct feet.

“I just love his little Xtra Tuffs!” she called to me, looking up with a smile.

“I know!” I said. “Aren’t they the cutest? He loves to dress just like Daddy.”

Vincent stands up in his backwards boots (“I like them like that,” he says) and adjusts his oversized gray hooded “Alaska Ship Supply/Dutch Harbor” sweatshirt. He locates a random gentleman in the room, looks up at him and announces, “My daddy is in Awaska. He catches cwab and backcod.”

(Translation: “My daddy is in Alaska. He catches crab and blackcod.”)

“That’s right, Buddy,” I say, beaming. “Daddy is in Alaska. And you get to ride the forklift with Daddy when he’s home, don’t you?”

My little boy is the spitting image of George. In fact, one of his nicknames is Mini G. Vincent is the only boy in either of our families; George and I each have two sisters and no brothers, and Vincent has five girl cousins. He’s the only grandson on either side. He loves boats, forklifts, trucks, and the harbor. Surrounded primarily by girls and women, he adores his dad and grandpa.

“Daddy has a gween boat,” he likes to say. “When I gwow up, my boat is going to be bue and it will be bigger than Daddy’s boat.”

(Translation: “Daddy has a green boat. When I grow up, my boat is going to be blue and it will be bigger than Daddy’s boat.”)

Anyway, I look from Vincent to the gentleman, expecting the stranger to say something kind to my sweet little boy, who happily looks up at him with dark green eyes.

“Well,” the man says, looking down at Vincent. “Hopefully you will go to college so you won’t have to be a fisherman.”

Wait.

What?

My mind races with surprise and disgust. Seriously. Are you kidding? Long ago advice from my sister comes to mind. Don’t unleash the beast!

“Well,” I reply, slowly. “As a matter of fact, we are fifth generation fishermen, and everyone in this last generation did go to college.” (Our degrees include two education, one environmental policy, one English and one accounting.) “We have been successful, often as captains.”

I didn’t bother to mention that my grandfather, the son of Croatian immigrants, started kindergarten without knowing a word of English. When he had to leave school in eighth grade to help support his family, it was with a straight-A report card. I also decided not to mention that there is nothing more rude and inappropriate than looking down at a four-year-old-boy and basically telling him to not be like his daddy (who as a commercial fisherman and human being is one of the sweetest, smartest, mentally and physically tough, strongest, humorous, and capable people I know).

I stopped short of mentioning that commercial fishermen are not all a bunch of uneducated, alcoholic, bumbling idiots. And that one of the smartest and wealthiest IFQ holders in Alaska happens to be the son of a New York attorney, and he chose to fish for a living. Fishermen are also church elders, volunteer coaches, property owners, tax payers, and real estate investors.

Captains must have business sense, for they deal with hundreds of thousands of dollars—if not millions—in gear, fishing vessels, permits, quota, crew shares, and the like. They must adhere to strict national and state regulations, keep detailed logs and figure out where to find the fish, and once the fish are caught, deal with the marketing end of things. Fishermen have mental and physical endurance unmatched by most, and they must juggle the white and the blue collar ends of things simultaneously and well.

Even my own neighbor, a lawyer, claims it’s too difficult to work with fishermen because “they don’t pay their taxes”. Uh, what? Tell that to the captains and deckhands who, because they often make a lot more money than most, also pay more taxes than most. And I guarantee you, our taxes are a lot more complicated than anyone could imagine. That’s why there are maritime accountants that specialize in this field.

Are there deadbeat dad fishermen? Alcoholics? Cocaine addicts? Broke? Cheaters? Of course. Have school teachers slept with their students? Have Wall Street brokers stolen money from clients? Are there alcoholic mothers? Adulterous doctors? Lawyers that owe back child support? Yes, and college degrees have nothing to do with any of it.

But for Pete’s sake, let’s hope Vincent goes to college so he won’t have to become a fisherman. God forbid he go on a boat and work his way from greenhorn to deckboss to first mate to captain. Let’s hope he never knows an honest day’s work and the thrill of standing in a deckload of shimmering sockeye salmon, bringing up line after line of halibut, or haul in pots filled with crab. Hopefully he’ll never learn to work as a team or laugh like crazy as he tells fishing stories.

