Seattle Fishermen Mark 100 Years Of Toil (And Fabulous Fall Paydays)

May 27, 2014

You know it's the start of the fishing season at Fishermen's Terminal in Seattle when a familiar smell is in the air: coconut-scented sunscreen.

The Alaska salmon fishing season is about to start its 100th year in operation out of Fishermen’s Terminal in the Interbay area of Seattle.

The terminal was an early creation of the Port of Seattle, which recognized the need to create a snug harbor for the city’s growing fishing fleet. Today, many of the vessels operating there start by heading to Alaska, and by early fall they are fishing salmon in Puget Sound.

On a recent sunny day, fishermen stretched out their nets in an area between two large buildings to make repairs before the season begins. The nets of different colors, mostly black, were laid out on the pavement.  

Workers moved deliberately, checking the lines for holes to repair before the Alaska season opens in early June.

“Arduous. Arduous. No one wants to be out here,” said Chris Cornwell, captain of the Sea Gem fishing vessel. “It’s hard to say, ‘I’m going to stand out in the sun all day and hang this net.’ But you’ve got to get done. You always want to get the net done.”

Fishermen's Terminal is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Fishermen's Terminal is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

The hope of a big catch by fall – and a big payday – is why Fishermen’s Terminal has been around for so long. Much of the fishing business here operates on what is colloquially known as the PAF system: pay after fishing.

Spring is the lean time of the year as captains and crews work on their boats. Everywhere on these docks, fishermen plopped oily parts into buckets, puzzling through some mechanical problem.

It’s an old and arguably eternal industry, but there was lots of new blood. Logan Price, a greenhorn, prepared for his first year on the Sea Gem with Cornwell, the captain.

Bright pink tape marked dozens of holes on the black net. The nets are made with meshes – square shapes made in string. The knot that makes them is the sheet bend, the same knot fixes them too.

“What I’m doing is looking for holes in the net that have been ripped out by heavy use and stuff,” Price said, a net needle in his hand and a knife hanging in a pouch around his neck. “I’m trying to figure out where in the hole I can start my first sheet bend, and then kind of work through to replicate the pattern.”

The work must be complete soon: It takes most of a week to get to Alaska from Seattle, and the boats must leave any day around now. “I think it depends on the weather partly and when the fish opening is exactly,” Price said. “We’ll be working on the boat pretty much every day until then.”

Fishermen's Terminal was created by the Port of Seattle as a snug harbor for fishing boats working in Puget Sound and Alaska.
Fishermen's Terminal was created by the Port of Seattle as a snug harbor for fishing boats working in Puget Sound and Alaska.
Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

Around the yard, some were working in groups, others, like Adam Boehler, worked alone. Boehler is from land-locked Montana. It’s his third year on a boat called the Adirondack.

“It’s incredible,” Boehler said. “It’s a gratifying kind of lifestyle. You mix honest, hard work with honest, hard play in a beautiful setting. It’s hard to beat.”

But on this day, he tried to get the Adirondack’s net just right. The work Boehler is doing has changed little over the last hundred years. The top of the purse is the cork line: a clasp edge beaded with floats. The sides are heavier, and they have to be sewn onto the bottom with a whip stitch called lacing.

Fixing a net is complex. Across from Boehler on another net, George Hamilton III tied off his own section of lacing. But then the worker lacing from the other end of the net ran out of string. Sure enough, the work was one net mesh short of complete, meaning an inelegant solution that might cause problems later.

Fishermen will meet this week in the net yard for a celebration of the terminal’s anniversary before they throw off their ropes and head to Alaskan waters.

A public event is also set for when the boats return in the fall. The hope by then is for lots of fish and fewer holes to repair next spring.