Sirens of the Sea

Kevin Scribner on the Antigone

“Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”
— from a country music song written by Ed and Patsy Bruce

There are different gangplanks for boarding a boat to become a fisherman—and please note that my women skipper and deckhand friends from Alaska prefer to be called fishermen. Some fishermen come at it from the family-way, with some families tallying four, five, or even more generations-at-sea and counting. I know of Tribal fishermen in the Pacific Northwest who set the generational count at seventeen hundred.

Kevin Scribner on the Antigone

Kevin Scribner on the Antigone in the 1970s.

And I’ll bet you a good bunch of these fishermen are dreamers. Be it dreaming to “score a big jag” of fish the next time out and already counting the money, or scheming about how to get off the back-deck into the skipper’s chair, or designing ways to get great fish to buyers, or simply dreaming via the Cineplex of REM dreams that abound when long waking hours are coupled with short-but-deep shut-eye on a bunk just inches away from all the seas in the world.

Something compelling has to be at play to draw one away from the comforts of the shore out onto the seas, which I’m hard pressed to always call friendly. It’s 24/7 work—one’s always on the boat with no certainty of catch and weather that can turn 180 degrees on a dime—and then the return home is met by prices often set by suits far from the water.

Nonetheless, the call of the sea is strong, and often coming like that from the Sirens of Ancient Greece. While fishermen feared those Sirens for causing shipwrecks, not all songs of the seas portend disaster. There’s plenty of sweet music to be had when on the water.

My Story

I was born in Seattle, Washington, on Puget Sound, which is now considered a part of the Salish Sea that extends way up into British Columbia. This region belongs to what Portland, OR-based Ecotrust calls “Salmon Nation.” Salmon Nation is where I grew up, this is where I now live, and this is where I fished.

In fact, since an infant my body and mind has been made by salmon. It was a key component of my family’s staple diet, thanks to the fellow our neighborhood fondly called Uncle Herb. Herb had spent a lifetime at sea, and by the time I was born he owned a salmon cannery in Southeast Alaska. Every fall he brought trunk-loads of dinged-up market-unworthy cans, plus lots of stories. Our collie dog had the shiniest coat and kept watch over Aunt Gertrude and him, paid in full with salmon. Our pantry was never empty.

Made by salmon and raised on Herb’s stories, I was destined to be the first of five Scribner generations not to work in the timber industry. I also did not follow my father into the world of higher-education, other than getting a college degree in English literature. My gangplank appeared via my college senior year roommate, who worked summers on a Puget Sound purse-seiner fishing for salmon. After graduation I worked my way onto the boat, then tried a variety of fisheries before arriving in Bristol Bay, Alaska, where I spent most of my career.

In 1977, I spent a short stint on the Antigone, with skipper-friend, Gary. A 32-foot wooden double-ender built in the 1920’s, it could easily take most seas coming straight on or crashing in from behind. But it couldn’t power out of trouble. The Antigone required us to keep on top of the weather reports, plus note any sudden switch of the winds, which were often first sensed on the back-of-the-head hair hanging below a woolen watch-cap, alerting you to make a run to shore before the storm.

We were hook-and-line fishing for Chinook salmon, the big fellahs, off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. And here came my first introduction to the influence of policy and regulation. The Washington State Fish & Game Commission had just ruled that commercial salmon fishermen had to use “barbless hooks.” Was it just ironic that this didn’t apply to the sports fishermen, too? Maybe this was a tip-of-the-hat to the prowess of we commercial guys, in that we didn’t need the barbs. Or the Commission wanted to add a little “sport” into our methods, to give the fish a better chance to get away. This ruling made us cranky—and it taught me early to pay attention to policy doings and to watch for which interest groups had the ear of the decision-makers.

Gary guided me well, and I only lost one king as it deftly flicked the barbless hook aside when I relaxed on the line. And Gary taught me how to take care of fish once on board, for there’s a timer that begins ticking once you have fish on board related to the fact that ambient air temperature is usually higher than that of the seawater. Higher temps equal deterioration, which can scream along if you don’t immediately take care of the fish.

We would quickly dress the fish and get it below decks into a cover of ice. With a penchant for detail, Gary would tell me to wet down the deck before sliding the fish to the hold—never throw the fish, never! Not only wet the deck, but slide the fish with, not against, the overlapping grain of the scales. Intact scales are a clear sign of a well-handled fish.

Gary also gave me a taste for direct-marketing and vertical integration—and folks, this was in the 1970’s. With some partners, he founded the Wild Salmon Seafood Market, which is still operating at the Seattle Fishermen’s Terminal, albeit under different ownership.

In 1983, perplexed by the lack of salmon from the onset of the first major El Nino event known to significantly affect us along the Pacific Coast, Gary headed further out from the relatively near-shore king salmon waters, now chasing albacore tuna. One stormy night, after receiving a May-Day with coordinates, the closest near-by boat steamed over to find no sign of the Antigone.

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be fishermen.

I had committed to Bristol Bay by that time, so I was up there when Gary was lost at sea. The Call of the Sirens… compelled by dreams to cast off from shore. Thankfully there are many fewer shipwrecks than one would imagine.

Songs from the Oceans

The Sirens’ songs you will hear on this blog will come from fishermen. You’ll also hear of working waterfronts, as you’ll learn how it takes a village to support a fleet, and vice-versa. You’ll get wind of the myriad inventive ways fishermen are devising to deliver you high quality seafood in as direct a manner as possible. Some day you may visit and get to know these folks and possibly buy into their seafood delivery system…and support their drive for sustainable fisheries into the foreseeable future.

The seas are our common heritage managed by state and federal government

You’ll hear of days on a boat far away from stoplights and free from restraints other than those set by fishery management. We fishermen celebrate the fact that no one person or business can outright own the ocean. The seas are our common heritage managed by state and federal government, plus some influence from international treaties. But if one has a serious fishing dream, it isn’t long before one bumps up against management regulations.

It is the goal of the Marine Fish Conservation Network (Network) to ensure our national policies help keep these dreams alive and our working waterfronts thriving. These dreams require healthy ocean ecosystems matched by healthy social systems. As it was when I was salmon fishing, there still is tension between the commercial and recreation sectors—but the Network is able to shift this into “creative tension,” if not collaboration, with both sectors represented on its Board and Policy Council. This is huge!

These dreams require healthy ocean ecosystems matched by healthy social systems.

And the Network is keeping an eye on the primary law of the US seas, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). The MSA was devised a long ways from Salmon Nation, in the other Washington—DC, that is. Fortunately the MSA was designed to have fisheries management work at the regional level, for no seacoast is the same. And after a good 4 decades of evolution and implementation, the MSA is working well. To us fishermen, this translates to “keep on course, it’s been charted well.”

And thanks to the Network for watch-dogging the legislative process for us, and for giving those of us on faraway waters a voice in the Halls of Congress.

And please remember that many skilled boatmen are chasing dreams to provide you with seafood. Stay tuned to this blog for how you, too, can help these lads and lasses with supportive policy and regulations that will let them focus on their already full radar screen of challenges.

About Kevin Scribner

Kevin Scribner, a former fisherman, is the founder of Forever Wild Seafood and serves on the Slow Food USA Food and Farm Policy Committee.

2 comments on “Sirens of the Sea

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  2. Hey, Kevin. I had always thought–I guess because I had never really seen it even with seafood companies with women skippers–that most female fishermen don’t really like the term “fisherwomen.” Admittedly, it doesn’t really roll off the tongue and has a very different-than-us feeling to it.

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