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A Fisherman's Greatest Tool

It isn't in their tool belt.

A Fisherman's Greatest Tool

Shresha, wild intern

by Shresha Karmacharya

    Sustainable Wild Salmon Intern

      I always thought that fishing was a fairly simple task: you just tie some bait onto a rope which goes on a pole that you throw into the water, right? A fish will fall for your bait, attempt to eat it, and when you feel the movement, you take your pole out of the water along with the fish you have just caught.

      At least that is what I was led to believe for the longest time. Upon getting to Sitka, a city of fewer than 9000 inhabitants, most of whom are fishermen, all of that changed. As someone from the capital city of landlocked Nepal (Kathmandu) witnessing people fishing in the great Pacific first-hand has been quite the game changer.

      During the summer of 2018, I was able to work as the Sustainable Wild Salmon Intern for the Sitka Conservation Society with the help of Sitka Salmon Shares. As part of my work plan, I sought out local fishermen to ask them whether or not they had witnessed effects of climate change, and how they were handling these changes.

      On a sunny afternoon (a rarity in Sitka), I spent a few hours with Spencer Severson, a long time fisherman based in Sitka. He showed me the process behind changing the sacrificial zinc anodes (also known simply as "zincs") on his boat prior to his big fishing expedition for the summer. It hit me almost immediately that a lot more goes into fishing than simply waiting patiently for a fish to fall for your bait. I don’t know why this took me so long to come to terms with — it seems almost too silly for me to have not registered this before.

      There was so much skill, patience, and endurance that went into changing the anodes. Not to mention the theory behind it: why it was important, how often a changing needs to take place. Lots of effort went into successfully changing these anodes (What's an "anode" anyways?! Click here to learn more about sacrificial anodes, or "zincs"), and so it was easy to understand that a fisherman’s greatest tool, perhaps, was not how they bait their fish.

      Fisherman changing Sacrificial Anode

      The "Sacrificial Anode" protects submerged metal components on your boat by taking the damage itself.

      Venturing out into the Pacific is a lot more thrilling when you are out there for a purpose, such as fishing. During an in-season fishing expedition, your average Alaskan fisherman will likely have no idea how their catch will turn out even if they have been fishing for several years. The outcome of every seasonal catch therefore greatly determines a fisherman’s livelihood. While this uncertainty might seem like a deterrent from the occupation, most fishermen have learned ways to accept the outcomes of their catch and adapt.

      An arrangement of tools used on a fishing vessel

      A few standard fishermen's tools, above. Fishermen need a varied skill set to perform upkeep on their vessels. 

      A lot of different fundamental skills are necessary for being a fisherman. While the obvious skill and knowledge about fish habitats and boat upkeep — such as maintaining and/or changing zinc anodes — play a crucial role in a fisherman’s success, masterful fishermen have a few other characteristics they rely on:

      Motivation

        When your livelihood relies on something as crucial as how much fish you catch, it is difficult to face the possibility of a catch that fails to sustain you and those dependent on you. Therefore I was curious to understand the motivation behind getting into fishing: what got you into this business and what makes you stay in the profession? For some, setting sail to go fish is so integral to their lives that they cannot even remember a time in which they haven’t been fishing. For others, getting into fishing was perhaps a something that followed a more deliberate, conscious decision. Either way, fishing comes with great costs as well as a huge physical and emotional burden, so making sure you are anchored to this way of life is critical in finding happiness and success.

        Connection to land

          Being out in the waters for weeks and maybe even months on end without touching land is a sacrifice one needs to make when one sets out for fishing, so looking forward to coming back to something helps. The feeling of being able to come home to someone is something that remains cherished among all fishermen, young and old alike. Through my conversation with Spencer, it was clear how fishermen looked forward to being home, the euphoria that came with reading books with their families, even if that meant they were no longer in the vast waters exploring the wild.

          Environmental Consciousness

            Fishermen cannot let themselves fall into the common "the ocean is vast, take anything you want!" narrative simply because, as with all other resources on Earth, fisheries need time to replenish. A thoughtful fisherman will take time to study the life cycles of the fish they rely on whether that be through textbooks or through generations of knowledge that has been passed down. A fisherman with an environmentally conscious mindset will, therefore, think about the future of fisheries, and the various ecosystems on which they rely. A true test of understanding limits, putting said limits to check and stepping back when needed makes for a successful fisherman.

            Willingness to Learn

              Whether you are a greenhorn or a lifelong fisherman, the learning never stops. Dedicated fishermen will never miss an opportunity to learn about the place that surrounds them, particularly if it relates directly to the changing status of fisheries. Understanding that truth transcends belief and that proper actions need to be taken where appropriate in order to reduce the negative impacts taking place in the oceans is crucial. 

              Looking out for one another

                Conviviality is key to maintaining a level headed social life as a fisherman. This aspect of social well-being is not limited to land and applies particularly in treacherous waters. They all need to watch out for each other. It's part of the fishermen's way. 

                Spencer Severson - fisherman by trade

                Spencer Severson fishes for Sitka Salmon Shares aboard the F/V Dryas. He's also the retired Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director. 

                When I met with Spencer, I was swayed by his humbleness and humility. To this day, we laugh about how I accidentally dropped his tools into the water while helping him out at the docks. All of these characteristics pertained not only to Spencer, but also to all the other fishermen I had the wonderful opportunity to meet during my time in Sitka. What I am eluding towards is that a fisherman’s greatest tool isn’t their hook or their line. It is who they are as a person, and what characteristics they let themselves be defined by. Motivation, connection to the land, environmental consciousness, willingness to learn, and ability to look out for one another, like the tools they keep to maintain their boats, are essential to a fishermen's success.

                Shresha Karmacharya was an intern with Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) during the summer of 2018, a post created by Sitka Salmon Shares 1% to the Wild program in collaboration with SCS and Knox College. 

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