Interview: Jen Pickett | Kitchen Careers | PBS Food

Kitchen Careers: Jen Pickett, Commercial Fisherman

Kitchen Careers is a regular feature that goes behind-the-scenes with chefs, bloggers, critics and others in the food industry to get the inside scoop on what its like to cook, or eat, for a living.

Jen Pickett, Commercial Fisherman
Jen Pickett is a freelance writer, poet, and commercial fisherman. She has spent nearly two decades in Alaska’s commercial fishing industry. Starting as crew, she’s worked seiners, gill netters and long liners, to name a few. She’s fished Alaska’s waters for herring, salmon, and halibut from Southeast to Bristol Bay and most places in between. At age 28, she became one of the few women to own and operate her boat on one of Alaska’s most dangerous waters, the Copper River Flats. She shares tales about the fishing life, talks about how dangerous it really is, and how commercial fishing has changed over time.

What is the best part of being a commercial fisherman?

For me, the best part of commercial fishing is the adventure. I just love being out on the ocean with the birds, porpoise, whales, and otters. I get to explore Alaskan waters in such a manner that very few folks do. Even if I fish the same waters, everyday is different because of the weather or tides and other variables. I love the sunrises and sunsets with their warm hues of reds, yellows and orange mix with the cool green and blue colors of the water. Throw in a moon set with its purples and pinks and it’s just magnificent.

How has commercial fishing changed since you started?

Some aspects of commercial fishing have changed in the past 18 years since I started fishing, while some aspects have stayed surprisingly the same. The nets and gear are all mostly the same however technology has come a long way and guys have better equipment. Boats have more horsepower and navigational equipment has progressed, such as GPS, Sonar, and Fathometers. Heck, back in the day if you wanted to call someone on land, you went to a certain channel on the VHF and used the marine operator. She would connect you to a landline, for a fee, and you could talk to someone on the phone with your VHF radio. Of course, the fleet could listen in on your conversation, but they could only hear one side. Nowadays, you simply use your cell or SAT phone.

Other changes again, aren’t so much in the basic way we fish but more changes in technology. Social media has changed how fishermen direct market their catch. Fishermen are now on Twitter and Facebook, giving update about their catch. YouTube videos allow folks to see little snippets of what fishing is like. Certainly, this interview probably wouldn’t have taken place when I first started fishing. I think back then, folks weren’t even aware of commercial fishermen. Now some guys even have their own shows!

What drew you to this career?

What first drew me in was the mystery of it all. My second summer in Alaska I was working at a restaurant that was right on the water in Petersburg, a small fishing town in southeast Alaska. I’d watch the boats head south out the channel until they’d disappear. They’d return a few days later with stories to tell and coin in their pocket. I was so intrigued! Where did they go? What did they see? What was it like? I simply had to find out for myself. I jumped on the first chance I got to go fishing, which was later that fall. I was boat sitting for a guy (who I later found out was in jail) and the fisherman across the dock from me needed crew for a 24-hour halibut derby. I immediately said yes. Of course, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I grew up on a farm and thought I knew what hard work was, but commercial fishing was much harder than I could have imagine. Plus I got seasick, it was miserable. However, the moment we started hauling those hooks and all these strange looking fish and sea denizens starting coming aboard, I was glued to watching them come aboard with the wonder of a child. That’s all it took and I was hooked.

Fishing boats along the Copper River. Photo courtesy of Jen Pickett.

What kind of food do you eat on the boat?

Food on a boat isn’t all that glamorous. Come to think of it, not much about fishing really is. We usually eat whatever can be prepared quickly and in bad weather, doesn’t cost too much, doesn’t go rotten too soon and fits a cooler. That narrows the field quite a bit. But, we do eat a lot of fish. Sometimes, that’s the only fresh thing we can get our hands on.

What is your favorite food?

I’d have to go with pizza.

How do you spend your days off the boat?

In the fishing season, it’s usually mending fishing nets.

Off-season, I like to travel. This past winter I was lucky enough to go sailing. We started in North Carolina back in October, went town through the Intra-Coastal Water Way, through Florida, out to the Dry Tortugas and back up the coast. It’s now late March and the trip is almost over. We are half way up the coast of Florida heading north.

What three PBS personalities would you invite on a fishing trip? (animated, muppet or living)

Ken Burns, I’d love to hear him narrate a typical fishing day.

Anyone from Cooking Under Fire, I’d love to see what he or she comes up with when you add the challenge of your kitchen pitching and rolling underneath you!

Animal from the Muppets. I bet he is good a picking fish.

Gilnet fishing on the Copper River. Photo courtesy of Jen Pickett.

What fishing tool is most indispensable?

Selective memory. If I really remembered all the misery of fishing, I’d never do it again. Every fall I say, “That’s it! My hands hurt, my back hurts, I’m so tired I can’t think. I’m done.” We all say that. Yet, somehow, come spring, I seem only to remember the beauty and fun of it all and do it again. That’s indispensable. That, and coffee.

What is your favorite fish to eat?

King salmon either grilled or blackened.

Is fishing really as dangerous as its portrayed on TV and in movies?

Uh, well, …sort of. It can be. I mean, some of those shows portray a lot of drama to make it seem more exciting. On a boat, boring is good, but that doesn’t help TV ratings. But for example in the movie, The Perfect Storm, most of those things do happen on a boat, getting a hook in the hand, catching a shark, falling overboard, getting caught in the gear, but it typically doesn’t all happen in one day.

Just last week of the coast of Washington and Oregon, six men lost their lives while fishing. One of the boats that went down didn’t even have time to get out a distress call. Their bodies were never found. So yes, some dangers are a reality.

I recently read old article from the Portland Oregonian:

    Men who would rather fish at sea than work ashore sail out on the fishing boats to seek and follow the fish. It is a glad, hard life, and they love it well – but they stake their lives on the catch. It isn’t often that the boats don’t come back to port, for their oil-skinned skippers and crews to shout to their friends on the dock with word of their luck – but sometimes they don’t. The ‘Republic’ was one that didn’t. And how are you going to figure that into the price of a pound of fish?

I can’t help but get a bit upset when I hear someone complain about how much more expensive the price of fish is compared to beef or chicken. Then I hear about boats sinking, guys getting injured or killed while fishing. How do you figure that into the price of fish?

On the other hand, the safety of fishermen has increased over the years with the improvement of survival gear and safety equipment but commercial fishing is still the most dangerous profession in America.

What advice do you have for someone who is interested in a career in commercial fishing?

If someone were interested in fishing, I would caution him or her to think long and hard about it before they try it, because the lifestyle is addicting. I like to tell folks I spent one season fishing and the next 17 trying to quit!

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