Called To Sea

Called To Sea

Words / Whitney Branshaw

Photos / Chelsea Haisman, James Burton


I hollered at my buddy James Burton for input on this article. He was out on the water wrapping up seining. We talked about fishing: past, present, and future. As soon as the phone clicked goodbye, I started to analyze the tone I heard in his voice. What came out was the concern of losing the hunger – the pride that comes along with living and breathing the lifestyle that few have the opportunity to understand. 

Burton, a 34-year-old fisherman from Cordova, has participated in the industry for 22 seasons. He started working the deck at the age of 6-years-old. He branched out on his own as an adult and now owns, runs, and maintains the F/V Cricket based out of Cordova. He has participated in many fisheries including gillnetting, salmon seining in Prince William Sound, and herring seining out of Togiak and Sitka. James shared his sentiment on what he noticed as some of the greatest differences this new generation’s attitudes are displaying: “Thinking about seining and the people looking for a crew job, when it was 5 cents a pound, family and the kids who loved fishing were the only ones that came back every year. Now it seems that it’s just an attractive way to make a buck. The days of being a professional crew member are lost. What sets crewmembers apart is initiative, motivation, desire to learn and pride in what you are doing. It’s my equipment but it’s your job to take some pride in the platform we work on. I see a lot of that missing these days. I’ve been blessed with good friends and good work ethic in my crew on my boat, but if you’re looking for a job, remember what the skipper is looking for in you. You are some of the most fortunate people on earth, working in a career that feeds the entire world. You are paid to enjoy a lifestyle that many people can only dream of. Some years it’s a lot, and some it’s not. The boats will sail every year regardless, it’s what we do. Learn to love it for what it is. Because half the reason we cast the lines off every time we leave port has nothing to do with the fish we catch.”

You are paid to enjoy a lifestyle that many people can only dream of.
— James Burton

The air has switched now and fall is blanketing our city in the form of leaves littering the sidewalk and layering sweatshirts covered in light coats and skull caps drawn tight over our ear lobes. Cordova is getting quiet and people are seeking refuge far from a town that knows them inside and out.


It’s 4 a.m. and I’ve just been roused from a deep ocean induced sleep for my morning watch at the wheel of F/V Chelsea. We’re cruising along the Copper River Flats. I shuffle into the galley, pour myself a cup of coffee, and lean heavily into the salty air that blows in from the east. I balance myself on deck and move with the swell as I rely on muscle memory to efficiently light my cigarette as we dip out of the wind for that split second. Prop myself against the rail and hang on to a buoy line to steady myself while squinting hard to find the exact point where the skyline meets the water in front of me. Once I find that familiar point of exact focus I find it easier to embrace the heavy feeling of solidarity that accompanies my morning routine. These quick and budgeted moments are the only time I allow my mind to slip away from me while playing the middleman between the fisherman and the sea. The boat leans hard to the port side and snaps me out of my daydream. I slide across the deck towards the faint sound of my skippers voice calling for me to assume his role. My turn to keep this ship afloat. No fucking around on the radio and no smoking out the back window are the reminders he leaves me as he crawls down below. I slip into the captain’s chair fluidly and silently monitor the track lines we’ve laid down on the ComNav that guide us back home. I’m well aware that I am one of the lucky ones, that there is nothing like being at sea.


My hometown of Cordova is a small fishing town tucked into the Prince William Sound. It houses one of the most infamous salmon fisheries in Alaska. Most people have seen or heard of our way of life in one of the many reality TV shows, the ones that exploit Alaska’s natural resources via the static screen (turn that shit off, RFN, its rotting your brain). I guarantee you that those cameras will never come close to capturing our true identity. Frankly, we prefer it that way. It helps preserve the authenticity of our small community.

I was lucky enough to be born into a family that made their living by fishing year round, between two bustling coasts, while never giving into the pressure that came with participating in unknown fisheries and the multitudes of risks that involved owning and running a fishing boat during a time where there was no technology.


My Grandfather was a pioneer in the industries that blossomed in Cordova. He was part of a small group of dedicated, grizzled fisherman whose love for the sea and taking risks was far greater than a safer career with stability. They hand-pulled their nets, built their own boats, sacrificed an immeasurable amount of time with their families, embraced the possibility of failure, and never got complacent. They stayed hungry. They fished hard, year round, no matter how much profit they weren’t turning. They kept the passion for working on the water burning. They shared their knowledge with their children, and showed them the importance of investing in the community they put down roots in.


Our parents and grandparents managed to survive the damage of EXXON while we were all still in diapers. They warned us of the drastic change that took place, laying a strong foundation for the idea of accountability in the effort to sustain our livelihood. Over the last several years, the fisheries here have gone through substantial changes and huge amounts of growth thanks to better conservation, management, and the work of the hatcheries. The 2013 salmon seine season garnered the biggest run of fish in its history. With the price high, and abundance of fish, it made a typical seine crew share into easy money for the taking. This could easily translate to $65k for 50 days of fishing without question. It’s not hard to see how that amount of money could warp the sense of appreciation for what being a part of this industry means. While we have seen an upswing in the profit of fishing we have seen a consistent decline of those that stay year round in the community and contribute to managing the changes that the future promises to bring. Kelsey Rae Appleton is the fishing vessel administrator for Ship Escort Response Vessel System (SERVS) at Cordova District Fisherman United (CDFU). She knows firsthand the challenge of getting the young people involved in the politics of fishing.


“I see the lack of motivation from people to contribute to preserving our industry," Appleton tells me. "This career just isn’t about the money and excitement that we’ve recently seen. We need to share some of the focus on maintaining our community and promoting continued sustainability so we can continue to grow. That means we need young people to stand up and show some accountability.”


The story of each Alaskan and how they came to establish their identity is almost always unique. The people you find here are far from average. We are well aware of the special breed we have come to be. There are so many career fields in this state that are obsolete elsewhere. What sets us apart is our inability to accept a standard way of life; we want more than to just walk among the living. Our generation needs to find a way to feel the weight of keeping this fire inside us burning. We’re about to assume control of a rare industry that might make us money, but it’s the lifestyle that makes us richer than we could ever know. In order to do that, we must experience it by welcoming the honor of being called to sea.