It was still dark at Unalaska’s Robert Storrs Small Boat Harbor, just before 5 a.m. on a fair spring morning. Normally, Dustan Dickerson and his three-man crew would be warming up the engine of the 54-foot Raven Bay by now so they could head out a few miles to haul and set cod pots, eat, sleep and repeat for a couple days before returning home.
But on this mid-March morning, the crew was joined by three sleepy-eyed greenhorns: Corynn Lekanoff, Kaidon Parker and Anatoly Fomin.
The three local teens were headed out for a day trip to get a glimpse into the life of Unalaska’s small boat fishermen. The trip is part of an outreach program led and started earlier this year by Dickerson, captain and owner of the Raven Bay. It’s meant to provide local youth with the chance to get on a boat and see what fishing is all about.
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Kaidon Parker, 14, had just started his spring break that morning. Despite the heavy bags under his eyes, he was eager to set sail.
“I’m not [sick] yet,” Parker said when asked if he gets seasick out on the open ocean. “On ‘Deadliest Catch’ when the waves are hitting the boat and they’re all like falling over and stuff — I thought that would be kinda fun.”
Unfortunately for Kaidon — while there was no “Deadliest Catch” galley drama, cranky captains or climactic 50-foot waves — he learned the hard way that he does in fact get seasick.
But that lesson was, in part, what he came for — a chance to test the waters and learn more about fishing in the Aleutians.
“Last summer, I actually asked [Dickerson] if he could take me and some friends out, and he told us that we should invest in a little boat and a tote and a jigging machine for fish,” Kaidon said. “But we couldn’t do that. We didn’t have any money.”
Ultimately, Parker got a better deal: a free trip to the fishing grounds and a behind-the-scenes look at how a local fishing veteran runs his boat.
Dickerson owns and operates the Raven Bay and has been working in Unalaska’s fishing industry since the late ‘80s when he came to the island. He bought his first boat, the Katie Jean, in ‘93.
“I was 25 years old in Corvallis, Oregon visiting a friend,” Dickerson said. “And this guy from Alaska came over and started telling these incredible stories. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to go there.’ And so I bought a plane ticket to Dutch Harbor and never left.”
Since then, Dickerson has seen the industry ebb and flow and watched the small boat fisheries and once-young fishermen evolve and start to grow old. Dickerson said things like a lack of local boats along with the aging community have led to a shortage of younger Unalaska fishermen today.
Rather than sit back and watch the fishery dwindle, he got some help from the Unalaska Native Fishermen’s Association’s youth program and took things into his own hands.
“If we can’t find deckhands, then we need to mentor them,” he said. “We need to make them ourselves and that means we need to get them involved.”
On nice weekends, Dickerson takes about three local teens along for a short trip just a few miles from town. He shows them how a commercial fishing vessel runs. UNFA is helping fund the program by paying for things like crew licenses and survival suits for Dickerson’s extra passengers.
Dickerson, who is a UNFA board member, said working with the organization to revitalize the local fishery is not only important for his generation of fishermen and boat owners, but also for younger folks. It’s not as easy for fishermen to get a foot in the door as it once was, he said.
“It’s important to preserve opportunities for people that are just getting started, otherwise we will have a big problem,” he said. “Otherwise there won’t be any more small boats because once I retire unless I pass this boat along, how is somebody in the community gonna get started?”
Dickerson’s story is one that he said is less feasible now. He entered the fishing industry first through processing, then went to longlining, bought his first boat and finally got into pot fishing in the under 60-foot fleet, which locally he said saw major growth around the early 2000s.
He said, prior to that, it was easier for a local to buy a skiff and get a jigging machine, then jump to longlining and eventually buy an entry-level boat. Now, Dickerson said it’s much harder to jump from jigging on a skiff to owning and operating a smaller boat like the Raven Bay, or even just long-lining in a skiff. A big part of that, he said, is the combination of how cod is allocated and the growing number of larger boats in the under 60-foot fishery.
Part of the solution lies in the hands of fisheries boards and councils who determine how the catch is allocated, but it’s also about exposure, he said. Cue the youth outreach program.
Since the program started, Dickerson said they’ve taken a total of three trips, and they’ve got teens on standby now, waiting for their turn to hop on board.
“What it’s doing is creating a labor pool that we really need in the industry,” he said. “Kids that have been exposed to commercial fishing are far more likely to get into the industry than having graduated from high school without ever being on a boat.”
While the program may be fulfilling a more complex purpose, Dickerson modestly describes it as a simple way of facilitating an already existing interest in local fisheries. It’s as basic as bringing curious youth, like Parker, along for a quick trip out to the fishing grounds.
The idea for all of it came about organically, he said.
“It hadn’t occurred to me a year ago to hire somebody that was just out of high school,” Dickerson said. “I normally like to have experienced people on the boat, but we were missing a guy and Scotty Lorenzen’s name came up.”
Eventually, Lorenzen hopped on board. He started out as the bait guy and now, just a year later he’s switching out with his deck boss, working the hydraulics. Along the way, Dickerson said 20-year-old Lorenzen recruited some friends, including local Alex Schliebe.
“It was just a breath of fresh air to work with young people,” Dickerson said. “It was a good way to re-observe my surroundings through fresh eyes.”
For the hesitant, sleepy and seasick teens, the most effective part of the recent trip in March was the example the young fishermen set on deck.
Eighth-grader Corynn Lekanoff watched the fishermen from a window in the galley, leaning over the sink to get a closer look at the sorting table.
“When you cut gills on fish, normally, you rip them out, but they have like a thingy,” Lekanoff said, making a stabbing motion with her hand.
Lekanoff said she does subsistence fishing, but this was her first time getting to see the commercial side. She said she came to see how things work, but she isn’t sure if she’ll pursue a career in commercial fishing.
As the sun rose, the three fishermen worked in rhythm on deck. One would throw the hook, another ran the hydros, the third would count the fish and coil the line. They all worked together, cracking jokes, baiting the pots and launching them back into the sea, hoping to find more cod in the next haul.
“There’s a beauty to it,” said local deckhand Scott Lorenzen. “It’s just fun to be able to go out there and experience the raw Aleutian wilderness and to be able to have that life that a lot of people would really appreciate to live.”
Lorenzen grew up in Unalaska and recently joined the UNFA board. He said growing up around the island’s famed fishing industry initially piqued his interest. And now that he’s a part of it, he said he wants to advocate for other young fishermen.
“It’s really a dying industry, especially the small boat fleet,” Lorenzen said. “This boat and just a couple others are pretty much the last of the small boats really that are out fishing near town and come home just about every night. It would just be nice to help my captain out with what he’s trying to do and repopulate the small boat fleet.”
According to Dickerson, as long as there’s youth on the island interested in fishing, he plans to keep taking them out.
“We’re gonna continue this program until I retire,” Dickerson said. “It’s just too convenient to be fishing, you know, 10 miles out of town and not take people out to expose them to this.”