Thinking of a Japanese friend on the Bering Sea, and my freedom to leave

February 7, 2007 by  

Bering sea

I spent a good chunk of my twenties as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. It’s one of those things that appears fantastic in hindsight - steaming out of Dutch Harbor, wind blowing through my hair, muscles rippling, etc.

In reality, of course, it was a hellish collection of freezing 18-hour work days, surrounded by fish. Overall, an interesting thing to have in your past. At the time, though, it more or less sucked.

One thing those days taught me is that when scientists claim that the world could be out of fish in 40 years, they aren’t just hysterical eco-bedwetters. Even then, more than a decade ago, one was told about the decline of fish in the Bering Sea. And one could see how man abused the sea.

I particularly remember my first trip. Three months on a trawler, which was three months too many. We’d send a huge net down deep in the ocean and scoop up everything available. We fished mainly for mackerel, but the seasons were limited. On the day that mackerel season closed, we went in search of Pacific Ocean Perch (POP).

POP is a red fish, very easy to differentiate from mackerel. The first time we dropped the net for the start of POP season, we pulled up a full net of fish. Full of mackerel. As mackerel season had been closed, we weren’t allowed to keep any of them.

It took us just two hours to process the net of fish that day, as we sent 20,000 pounds of dead mackerel back into the ocean. The boat was filled with depressed young fishermen, wondering what the hell they were doing out there. It was an extremely sad day.

I was thinking about those days recently, more to the point, thinking of the Japanese guys I worked with out there on longliners (after my trawler experience, I worked the rest of my time out there on longliners, which are much less wasteful). You see, a Japanese company owned 49 percent (the most allowed) of our company, and always had several workers on board.


I was thinking of Nakasuka, in particular. He was a hardworking guy, who was as old then as I am now, about 40. While not a big fan of Americans in particular, Nakasuka (Suka, for short) would take a liking to anyone, provided they worked hard enough. We worked together for the better part of three years, and got along well, despite not understanding each other’s language.

What struck me as I thought about Suka was this - he’s out there. Right now. Because that’s what he is - a fisherman.

It was part of the reason the Japanese we worked with tended to dislike Americans. Because while the trite phrase of “They hate us for our freedoms” is a load of crap when discussing terrorists, it was partly true on a fishing boat. The Americans there were destined to leave the boat to try other things. The Japanese were fisherman for life.

The translator on board (we had a total crew of less than 40, and the translator also was a worker) told me once that for these Japanese men, being a fisherman was honorable. The culture itself was one that mainly cared about money - the only way for you to be successful was to make a lot of it. But fisherman were respected, even though they weren’t rich. They brought home the food.

But they were definitely jealous. We could come and go as we pleased, but their lives were mapped out, and had been for a long time.

Even then I knew I eventually wanted to be a writer or a journalist at some point, and I sit here now with those things as my job description. While Nakasuka is floating on the Bering Sea, still.

Because Americans are free. In our culture, we still make our own paths, rather than having them built for us, as Suka had. Since then, however, Japanese culture has changed somewhat dramatically. The young have more choices and opportunity. Suka missed out on that, but his children likely haven’t.

Because cultures change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. What’s important for Americans, however, is to hold on to the one thing that we always hearken to - freedom. But as U.S. culture changes, and freedom becomes more and more attached to wealth, and freedoms become under appreciated, we need to fight to keep our rights as free men.

Was my time as a fisherman a wasted time of a wasted youth? To a point. But it was my choice, my decision, my experience. The pain and the cold and the wet have slowly left my mind, but the memories and lessons remain.

The main lesson was that I’ve been free to do whatever I’ve wanted, just about anywhere I wanted. That was the blessing, and I can only hope that future U.S. generations have the same freedom to have interesting experiences, or even make outlandish mistakes. Because cultures change. And not always for the better.



6 Responses to “Thinking of a Japanese friend on the Bering Sea, and my freedom to leave”

  1. HillCountryGal on February 7th, 2007 4:36 pm

    This is stunning in beauty.
    I saw your comment at C&L, and am glad I clicked on your blue homepage thingie.
    Nice to meet you.

  2. William K. Wolfrum on February 8th, 2007 12:49 am

    Thank you very much, Gal. I truly appreciate the kind words. And here I was about to go to the Dr. to get my blue homepage thingie checked out. ;)

    Seriously, glad you came by.


  3. Get to know Bill, Part 4: I froze my piñata off in Alaska at Shakesville on June 11th, 2007 2:18 pm

    [...] But it was being cold that ultimately got to enroll at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I was finishing what was my final tour of duty on a longliner in the Bering Sea. Freezing, tired and 28, it finally occurred to me that being a fisherman was not really the plan I had for my life. [...]

  4. Hack on July 8th, 2009 11:11 pm

    You’re a deep well William. Nice piece.

  5. Samantha on July 8th, 2009 11:15 pm

    Good that you’ve been able to achieve some of your goals. Let’s hope Suka finds his peace someday too.
    Complicated world out there.

  6. Wolfrum Chronicled, 1 « Politics « William K. Wolfrum Chronicles on May 20th, 2013 7:07 am

    [...] something I wrote about him in 2007: I spent a good chunk of my twenties as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. It’s one of those [...]

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