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A Day in the Life of a fisheries observer

by Daniel Warren 7 Nov 2019 11:47 UTC
Day in the life of a fisheries observer © NOAA Fisheries

As my contract comes to a close and the promise of home looms near, the divide between my life at home and my life up here widens, particularly when it comes to my solitary time.

Part of working on boats is the part when you're not working. Observers spend a large portion of our 90-day deployments very busy, working 12 hour shifts with a partner. Sometimes even more when assigned solo. You're stuck on the cold, grey swells of the Bering Sea with nothing besides what you bring in your sea bag and your imagination.

Boats fish 24/7, so there are no weekends, except the few hours or maybe a day when the boat is at port offloading. This affords an opportunity to go to town to run errands, go for a hike, or otherwise unwind. Creating separation between work and leisure is very important, in port or at sea.

Obviously, reading is a natural fit in a world where solitude is reserved for short time periods and small spaces. Curling up with a good book provides an escape not easily replicated in other ways. It also provides opportunity to expand one's mind towards cherished hobbies, interests, and curiosities outside the empirical world of in-the-trenches level fisheries management. Problem is, books take up a lot of space in your 120 liter PVC sea bag.

You have to pick and choose what you bring, paring down your reading list to its absolute most essentials. You can also trade books with coworkers and fishermen. There is also an (excellent) local library in Dutch Harbor. You can even break down and betray the inked page for an electronic reader to save space for more socks. Everything really is a compromise!

Movies and TV have become easier and easier to enjoy as digital storage has overtaken more traditional formats. This has enabled observers to keep up with the current golden age of Netflix, Hulu, and other online streaming and on-demand video. Our bunkhouses light up the electrical grid during file-sharing sessions between observer hard drives. Popularity is based on whoever has the most recent season of 'Game of Rick' or 'Thrones and Morty'.

Media doesn't always cut it though. Other things take its place after you grow tired of your 14th Patrick O'Brian novel, or need a break after season 3 of "The Wire."

Observers are an active bunch. We are known for our sense of adventure and this never diminishes. Observer jaunts and junkets get planned on boats that might otherwise constitute once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages by folks in other jobs. These can be cross-country road trips to meet coworkers for the holidays, multi-month excursions in foreign countries, or extended stays all over the country to learn how to climb mountains, float rivers, or hike trails. We are a privileged bunch given the flexibility associated with our job, even if we are among the first to lose sight of this unique freedom.

Private time and space on boats is much more cherished than in the terrestrial world, mostly because there is less of it. Observers have the privilege of being recognized as "officer" level crew due to the importance of the data we collect. This has its advantages. Most of us capitalize on our position and use it to create a work-life balance that is as enviable as it is unconventional.

It's difficult to explain to "layfolks" why these moments of down time - a 15 minute break after a 12 hour shift - are cherished by everyone who shares a large part of their life with the grey, rolling swells of the Bering Sea.

Suggested reading list

  • The Log on the Sea of Cortez- John Steinbeck
  • Aubrey-Maturin series- Patrick O'Brian
  • Old Man and the Sea- Ernest Hemingway
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- Robert Pirsig
  • Cod- Mark Kurlansky
  • Four Fish: the Last Wild Food- Paul Greenberg
  • Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History- Kalee Thompson
  • A Sand County Almanac- Aldo Leopold
  • The Complete Stories- Flannery O'Connor
  • Airships- Barry Hannah
Suggested watch list
  • The Wire
  • Mad Men
  • Master and Commander
  • Das Boot
  • Sharknado
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • The Life Aquatic
  • Cosmos
  • Jaws
  • Firefly

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