Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Francisca “Captain T” Barnett
I had the Cracker Jack Voyager for a full day, for salmon and halibut sportfishing. The trip departs the dock at 6 a.m., so I get up at 4:30. I open up the engine room, check the fluid, turn on all my breakers, start warming up the mains — the engines. While they’re warming up, we talk about how many guests we have, what our game plan is.
It always changes because Mother Nature is a constant factor. Today, it seemed like the weather would be rough, so we adjusted our plan to go where it would be calm. Everyone was on the boat at 6. I did my safety briefing. I have a really funny one: I tell them to get a life ring if somebody goes overboard, and if you like them, you can even hold on to the rope on the other side.
We headed out and it was a three-hour drive. Most people fall asleep, while I try to dodge logs, stay awake. Drink Red Bull. We got a few big ones once we got out there, five or six bigger halibut, over 40 pounds. Sometimes we’ll get 200-pounders. We headed to our salmon grounds, this pretty spot next to a glacier. We ended up getting 30 salmon in the very last 30 minutes. While my crew started cutting the fish, scrubbing, putting away gear, I do what I do: drive, and entertain people.
A lot of older men would ask me where the captain was — they would just assume I was the deckhand or the office person.
People will tell me I am the first person they met here actually from here. They’re interested in what I do, where I grew up. I’m from Ninilchik, Alaska — a Russian village, fishing community — on the Kenai Peninsula. People ask why I started working as a deckhand at 14 years old. In most towns, your first job is either at a restaurant or a store; in our town, there was only one restaurant and one store, and both hired their kids to do the work.
My family were commercial halibut fishermen, but when the state went to an individual fishing quota system — before it was derby-style, meaning you could fish as much as you wanted in a certain time frame — they couldn’t make a living off it. Around that time, people started visiting Alaska more — and wanted to go fishing. It was the craziest thing ever: People could get halibut at the store, but they wanted to pay to go catch it.
People in our community started taking visitors out sportfishing. When I was 18, I became captain of The Trapper, a 36-foot Koffler aluminum boat with twin 150-horsepower outboards. We didn’t have a marina, so they would launch it off the beach. Just drive right up the surf. Every summer since, I’ve sportfished. It isn’t easy being one of the few women in this business. Especially when I was younger and I would be really offended by people. A lot of older men would ask me where the captain was — they would just assume I was the deckhand or the office person.
I’ve never once had anyone come up and be like, “Oh, hi, you must be the captain.” I won the big fish derby last year with a 197-pound halibut; this year, I caught a 229-pounder and took third. It’s hard to learn not to carry a chip on your shoulder after so long. It wasn’t until I had my two children — one is 6, the other 3 — that I learned to get rid of that chip, because it’s a lot to carry.
We have some of the last untouched fish in the world. There are fewer fish and more people and everybody wants the same fish: halibut, salmon, crab. It’s competitive — three years ago, there were Russian boats fishing illegally on the borders and waters in the Bering Sea and they didn’t even send the Coast Guard; the government asked them nicely to leave. The Russians were raping the ocean, stuff we’re trying to manage because we want them to last. They take everything, and leave with it. We have quotas, licensing. Russia, Japan don’t have anything anymore, because they didn’t manage their resources. Then they come here. Politically, they can’t do much, because if you don’t let someone fish, you might start a war.
As I get older, these are things I think about. I want these things to be saved for my children, [for them] to be able to enjoy it and have the same opportunity. My interest is in protecting the fisheries where I grew up. We’re affected by these laws most. I see huge seafood plants — Ocean Beauty, Icicle — staying open, while somebody like my grandpa, one person working with his sons, didn’t make it long once stuff started changing. Nobody really cared. A lot of people lost their boats, and it was super sad. The economy was so great for a while with fishing, and now the school has trouble having enough money for teachers; they’re cutting the budget, and parents are constantly having alumni like myself write letters to keep the doors open, to make it so the children in the community can actually stay there.
The federal fishery meetings in Alaska and Washington, D.C., haven’t started yet. I don’t know if the Trump administration has a different view from the previous one. They said they were for small businesses and bringing jobs back. People say they’re going to do something, but you never know. Perhaps only time will tell.
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