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Battle fishing between Alaska and the Aleutians

Stories from the sand bar

Justin Martin with fellow crew, off Alaska.
Justin Martin with fellow crew, off Alaska.

“This night, we were stuck on a sand bar,” says Justin. “There’s weather out there, and strong current. There’s the potential for the boat to just get knocked over. The tide comes in very fast. It can bury you. Twenty-foot tides sometimes. They come in like floods.”

You’d never pick Justin Martin for a storm-grizzled Ancient Mariner. He looks too young, too preppy to have been out risking all in the storms of the Bering Sea. But he’s been fishing in those lethal waters between Alaska and the Aleutians for twenty years already. And right now, he’s already got me hooked with his story.

“The waves were smashing into the boat. The tide was coming in, and the boat was starting to tip. This was late in the season, and we couldn’t see anybody around. Our radios were broken, so we couldn’t call for help, and our greenhorn captain was having a complete mental breakdown. He was an emotionally unstable guy anyway. He was up on the fly bridge of the boat, ripping components out and throwing them overboard, including things that worked. Myself and the other deckhand, Erik - there were only three of us on the boat - we were looking at each other: ‘What do we do? Do we need to get our survival suits on? Like, what’s happening here? Are we going to die?’”

I had spotted Justin standing in his Hillcrest Farmers Market stall, beside his sign. “Maqi Seafoods. Wild, Fresh. Sustainable. Vista, California.”

Martin’s symbol for his Maqi Seafoods business.

Last time I wrote about fish was two weeks ago, actually about futurefish. Or bits of fish grown in a kind of vitamin soup from fish cells. Some people say we won’t need to actually go out and catch fish any more, once we perfect the growing of their cells. So it’s funny I should bump into Justin, who goes to the roughest seas in the coldest latitudes in the most dangerous circumstances possible. (And deaths in the fishing industry are 16 times higher than among US firefighters or police, and 40 times the national average, according to the UN’s International Labor Office, although these are 1996 figures. More recently, between 2000 and 2015, 725 fishermen have lost their lives fishing in US waters).

“Why do you do it?” I ask.

“Blame my brother,” he says. “He got a job up in Dillingham, Alaska. He was working as a chef for a cannery up there. And he gave me a call, in the spring of the year 2000, and asked me if I’d be interested in coming up to Alaska to do some seasonal work. Lots of work, long hours, not much to spend money on, I could make a good chunk of change. And I thought that could really help. I was 19, at college, studying biology at Southern Oregon University, and pulling out school loans. So I jumped on that opportunity. My first gig in Dillingham was in a boatyard. But I soon realized that if I could get on the right crew, there was the potential to make a lot more money out on a fishing boat.”

Justin Martin with two of his catch off Alaska.

He has been going up there every year since. “I am on a fantastic boat now,” he says. “We have had the same crew for the last six years. We’re like a well-oiled machine. We don’t have to say much, which speaks for the captain’s discretion. He can handle situations. And there are always situations. When there’s a [salmon] run, all the boats want in, trying to get in the right spot. We call it ‘battle fishing.’ You’re close to others. Equipment can get tangled between boats. Or, worse, it can foul the propellors. Things get very crazy. But that’s the thing about our crew. We never freak out and we never stop working. We push each other. That’s why we’re the highliner, the top-ranking boat.”

Yes, he’d like to captain his own boat some day. And maybe soon: partly because of covid, people are expecting a downswing in catching and consuming salmon. That could mean boats going out of business, prices for boats dropping. Justin is playing a waiting game.

Meantime he is here, with the salmon fillets he has been freezing and smoking and bringing down to sell at Southern California markets without having to pay middlemen commission. He loves being with his wife (they met when he was completing his degree at the University of Hawaii) and two kids, but he does miss Dillingham. Maybe because fishing is like the hunt: addictive, one of the last wild things we do.

“I love the life, the people, the Athabaskan, Aleut culture, the strong sense of community, the sense of humor, the way everybody hunts their allotment of moose, caribou every year. And the salmon! Those watersheds around Dillingham are pristine. It’s the largest wild salmon run left in America. I love eagles soaring, hearing the loons on the lake, seeing the salmon in their spawning grounds.”

And he also loves how, at the end of each fishing trip, the one thing everybody does is jump into somebody’s Maqi (pronounced “maa-gu’ey” in Yupik language), which is the sauna everybody has. “That’s where you thaw out. You have the steam temperature as hot as you can. You have a beer, you talk story. Lots of yucks and chucks. That’s why I chose ‘Maqi’ for my company name.”

So what happened that night they were stuck on the sand bar?

“Well, finally the tide came in and we didn’t get knocked over, thankfully. The boat started floating. We had lost one of our engines as well, but the other screw was still working. Except, the captain said he was going to go to sleep. He couldn’t be awake any longer. We were all exhausted. He asked me to drive us back to Dillingham. I was brand new. That’s a six-hour [boat trip], in pretty treacherous water. I knew nothing. I got up on the fly bridge, out in the wind and rain and cold, all night long, while the other guys were sleeping. That was my introduction to Alaska. But I always come back. I’ve known since I first went up: I’m a lifer.”

