In this era of dismal job reports and hiring freezes, there is something to be said of the allure for any guy in his twenties to chuck it all and head up to Alaska to spend some time working as a commercial fisherman. But, before you pack your bags for an exploit in Jack London’s great white north, you should know what you’re getting into. In March 2008, the fishing trawler Alaska Ranger sank into the Bering Sea a hundred miles off the coast. In the end, 42 of the ship’s 47-man crew were saved, but it prompted one of the largest and most complicated rescues in the history of the United States Coast Guard. In her book, Deadliest Sea, Kalee Thompson, journalist and former editor for National Geographic Adventure and Popular Science, reconstructs the events of the sinking and rescue. Through meticulous research and interviews with survivors, including spending time with the Coast Guard in Alaska, she is able to depict the event from both sides. Recently, she spoke with Made Possible about the men who worked on the Alaska Ranger, what it’s actually like being a commercial fisherman from how its depicted on television, and why it’s the deadliest job in America.
Made Possible: We’ve all seen how the lives of commercial fishermen are portrayed on shows like Deadliest Catch, but is it really the most dangerous job in America?
Kalee Thompson: When you account for the number of people doing the job to the number of people who are dying each year on the job, it’s higher than any other profession.
MP: Why is it so dangerous?
The main reason is because so many fishing boats sink right out from under their crews, which is exactly what happened in the Alaska Ranger case. In fact, every year close to 120 commercial fishing boats sink. So that’s one commercial fishing boat sinking practically every three days. It’s a pretty extreme situation and that’s because the boats are essentially unregulated in terms of seaworthiness. Other classes of boats, big cargo ships, passenger ferries—every other major type of vessel—are much more heavily regulated by the government, and the statistics show what a difference that makes.
MP: Your book is focused on this one incident with this ship in Alaska and is a good example for getting a sense of the risk and the safety issues across the board. But how much does the location have to do with it? Is it more dangerous to be a commercial fisherman in Alaska than anywhere else in the U.S.?
KT: There was actually a new study just released that showed that Alaska, which had been historically one of—if not the most—dangerous places, was in fact surpassed by a couple fisheries on the east coast, as well as the coast of Oregon. So it’s a nationwide phenomenon really.
MP: So does that mean that commercial fishing is more dangerous in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world?
KT: I would say it’s an extremely dangerous job worldwide. There are so many things that are inherently dangerous about it. You’re out in extremely rough conditions. There’s also a very high rate of man overboard and people just falling off the side of the ship and drowning or freezing to death before they’re able to be rescued. And that’s certainly not a U.S.-specific problem, though other industrialized countries do have higher safety standards.
MP: What exactly does the job entail?
KT: It really depends on what type of boat you’re on. But this type of boat, the Alaska Ranger, is what’s called a head-and-gut boat, which means there’s actually a factory right on board. It’s really more like working on a meat-processing plant than spending a day out deep-sea fishing. The crew is pretty much working below deck on an assembly-line-type situation. The fish are being called up in this huge net. This boat was a bottom trawler, so it’s got an enormous net pulling in hundreds of fish at a time, dropping them down into a hatch below, and then they’re actually cutting off the heads, sucking out the guts, and freezing the fish right there on board. So it’s not really as romantic as you might imagine.
The starting pay on the Alaska Ranger was $50 a day and the guys were working twelve shifts with six hours off, in which they have just enough time to eat a meal, take a shower, and sleep for maybe four or five hours, and then they’re back on for twelve hours. So in terms of the working conditions, it’s pretty bleak.
MP: But there are other positions on the ship that don’t deal with the assembly line, right?
KT: With the exception of the officers [captain, first mate], the cooks, and the engineers, the entire crew of a boat like the Alaska Ranger is working in the factory. There were 47 people on board the Ranger when it sank. Five were officers, there were two cooks and one steward and two federal fisheries observers [working for the National Marine Fisheries Service to monitor the catch]. The other 37 guys on the boat were all working on the assembly line. A few people also have jobs on deck or as part of the emergency crew. But once the net is up, they are back down on the line.
MP: And they live on the boat, too. How long are they out at sea?
With a big boat like this and in the whole head-and-gut fleet, which are mostly larger boats—the smallest ones are 125-, 150-feet, they’re able to be out for quite long periods at a time, usually a month. They’re fishing until they fill up the hold. That’s another thing that adds danger for the head-and-guts fleet, because they get so far away from port and potential help. If you’re thirty miles from the nearest Coast Guard station, your chances of being rescued alive is a hell of a lot better than if you’re 800 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station –which is what happened to the Alaska Ranger.
MP: Are head-and-gut boats more dangerous than smaller fishing vessels?
KT: Yes, they have proven more dangerous than other types of boats. This is largely because the crews are big and generally not professional, which makes the risk greater. There have been four major casualties in this fleet in the past decade, resulting in a total of 30 deaths. It’s also because the head-and-gut ships are able to travel far from shore and potential help if something goes wrong. And the chemicals used to cool the freezers, especially Freon, and the piles of flammable waxed cardboard used to package the frozen fish provide additional safety hazards.
MP: Getting back to that romanticized view of the job, do you think how it’s portrayed up in the media plays a part in guys signing up for a boat like the Alaska Ranger?
KT: Definitely. There were quite a few people I talked to who said that exact thing. You know they’d seen Deadliest Catch and they were really attracted to that lifestyle. For people who love the outdoors, there’s no denying that Alaska is a beautiful place. It’s just such a striking landscape and a great place for anyone who’s into hunting, fishing, or hiking. So I think there’s that romantic draw and appeal of Alaska in general and then the popularity of Deadliest Catch kind of made people more aware of jobs in the fishing industry. But it’s not what these guys are doing. Some of the people I interviewed on the Alaska Ranger saw the TV show and had an idea in their minds, and then they got up there and found the reality very different.
A lot of the guys I spent time interviewing didn’t know that much about the job when they took it. They saw an ad for it, they were unemployed, they went to an information session, they passed the drug test, and they got the job. The next thing they knew they were getting off a plane in a tiny little fishing fort in the middle of the Aleutian Island chain.
MP: Any advice for someone thinking of going up to Alaska and signing up on a boat for a youthful adventure?
KT: If I were talking to a friend, or the younger brother of a friend, or a college-educated guy in their early ’20s looking to go to Alaska and have an adventure for a year before getting a real job, I’d have to say not to get on one of these Head-and-Guts boats. It’s just not going to be fun. Find a crab boat or a salmon fishing boat that’s smaller and where you can be out on deck most of the day.
MP: But it’s easier to get a job on a head-and-gut vessel than, say, a smaller fishing boat or a crab boat?
KT: Yes, in general it is easier to get a job on this type of boat since these jobs are much less desirable. But, as you can see from a show like Deadliest Catch, working on a smaller boat is sort of like being part of a family. You’re going to have to be somewhat pleasant to be around and a hard worker to be invited back. On some of these head-and-gut boats, the standards are fairly low. As long as you have a pulse and keep pushing the fish in the right direction, that’s good enough.