Featured Fisherman – Kristen Nueneker

Published: Sunday, 20 September 2015 14:00

Dear friends of virgin bay seafood,

This year we at Virgin Bay Seafood are going to bring you some of the stories behind our fish. You are going to meet some great Alaskans who make their living from the sea, working under adverse conditions in an amazing environment to bring a product to you, our customer, that is the finest seafood found anywhere in the world.

This first edition features Kristen Nueneker, A young lady from a fishing family in Petersburg Alaska. Read her story – you will be impressed.

“December 27, 2014 I set out on one of the most spectacular adventures I could have imagined. It was not to, as I originally planned my gap year between college and graduate school to be, some exotic country with white sand beaches and constant sunshine. I was on my way to work as a commercial fishing deckhand in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. As the plane from Anchorage began it’s decent to the Dutch Harbor airport the sky cleared and I looked out the window at an endless expanse of steely grey ocean and a scattered string of snow capped volcanic mountains. I was immediately struck by the intense beauty of the place. Of the sun laying its last amber colored rays on 100s of miles of Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean, and on the islands that seemed to be coming straight to mountain peaks from the very bottom of the sea. This rugged, uninviting environment of constant wind and cold would become my home for the next 10 weeks as I worked aboard the F/V Adamant fishing for Pacific Cod.

One may wonder why in the world a 23 year old girl would want to work in one of the most intense and brutal jobs on the planet? It’s a good question. I grew up in Petersburg, Alaska, a small fishing centered community in the Southeast Panhandle of Alaska. As a very young child I remember “helping” my dad work on his fishing gear and listening to him tell stories of his life as a commercial fisherman. From there I became obsessed with the idea that one day I would become a fisherman myself and witness some of the incredible sights my dad had. When I was 12 I began working summers full time as a deckhand on his boat. I ended up working closely with my father, mother and sister on our boat doing many different fisheries including salmon trolling, dungeness crabbing and halibut longlining. I spent 10 summers working as my father’s main deckhand and developed an intense passion for commercial fisheries in Alaska and a tight knit bond with my family as we worked through these fisheries together. As I began working on my undergraduate degree, I strayed away from commercial fishing, working instead with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. After I graduated college, my dad offered for me to come work on our boat he operated for fishing Pacific Cod in the winter, and I jumped on the opportunity. I was excited at the idea of fishing with my dad again and at the chance to get experience in a new place, the Aleutians.

To catch Pacific Cod we fished using pots, similar to crab pots, set along a string on the bottom of the ocean floor. A typical day fishing for us began around 3 am. The crew would get up, sleepily get dressed, grab some coffee and head out on to the deck. Once we had pulled up to the first buoy, one crew man would throw out the hook to bring in the line attached to the pot. Another crew man would run the hydraulic levers that controlled the block pulling in the pot. While this was happening a third crew man and I would be busy chopping fish up for bait and stuffing mesh bags with the pulverized fish. Once the pot came to the surface two crew men would work the rail while the other ran the hydraulics, working together to swing the pot around until it faced the right direction and steadying it to bring it on board. On board the pot rested on the launcher, held in place by hydraulic hooks called dogs. The launcher would then raise the pot up to a table where we processed the cod. I would stand on the other side of the boat while this happened, filling bait bags, emptying old bait, and cutting the collars of the cod to bleed them while counting what was in the pot. Once a fish was bled they would be sent down to the refrigerated hold where they would be kept until we offloaded the fish. After the pot was cleared of fish and rebaited, the launcher would tip it back over the side. This process would be repeated for the next 100 pots over a period of five to seven hours. After we finished we would have a few hours of rest while we ran the boat back up to the beginning of the string to haul it all over again. This rotation through the gear lasted around three days until we went to offload our fish. This meant running the boat to a secure bay around four hours from where we fished, if we got a tender boat to relay our fish back to town, and eight hours back to Dutch Harbor if we did not. This routine was heavily influenced by weather, as the wind and waves of the North Pacific can be very unforgiving. We battled through rain and snow, wind and rough seas and very cold temperatures.

Through all the rough times, I saw some of the most amazing places in the world and discovered how hard I could truly work before I broke. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes after working through a tough haul and the degree of bonding you can achieve with the people who you work and live with for months. I especially enjoyed the time I could spend with my dad doing something we both love. It’s because of fishing with my family that I am now in a graduate program doing salmon fishery research and looking at implications of salmon behavior on management of important southeast Alaska stocks. Pacific Cod are one of the Alaskan fisheries stocks that are doing extremely well and that have a high abundance. They are also very tasty, and can be cooked up in almost anything. As cook on our boat I prepared cod a multitude of different ways and we ate it for dinner around three times a week.”