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Justin Martin with fellow crew, off Alaska.
Justin Martin with fellow crew, off Alaska.

“This night, we were stuck on a sand bar,” says Justin. “There’s weather out there, and strong current. There’s the potential for the boat to just get knocked over. The tide comes in very fast. It can bury you. Twenty-foot tides sometimes. They come in like floods.”

You’d never pick Justin Martin for a storm-grizzled Ancient Mariner. He looks too young, too preppy to have been out risking all in the storms of the Bering Sea. But he’s been fishing in those lethal waters between Alaska and the Aleutians for twenty years already. And right now, he’s already got me hooked with his story.

“The waves were smashing into the boat. The tide was coming in, and the boat was starting to tip. This was late in the season, and we couldn’t see anybody around. Our radios were broken, so we couldn’t call for help, and our greenhorn captain was having a complete mental breakdown. He was an emotionally unstable guy anyway. He was up on the fly bridge of the boat, ripping components out and throwing them overboard, including things that worked. Myself and the other deckhand, Erik - there were only three of us on the boat - we were looking at each other: ‘What do we do? Do we need to get our survival suits on? Like, what’s happening here? Are we going to die?’”

I had spotted Justin standing in his Hillcrest Farmers Market stall, beside his sign. “Maqi Seafoods. Wild, Fresh. Sustainable. Vista, California.”

Martin’s symbol for his Maqi Seafoods business.

Last time I wrote about fish was two weeks ago, actually about futurefish. Or bits of fish grown in a kind of vitamin soup from fish cells. Some people say we won’t need to actually go out and catch fish any more, once we perfect the growing of their cells. So it’s funny I should bump into Justin, who goes to the roughest seas in the coldest latitudes in the most dangerous circumstances possible. (And deaths in the fishing industry are 16 times higher than among US firefighters or police, and 40 times the national average, according to the UN’s International Labor Office, although these are 1996 figures. More recently, between 2000 and 2015, 725 fishermen have lost their lives fishing in US waters).

“Why do you do it?” I ask.

“Blame my brother,” he says. “He got a job up in Dillingham, Alaska. He was working as a chef for a cannery up there. And he gave me a call, in the spring of the year 2000, and asked me if I’d be interested in coming up to Alaska to do some seasonal work. Lots of work, long hours, not much to spend money on, I could make a good chunk of change. And I thought that could really help. I was 19, at college, studying biology at Southern Oregon University, and pulling out school loans. So I jumped on that opportunity. My first gig in Dillingham was in a boatyard. But I soon realized that if I could get on the right crew, there was the potential to make a lot more money out on a fishing boat.”

Justin Martin with two of his catch off Alaska.

He has been going up there every year since. “I am on a fantastic boat now,” he says. “We have had the same crew for the last six years. We’re like a well-oiled machine. We don’t have to say much, which speaks for the captain’s discretion. He can handle situations. And there are always situations. When there’s a [salmon] run, all the boats want in, trying to get in the right spot. We call it ‘battle fishing.’ You’re close to others. Equipment can get tangled between boats. Or, worse, it can foul the propellors. Things get very crazy. But that’s the thing about our crew. We never freak out and we never stop working. We push each other. That’s why we’re the highliner, the top-ranking boat.”

Yes, he’d like to captain his own boat some day. And maybe soon: partly because of covid, people are expecting a downswing in catching and consuming salmon. That could mean boats going out of business, prices for boats dropping. Justin is playing a waiting game.

Meantime he is here, with the salmon fillets he has been freezing and smoking and bringing down to sell at Southern California markets without having to pay middlemen commission. He loves being with his wife (they met when he was completing his degree at the University of Hawaii) and two kids, but he does miss Dillingham. Maybe because fishing is like the hunt: addictive, one of the last wild things we do.

“I love the life, the people, the Athabaskan, Aleut culture, the strong sense of community, the sense of humor, the way everybody hunts their allotment of moose, caribou every year. And the salmon! Those watersheds around Dillingham are pristine. It’s the largest wild salmon run left in America. I love eagles soaring, hearing the loons on the lake, seeing the salmon in their spawning grounds.”

And he also loves how, at the end of each fishing trip, the one thing everybody does is jump into somebody’s Maqi (pronounced “maa-gu’ey” in Yupik language), which is the sauna everybody has. “That’s where you thaw out. You have the steam temperature as hot as you can. You have a beer, you talk story. Lots of yucks and chucks. That’s why I chose ‘Maqi’ for my company name.”

So what happened that night they were stuck on the sand bar?

“Well, finally the tide came in and we didn’t get knocked over, thankfully. The boat started floating. We had lost one of our engines as well, but the other screw was still working. Except, the captain said he was going to go to sleep. He couldn’t be awake any longer. We were all exhausted. He asked me to drive us back to Dillingham. I was brand new. That’s a six-hour [boat trip], in pretty treacherous water. I knew nothing. I got up on the fly bridge, out in the wind and rain and cold, all night long, while the other guys were sleeping. That was my introduction to Alaska. But I always come back. I’ve known since I first went up: I’m a lifer.”

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