When you’re a commercial salmon fisherman time suddenly seems irrelevant. The days and weeks blend together as one. You go from “go-go-go” between 9am-5pm in your normal life to your entire days being dependent upon the tides. Your days are no longer constrained by the tick tock of the clock, but the comings and goings of the floods and ebbs of your ocean. As most know, the moon’s gravitational pull generates tidal force. When the tide is coming in to shore, it’s referred to as the flood. When it’s going back out to sea, it’s referred to as the ebb. It no longer matters if it’s 2am or 7pm – if the tide is up and we’re open to fish, we’re awake, working, and fishing hard to catch our quality salmon. We sleep when we can, try to eat on schedule, and work on camp projects in between – no matter what our clocks say.
We don’t fish whenever we please. We are limited by strict rules and regulations put in place by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) who manage Alaska’s wild salmon population. The ADF&G sets specific times and tides for each fishing district based on the number of salmon that have escaped upriver. There are times we are limited to fishing one tide per day; there are times we go days without fishing; and then are times when we fish every tide for days on end.
We are set net fishers and we fish from the beach. Regulations governing our fishery allow us to fish up to 1000 feet from the beach and we depend on tides coming and going to bring the fish to our nets. When the tide ebbs and goes back out to sea, it drains way far out (what looks like miles) from our nets. Our nets are dry and we have no fish. However, when tides flood in and come all the way up to the berm before our cabin, the fish swim right up on the beach following the tide upriver and swim into our nets.
There are two tides every day – we often divide them as an AM tide and a PM tide and every day they are approximately an hour later than the day before. For example, if the tide is flooding at 10am today, it’ll be flooding around 11am tomorrow, and so on. Eventually the AM tide becomes the PM, and the PM tide becomes the AM. These tides are drawn out for us far in advance. Popsie heavily depends on our Captain Jack Almanac for this reason. The almanac illustrates the tides coming and going for each fishing district – it relates the relative timing of floods and ebbs, along with the relative highs and lows of each tide. This information determines how we fish each tide – especially when relating it to ADF&G’s opening and closing times. Our daily routine often involves each crew member looking at the current day in the almanac; along with constant conversations of game plans, scheduling our days around the tides, and create our sleep and eat schedule for the next 24 hours. One small miscalculation can cause a huge loss of potential salmon from our nets or create dangerous situations setting our nets.
Of course, we all make mistakes and commercial fishing has a learning curve – Popsie has our fair share of stories of misreading the next tide’s relative times or highs/lows. There have been times when tides have flooded so fast, you can feel the salmon hitting your legs and dragging down your net, making it almost impossible to set it up. There have been times our setting time was miscalculated; water already above your hips when trying to set and still flooding in beginning to fill your waterproof waders with cold Bristol Bay water. There have been times we have sat out on the dry ocean floor waiting for the flood to come crawling in for what feels like hours. Reading our almanac takes practice, and the more time and experience each crew member has, the easier it gets to avoid small mistakes that can have big consequences.
It’s strange having your life that once revolved around the clock 24/7 go from time to tide; from clock to almanac. Tides bring the salmon to our nets, quite literally bringing us our livelihood and they also determine the rhythm of our days: fishing, eating, sleeping, and working.
Written by: Erin Washer