Most of you are thumbing through this month’s The Catch within a few days of the longest days of the year here in Southeast Alaska — the summer solstice, where our days stretch long into our nights. For a few weeks in June the boundary between night and day becomes indistinguishable, where the sun’s light peers through the sky at all hours of a day.
For our fleet, the solstice means some of their longest and hardest days of the year. “The grind,” as it is sometimes called. During these few long weeks, fish like to bite at dawn and dusk, meaning that there’s plenty of mornings where baiting gear takes place at 2:30 a.m. and the final fish isn’t cleaned and on ice until well after midnight. Sleep, quite literally, can be just the blink of an eye.
Make sure, especially, to enjoy your fish these next few months. They are some of the hardest earned of the year.
—Nic Mink, co-founder
This past year we have all benefited from invisible labor. Our economy would screech to a halt without the service workers who deliver our mail, meals, and medicine. These folks show up every day mostly unnoticed, and their work improves our lives in ways we’d certainly notice if they were to suddenly stop working.
Tendermen hold a similar crucial, invisible yet life improving role for our fishing fleet. Our tendermen play a critical role in our fleet, but their names don’t appear on your fillets of fish or pouches of crab. Our fishermen know well the important work of tendermen, but this month, we’d like to share their story with you, our members.
A fish tender provides a fishing fleet essential services while fishermen are out on the water away from town, from delivering groceries to making crucial fishing vessel repairs. During the course of a season, our tender resupplies our fleet with fresh ice to keep your fish cold. It also picks up fish from our fishermen and delivers them to our fish plant team in Sitka, which frees the fisherman from that burden, giving them more fishing time and ensuring that you receive the highest quality fish possible.
A tender that has played an important role in our Sitka operations for the last several years is the F/V Lady B, a 48-foot long boat built in 1978 to catch Dungeness crab. Juneau resident Tom Brayton owns and skippers the vessel and brings a lifetime of experience to the job. Tom came to Alaska after graduating from high school. He walked the docks until he found work on a crab boat. “I was 18 years old in Dutch Harbor, and it was absolutely lawless,” Tom says. “I liked what I was doing, but it was brutally hard work.”
Tom worked during the king crab boom years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. He would fish in the Bering Sea until the boat was plugged with crab and sleep four hours or less a day.
The work paid handsomely. “My share was $14,000 from one load, and we would do that four times in a month,” Tom recalls. But the boom ended and the work took a toll on his body. “I can’t close my hands all the way, but I wanted to stay on the water,” Tom says, “and working as a tender is a way to do it.”
For Tom, a typical day begins slowly. “My day starts at 6:30 AM with a cup of coffee or two because I've been up most of the night,” Tom says. By 7 a.m., Tom is loading 500-pound totes full of ice to deliver to our fleet. Next, Tom heads ashore to fetch mail, groceries, and sometimes a spouse or deckhand to take to a fishing vessel. Shortly after noon, the F/V Lady B leaves the dock to rendezvous with our fleet. The high latitude sun sets the schedule for everyone, and Tom uses this time to prep food for crews who have been up working since dawn (3 a.m. in southeast Alaska during the summer) and won’t rest until the sun goes down around 11 p.m.
“I usually make a big pot of stew or taco bowls for the fishermen, but my only meal for the day is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some coffee. And I’m serious,” Tom says. Nutrition is essential to fishermen, but the demands of life at sea often get in the way.
Our fleet manager, Lauren Mitchell, knows all about it. She has worked in maritime industries for 15 years, from serving as a naturalist and guide for tourist vessels to skippering on a fishing tender. Her boyfriend is a commercial fisherman and fishing together for a season left an impression on her. “He finished the fishing season and he was a stick figure. He lost so much weight,” she says. “He’s fishing for 20 hours a day. He wouldn't make time to eat, and he was just eating like bacon and peanut M&M’s basically.”
The next season Lauren prepared dozens of frozen meals in 9- by 9-inch aluminum pans so he would have the fuel needed to flourish during a grueling fishing season. When working as a tenderman the past few years, Lauren took to preparing trays of warm cookies and brownies for fishermen and treats for a fisherman’s best friend. “The dog would always be on the rail all excited because we always kept dog treats on the boat,” she says.
For Lauren, she sees the value of our community supported fishery (CSF) as measured in the well-being of Alaska’s small-boat fishing fleet. “There are so many fishermen out there that are still living hand to mouth,” she says. “We're offering our members a higher dock price and that equates to having more capital to reinvest into your business, more capital to pay off the loans on your boat, fix your boat, not live hand to mouth, pay your bills ahead of time.”
After a lifetime on the ocean, Tom feels a deep sense of gratitude for what the CSF offers our fishermen. “Our members are part of something that’s not just dinner,” he says. “That food is coming from somewhere, from somebody that is a lot like you. These are family operations, and this food is one family to another and I'm doing my darndest to keep this fish cool and get it to town so it can get into the pouches and to your family.” When you support small-boat fishermen, you support a way of life that values stewardship of people and the ocean and strengthen the connections we all share, from dock to doorstep.
Building a better food system will not only deliver to you a fresh, traceable meal, it will also provide greater opportunities for small-boat fishermen. This past year revealed the dignity in all forms of labor and the necessity of just compensation for the invisible jobs in our economy. When you sit down to share the catch with your family and friends, remember the folks like Tom and Lauren working hard behind the scenes to make it all possible.
Grace in the Kitchen
Freshly Baked Goodies
Hey Salmonsharesians! Have you noticed that fishing has a seemingly infinite number of metaphors? The story of our tenders, those men and women who support our fishermen at sea with supplies and services, is one that resonates deeply, especially with those of us who cook for others, whether for our families or friends. One of the definitions of “tender,” after all, is to show care.
Throughout the pandemic, I was moved by the generosity of people “tendering” to the needs of complete strangers, many of them uneasy about leaving their homes. I’d seen notes pinned to bulletin boards, on community list-serves, or taped to lamp posts offering services that included grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions, and setting up computers so folks could Zoom with their grandkids or doctors.
For my part (small as it was), I shoveled sidewalks and picked up groceries for some of my older neighbors and delivered them lots of freshly baked goodies. (I “tendered” to myself by baking my way through 8 seasons of the Great British Baking Show. Thanks, Paul and Mary.) They received fresh muffins, Irish soda bread, lemony drizzle cakes, and some pretty killer brown butter chocolate chip cookies. We’ve posted the recipe online hoping that you might bake a batch or two to share with your family and friends.
Wishing you all peace, tenderness, great fish, and killer cookies!