Life on the High Seas: How to Get a Commercial Fishing Job in Alaska
Are you obsessed with “The Deadliest Catch?” Do you dream of heading out on the high seas to test your mental and physical toughness -- and potentially earn big money?
If so, you’ve probably wondered how you can get a job as a commercial fisherman in Alaska.
Well, you’re in luck: I’m about to share insider advice from someone who’s worked his way up from deckhand to skipper on Alaskan fishing boats. Read on to learn his tips for getting a job in this lucrative field.
What Commercial Fishing Jobs are Available in Alaska?
The Alaskan commercial fishing industry is huge, accounting for 78,500 jobs and $5.8 billion annually. When you take into account that Alaska’s population is only 735,000, you can quickly see just how big commercial fishing really is.
While there are many different fisheries in Alaska, most people move up there to work on a salmon boat during the summer season. Since it’s such a big fishery, it’s one of the easiest for newbies (greenhorns) to break into.
Within the salmon fishery, there are three different types of boats: seiners, trollers and gillnetters. Most people want to work on a seiner, since they’re the biggest and therefore have the potential to bring in the most money.
Timothy Currall has been working in Alaska’s commercial fishing industry since he was 15. He’s worked his way up from deckhand to captain; now, at the age of 33, he owns three boats in two states.
“Seine boats are the largest salmon boats with the largest crews, and so they burn through the most deckhands,” says Currall. “That being said, if you are going to Alaska to try to find a job, do not overlook the trollers, gillnetters or the tenders. They typically only hire one deckhand, but the workload is much less intense -- and if you do a good job for them, they can likely get you a job on a seine boat.”
As for what greenhorns actually do? To put it bluntly, nothing glamorous. Duties may include scrubbing the boat, cooking the meals, doing general boat maintenance and performing highly physical tasks involved with bringing in the fish.
How Do You Get a Commercial Fishing Job in Alaska?
Commercial fishing jobs aren’t like other jobs; they’re not listed on Monster.com or Craigslist. You can try using websites like this and this, and though they may have some helpful information, don’t depend on them to help you land fishing jobs.
If you want to work in commercial fishing and don’t know anyone in the industry, your best bet is to buy a flight to the harbor of your choice and “walk the docks.”
How to Walk the Docks
Walking the docks is just what it sounds like: You literally walk around the harbor, stopping by boats and asking about jobs.
It’s a good idea to print business cards with your name, phone number and relevant experience. It doesn’t necessarily need to be boat-related or fishing experience (though that helps); you can list anything from being a good cook to working construction to understanding engines. If you’re a veteran or former athlete, be sure to mention that as well.
To set yourself apart, include your photo on the card so that captains will remember what you look like. You can get cheap business cards from VistaPrint.
“Stop at every boat and give them your same card every day. If you make it clear that you are not a person who gives up, then you become a good candidate to work on a fishing boat,” advises Currall.
“Offer free help on any preseason work that might need to be done and stop by each boat long enough that they get to know you. If someone then gets fired, everyone in that fleet will know your name and info and relay it to the captain who is looking for a deckhand.”
This process is precisely how he landed his first job as a deckhand on a squid boat in California -- a fishery in which he had no connections or experience.
How to Approach a Captain
Put your people skills to use. Read the captain and gauge whether he wants to chit-chat or would simply prefer to get back to work. Hand him your business card and tell him about any relevant skills or experience.
Currall recommends emphasizing that “you are very hard working and that you will not quit or be lazy; that you understand that there is always work to be done on a boat and if you don't know what to do next, you will start cleaning. If you don't mean that, by the way, don't go looking in the first place.”
Don’t hesitate to return each day; as Currall says, “This is an industry where you must be very forward.”
There is a fine line, however, between being aggressive and overconfident. He warns: “Don’t overstate yourself. Do NOT be arrogant about your experience or how great they should think you are.”
When to Go to Alaska
Research when fishing starts for the fishery you’re interested in, and show up two to four weeks beforehand. Though many skippers will already have their crews, people will undoubtedly drop out -- which is your opportunity to jump in.
This chart from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shows you exactly when each commercial fishing season starts and ends.
What if You Can’t Find a Job?
The good news is that even if you don’t end up getting a job on a boat, there are usually lots of jobs nearby. You can work at a fish processing plant, a local watering hole or a construction site. If you stick around for a while, chances are another deckhand will get hurt or quit -- and you’ll be there to take his spot.
Currall also suggests going to the local bars at night and talking with fishermen. Buy drinks, make friends, and get to know them. As with most career paths, he says: “The more people you get to know who are directly involved in the industry that you would like to participate in, the more likely you will be to find work there.”
How Much Will You Get Paid at a Commercial Fishing Job in Alaska?
This is a tough question to answer, as it completely depends on the catch. Some deckhands walk away with enough money to last them the rest of the year, while others walk away nearly empty-handed. And the very next year, their roles might be reversed.
As a deckhand, you’re paid a percentage of the catch -- so the more fish the boat catches, the more you earn.
“Typical starting pay for a greenhorn is anywhere from 5% to 9% of the catch,” says Currall. “If you stick around long enough (three to five seasons) and become an expert deckhand, you could possibly get paid as much as 12%.”
“As far as what to expect in a starting season: I have paid as low as $7,000 and as high as $53,000. There are some boats where I have heard of crew shares as low as $500 and others with crew shares as high as $100,000. The size and quality/shape of a vessel is typically a pretty good indication of where on that scale the crew share for a season would be.”
Is a Commercial Fishing Job in Alaska Right for You?
Though it may sound exciting, let’s get one thing straight: Working as a commercial fisherman is not for everyone. In fact, it’s a career suited to a select few.
Here are the qualities you need to be a successful commercial fishing deckhand:
- Physically fit: The job is very demanding on your mind and body, and you need a lot of strength and cardiovascular fitness to survive.
- Extremely hard-working: This is probably the most important quality on the list; lazy people need not apply. Note that during the season, you will only sleep when it’s dark out.
- Thick-skinned: As a greenhorn, you will be constantly demeaned and yelled at; if you take it personally, you won’t last.
- High tolerance for pain: No matter what type of fishing you’re doing, there will be moments of physical pain that you must work through. When the fishing is on, it stops for almost nothing.
- Quick learner and worker: Speed is of the essence in this industry, and if you’re slow-moving by nature, this isn’t the job for you.
- Humble and respectful: As Currall explains, “You must drop your ego and pretend that you are in boot camp and do exactly as you are told as soon as you are told. Never talk back.”
The bottom line: Commercial fishing is hard work. If you’re not prepared to work your tail off during long days, in extreme weather, with little sleep, then this probably isn’t the job for you.
To be successful in this industry, Currall says you need two things: “Perseverance and endurance.” If that sounds like you, then it might be time to book your flight up to Alaska.
Your Turn: Do you think you could hack it as a commercial fisherman in Alaska?