Reactions to my extreme job

Between catching up with friends, seeing family and meeting new people over the holidays, I’ve gotten a lot of questions and interesting reactions about my job. Sometimes, the questions are even more than I know or too hard or variable to explain (hell, I barely understand it myself).

During my first contract I wrote a short post about the pros and cons of working remotely, now here’s a deeper dive into some commonly asked questions about what I do.

Wait, what?

For of all, my job is kind of hard to explain. It took three weeks just to train and I’m not about to explain a 600+ page protocol manual to anyone.

The really short version of it is I work on commercial fishing vessels monitoring catch quantities and composition for fisheries management.

My company (Saltwater Inc.) is contracted by the government (NOAA or NMFS in the Department of Commerce) to take data they use for regulations. The short version of that is when catch is brought on board, I take samples of the haul (usually between 100-300kg worth of fish) and note the number of fish and weight by species and for certain species, take biological data such as length, sex, maturity and otoliths (little bones in the head that reveal the age of the fish). How I sample varies gear by gear and boat by boat, so when answering questions about my job, I say, “It depends” a lot. All the time, we are required to monitor for bird and marine mammal mortality and possible vessel safety violations.

Omg, like Deadliest Catch?

Like most reality shows, it’s very dramatized, so no, not really, but it’s basically the only piece of pop culture commercial fishing has. I’ve never actually seen any episodes, but my crews make fun of them all the time. However, a few of my fellow observers have hung out with fishermen featured on the show and I’ve seen camera crews taping Dutch Harbor b-rolls. Observers are not on the Deadliest Catch boats as they belong to the state (my job is federal), new fishing laws make it less of a race to the finish, if the weather is rough we usually wait it out, and most captains are huge on safety and deaths/injuries these days are very few and far between… but I guess Mildest Catch doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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How can you stand the smell?

What smell? In all seriousness, the worst thing I’ve smelled so far are the preserved specimens we studied in lab, although the fish factory and rotting squid and fish left in the net or nooks and crannies of the deck come close. The fish are so fresh out of the sea when they’re brought on board, they don’t smell.

Do you get seasick?

Whoever says “no” hasn’t been on the right (or wrong) boat yet. I was feeling good about my sea legs on my first boat until I was debilitating ill for my first few days on my second boat because the weather was bad and the boat didn’t ride well. From then on, I was sure to take seasick medicine regularly (I brought three different kinds to try and test what works) and haven’t had many problems since. I might get ill the first ten hours or so out and queasy after that, but not too sick to work. I’m sure my bosses appreciate that.

How did you get this job?!

Honestly, I applied to dozens and dozens of jobs between December and April and this was the only one that got back to me. Although they even told me I was overqualified, apparently I was underqualified for everything else I applied for, so I took the job. It worked out pretty damn well seeing as I like it so much!

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This doesn’t have to do anything with my job, I just thought it was a great picture of wild Alaska! Image by Fly Shop Alaska.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen?

Unfortunately, I can’t disclose what’s brought on board, but so far I haven’t seen anything too crazy on the boats. My fishery is “clean,” meaning the catch is usually 99%+ whatever we’re targeting. However, I can say I’ve seen quite a few humpback whales at the beginning of my contract (early August). Flying over the bay into Dutch Harbor I could see them from the plane and again walking into town, all you year is a soft pft in the distance and see a geyser spraying from the sea of whales breathing, it’s so peaceful.

Is it cold?

Seeing as Anchorage hit 90°F (32°C) the week before I left, it’s a firm “not yet.” At sea, it hovers around the 60°F (15°C) mark and I’m quite sheltered from wind and spray when I’m on deck. After moving 200+ kilograms worth of fish around, I’m sweating buckets under my raingear, so I am looking forward to slightly cooler weather (although it rarely gets below freezing where I work in the Aleutian Islands). You can always add more layers!

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Image by Loren Holmes.

What’s the food on the boat like?

As a vegetarian, I was afraid to be a bother with my dietary requests. But even on small boats (crew of 3-5), they were very accommodating and the food was quite tasty! My favorite meals were pasta, pho and all the salad.

Do you ever eat the fish you catch?

On some boats, yes. Even though I’m vegetarian, I can’t resist fresh-caught fish, especially when I know exactly where it came from, the sustainability status of this fishery and how it’s prepared. I’ve had cod, Rex sole and shortraker rockfish tacos.

I’ve always wanted to be a marine biologist.

I’m really just a glorified fish counter. I’m going to be honest, I never know how to reply to this. I’d probably say something stupid like, “So have I, and that’s why I am.” They’re trying to get rid of the Bachelor’s degree requirement for my position, so come aboard! If you can hack it.

Photo by Corey Arnold.

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1 Comment

  1. Don
    December 9, 2019 / 12:38 pm

    Best post yet!!!

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