With any luck, he won’t make lasting memories, lifelong friendships, or take the boat where nobody else goes and look in awe at mountains and islands. Hopefully he won’t enjoy watching dolphins chase the stern or dance about the bow, or be caught by surprise when whales jump out of the ocean’s surface. Why would he want to fall asleep to the gentle rock of a boat or collapse in his bunk, exhausted and spent from his own hard work?

Why would anyone want to make more money in two months than most of America does in over a year of nine-to-five? Who’d want to have months of time off to spend with their family? And for goodness sake, let’s hope Vincent never has a bad season when gear broke down, the fish weren’t there, or the price was terrible. Then he’d have to learn how to save his money, plan for the future, and invest wisely. Who’d want to work in the fresh salty sea air, free and independent? No, I’d never want him to experience any of that.

I decided to get feedback from others in the commercial fishing community via e-mail and our Facebook group, Commercial Fishing Families & Friends. The following (with minor edits) is some of that feedback.

**It could also be that he sees the commercial fishing business as a very dangerous occupation based on what he sees on TV and reads (which it is) and hopes Vince finds a safer occupation when he grows up.

**OMG, I am really shocked. That is a horrible thing to say to anyone.

**Off the top I would say the guy’s response to Vincent, besides being thoughtless, uninformed and boorish, is similar to any comment anyone would make when they feel they have an understanding of any topic, but don’t, in this case commercial fishing.

He evidently feels Vincent’s dad has been ‘sentenced’ to fishing by default, with no other career choices. He obviously sees commercial fishing and fisherman as prefaced by the word ‘common’.

This type of thinking is frankly not too unusual if your only example of commercial fishing is how we are portrayed by reality TV shows like “Most Dangerous Catch’. When fishermen are portrayed as unshaven, yelling, over-reactive, high testosterone, swearing men, who are always getting themselves out of some self- imposed or contrived mess, they are seen as hardworking, but dumb or lucky. Certainly someone you would like to talk to but not have over for dinner. And you certainly wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with one of them.

The fact that most skippers are generally very intelligent, have many skills, are well organized business men who enjoy not working a 9-5 schedule, with families and generally make a lot more money than the general population is never portrayed. Commercial fishermen are often seen as ‘buffalo hunters’ or ‘gold stampeders’ with no families, bank associations, hobbies, kids (that they know of), or any life that approximates other men. In fact, of my crew, five of six were married, three had college degrees, nobody on the boat yelled at each other, no drugs and no drinking problems. Many skippers had their sons fishing with them, and like me, many got college degrees and then went back into fishing.

**What a moron. His statement was not only insensitive but extremely short sighted in my opinion. So many people in the United States believe that higher education is a must to be successful and to question education is unthinkable. Look at all the kids these days that are forced to move home after college because the jobs are non existent and the debt for their education is insurmountable without said job. Whether education is worth the high price is starting to be examined by members of the “American intelligentsia” I read an article just last week on Peter Theil (Pay Pal cofounder and multi billionaire) He believes that we will experience an education bubble not unlike the housing bubble. Anyway, he is putting his money where his mouth is and is offering up $100,000 to twenty kids under twenty to leave school for two years and start businesses instead. I think that’s awesome.

**I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of people; those that produce something, and those that leech off the work of others. Our society seems to reward the leeches!

**Ugh. SO annoying. My favorite is when people say, “Oh, you can actually make enough money to live off of that?”. I politely point out that yes, we do live off of the money earned from fishing. Oh and surprise, surprise, we are both college educated and Mike paid for all of his Bachelor’s degree and college expenses with fishing every summer since the age of 13. We appreciate hard work over video games and sloppy teenagers that sit around the house all summer long. Oh and by the way, do you like salmon? Well, next time you are in a restaurant where you demand to know if the salmon is a wild Alaskan salmon, go ahead and give us a huge thank you for risking our lives to bring you your delicious meal. I hope it wasn’t too expensive, with all of your student loans you are still paying off.

**I went to an anniversary party out of state last week and a guy said what do you do, I said I fish for lobsters. He said yeah I know, but whats your real job? I said that’s it except for crabs and a little shrimping…he looked a little puzzled and said ohhh……

**I am glad that you took the time to put into words your thoughts and reflections of the situation. Hopefully it will educate those out there that don’t know the value of growing up in a commercial fishing family.

