The Commercial Fishing Skills Camp completed its first successful camp this past June 2019 in Pilot Point, Alaska. The camp is designed to provide hands-on experience for Bristol Bay watershed youth, (ages 13-16 yr old), who are interested in getting a job in the salmon fishery.
Many of the fisheries in Alaska are family oriented with skippers hiring family and friends to work their operations. Over the years, fishing permits that originated in Bristol Bay have migrated away from the local area. It is harder for those not connected through familial or social ties to enter the fishery. This Commercial Fishing Skills Camp teaches the basics of commercial fishing to students who may, in turn, choose to enter commercial fisheries as a career. Usually, the best way to learn the commercial fishing trade is to be hired on as a crewmember and work the whole season but, if a student doesn’t have any family or friends in the fishery, this camp could serve as a stepping-stone to that first job.
The camp is a unique partnership between Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp (BBEDC), the Bristol Bay Regional Career Tech program (BBRCTE), and a commercial salmon set net operation, Red Dog Salmon LLC managed by Catie Bursch.
The Com Fish Skills camp takes place in an old Alaska Packers Assoc. fishermen’s bunkhouse, (built in 1918) on the beach in front of the village of Pilot Point on the Ugashik River. The Bursch family and their hard-working crew have fixed up the building over the past 6 years to provide an efficient and comfortable work platform for their large commercial salmon set net operation. “We’ve got this nice shop now, bunks for 10, a large kitchen and over thirty years of experience teaching young people how to set net. When conversations with local Bristol Bay residents centered around a skills camp idea I thought; We can do this!” explained Catie Bursch.
During the camp, the students get to work on a little bit of everything they might encounter as a new crewmember. Being safe while working on the water is at the top of the list; taught through stories, discussions and on the water drills. Learning what gear a crewman needs to bring to a job for warmth and safety and what to look for on a boat /skiff to be sure they are signing on with a safe skipper/operation are shared and lists sent home in their notebooks.
Sitting around the galley table there are stories and teachings about tides, types of anchors, salmon prices/markets, and one of the hardest things….role-playing in asking a skipper for a job! Scary!
Students learn the names of common tools and basic outboard maintenance and winterizing down in the shop when the weather is bad. Working together to measure out and hang a gillnet for the first time was a challenge but there were diagrams of knots and net notes for future reference back at home in the village. Mending nets was a great time to listen to good music and tell jokes and stories and they became experts on two-bar holes.
As you could guess, the time on the water in the boat is the most fun! Working the net and picking salmon, learning how to make a safe delivery to a tender and driving the skiff (with direct supervision) is the best way to learn.
Although not as romantic, cooking and cleaning when part of a crew was not overlooked. After alarm clocks went off in the morning, students were up learning easy meals proven to sustain fellow crewmates. Oatmeal, “one-eyed Stanleys” and a stack of sandwiches for lunch were completed and galley was clean before the workday began.
On the last day while waiting for the plane, the camp instructors realized these smart and energetic students had done everything on the syllabus! So they threw in an extra challenge and showed the kids how to splice. No problem. They were quick studies and were doing eye-splices within the hour.
Catie, camp manager, said, “After working with the school district and funders to work the administrative kinks out of this idea, actually holding the camp was the fun part. Now we have a pretty good model for a Commercial Fishing Skills Camp and I am hopeful that other fishing operations will be interested in working with school districts to hold additional camps.”
Many folks were excited about this camp and pitched in to help make it happen. "From set net crew starting the season early to teach at the camp, a school chaperone gave up part of his summer vacation, tender crews cleared the deck early for our deliveries, Salmon Sisters donated fishing gear we needed, and the local Pilot Point villagers welcomed the students and made sure we had heating fuel and gas delivered in time to start the camp, even though it was early in the season," explained Catie. Many thanks to all who supported this important learning opportunity for Bristol Bay youth.