I have a letter that my maternal grandmother wrote over thirty years ago where she stated that my father had been “fishing since he was knee high to a seal” she went on in admiration about his perseverance and work ethics. I was blessed to have spent two summers fishing with him in Bristol Bay and witnessing the skill and knowledge it takes to run a boat effectively. I learned so much from him.

 When one of my coworkers heard that I was headed north with him to fish he felt it necessary to warn me about the “Aleuts that walk around drunk and carry guns.” I replied “Really… that’s strange… my father doesn’t do that…” He was looked at me with a confused look on his face and said, “What?” I replied… “Yeah, my father is Aleut, and he isn’t a drunk… nor does he carry a gun.”

I used it as a teaching moment, and I am still good friends with this individual. There are so many stereotypes out there unfortunately. My father had limited schooling, but maximized the skills that he was born with. Fishing runs in our family’s blood. There are a lot of youth that could stand to spend some time on a boat and learning the discipline and work ethics that goes along with it.

**I see nothing wrong with going to college…a good education in business management would help to manage all the $$ your son gets from fishing and he will know how to invest and plan for a future. So many people think fishermen are dumb or at the least uneducated. I know fishermen that have electrical engineering degrees, one who is a math wonder and a few who are just a little crazy and well loved. My point is do what ya love, not what the world wants ya to do.

(Image borrowed from The Faces of California Fishing group on Facebook)

Comments

  1. What an awesome reply to his uneducated comment. You not only kindly corrected his false judgment, but also graciously defended Vincent’s pride of being like his daddy, all in one gentle yet powerful blow! Perfect! And I must add, I get really annoyed at the misconception our society has ingrained in itself that college=success. WRONG!! They do NOT go hand-in-hand. Yes, a college education ‘might’ be helpful, but sometimes it can be a complete waste of time and money. Nothing prepares oneself for ‘success’ but hard work with blood, sweat and tears. And success is not defined by one’s job, but rather family, friends and their relationship with God. And that’s my ‘two cents’.

    Keep up the great work being a beautiful mom, supporting wife, and lovely friend.

    Love you!
    Danita :)

    • D, you made me cry! As always, your words are beautiful and spot-on. I agree with each and every sentence. Thank you for your affirmation, as you know how hard it is for me to respond sometimes! :) Thank you again for your insight, wisdom, and encouragment. I miss you!! xoxoxoxo

  2. Awww, thanks Jen. I’m always here for you! And I sure miss you too!! Take care of yourself and those sweet kiddos. xoxoxoxoxo

  3. That’s great. I’m so glad you included your comment here. You reminded me that I totally forgot to mention that one of my sisters and I paid for our four years of college with fishing in Alaska every summer, too.

    “I won’t pay for your college,” Dad told us, “But I’ll give you a spot on the boat so you can work and pay for it yourself.”

    As a result, I was able to pay for rent and tuition each year, not have to work during the school year, and had enough left over to take two vacations and buy a special edition VW Jetta. Oh, until I got hooked up with some losers from college who got a hold of my ATM card and cleaned out my bank account (I’ll save that story for another time, lol). I also learned how to work and developed a work ethic and stronger character.

    My other sister, who went back to school later, saved all of her fishing money and bought a townhouse when she was about 22 years old.

    Amanda’s comment about valuing hard work over laying about the house all summer and not having school loans makes me chuckle every time I read it.

    You could apply this to the homemaker/housewife situation, too. “Go to college so you won’t have to be a housewife.” LOL. Almost all of the stay at home moms I know have college degrees! Like the other comment said…Do what ya love, not what the world wants ya to do.

  4. This is a great post! I am going to bookmark it for Mike to read. He would appreciate this so much. He deals with misconceptions all the time from people. Oh and yes, I am also
    a stay-at-home mom with a college degree.

  5. I just love when prople say that, or when they say, when are you going to get a real job!! Well this fake job has provided a very good living for me and my family for over 25yrs, tough yes good days, bad days it all comes with the job, any job but theres no place I’d rather be than on the ocean. On another note just saw the F/V Vis here in Kodiak were I live and run the F/V lady Lou a longline, crabber. Cheers

    • Ha! Thanks for adding your words and experience to the conversation, Ken! I’m so excited that you saw the boat in Kodiak!! Was that in the last day or two, so I should be expecting a call from G relatively soon? :) I’m so envious. I wish I was there!

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