I had 54 cents in my bank account when I bought my own commercial fishing operation at age 20. I scrawled my signature on a six-figure loan, made it through college finals and came home to my first seine boat, the cabin full of cardboard boxes overflowing with mildewed manuals about everything from Freon refrigeration to Marco powerblocks.
My father gave me two treasures to start the season: an enormous binder full of Xeroxed charts showing a lifetime of accumulated fishing knowledge, and a VHF radio with a list of scrambler codes to install so I could talk to our radio group.
Radio groups are a long tradition in Alaska's commercial fishing community.
After all, fish are a moving target, our seine boats travel slowly, and the small group of people that you choose to communicate with help determine your success to a surprisingly large degree. A radio group can tell you where fish are being caught and how many boats are in certain areas. Some radio groups are a single family. Others may form from a like-minded group of fishermen that admire each other's abilities and create word-of-mouth agreements during winter that ensure their communication partnership during the high-stress fishing season.
A radio group may be as simple as two lifelong friends, or it may be a dynamic group of eight to nine boats from which individuals may be removed if they don't share enough information, or, in the worst-case scenario, share their group's information with others.
My mother, Sonja Corazza, was one of the first women to run a boat for the Snug Harbor cannery in Cook Inlet. She tells me that in the 1970s, long before scrambled channels on the VHF existed, all the members of a radio group would get together before the season and draw a grid on a chart. Each square of the grid had a different label, like "2A" or "13R." Then numbers of fish were given a code — for instance, "X" might mean 100 fish. When the members of the group called each other on a common VHF channel they knew others could listen in on, they could say in their best poker voice, "We just caught L in 15D." No happy or depressed inflection could be used in the delivery or the eventual reply. No boat names were offered.
Technology has changed the way radio groups operate in the 18 years I've been fishing. In 2000, cellphones were relatively new and did not have enough coverage in Prince William Sound to be used with any reliability, so radio groups put scrambler codes in their VHF radios that make people sound like unintelligible robots unless you had the matching code installed in your radio that could unscramble the voice. A limited number of scrambler codes are available, however, so the chance exists that someone could be scanning through the channels, happen upon your group's channel and be able to hear every salmon secret being shared.
Finding a group's secret channel and gaining access to their shared information can be a gold mine. Early on in my fishing career, it just so happened that my single sideband radio, when tuned to the correct frequency, allowed the secret VHF channel of two brothers to bleed directly into my cabin. These brothers, by chance, were two of the best fishermen in Prince William Sound, and we would all be anchored next to each other, swinging with the tide, and suddenly their calm voices would boom into the galley. I would duck down very low below the windows and listen with my mouth hanging open at my good luck, hoping they wouldn't glance at my boat and wonder why I looked so delighted.
They had a little routine that I began to call the "honor roll," where they would compare tender reports, the information they had learned as other fishermen delivered their catch the night before. I learned plenty from their assessments of other fishermen's decisions and movements. In fact, my favorite moment that season was the morning I made the honor roll.
"Megan delivered 10,000 pounds last night," one of them reported. "I have been watching her run back and forth from the straight to the deep bay; she must have figured out the timing with the tides." I jumped up from my crouched position on the floor and did a silent fist-pump.
Cellphones came into the picture, and proactive skippers used two or even three cellphones from different companies to ensure the best possible reception. Verizon, AT&T, GCI and Copper Valley Wireless all provided service in different pockets of the fishery.
Skippers would start to realize which crew members had which service provider and borrow the appropriate phone for every location. I had a crew member who was engaged to the crew member of another boat, and I could hear the words, "I love you … Nope, I love you more," filtering down from my crow's nest, the very highest spot in the rigging she could stand. She was up in the crow's nest on her tippy-toes, straining for that fourth bar of reception. That season I would borrow her phone and run up there myself, standing on my tippy-toes to call my radio group partners and check in on how the fishing was closer to Valdez.
The advent of cellphones in the fishery allowed for direct communication that couldn't be intercepted by another radio group. But it did allow for information to be shared covertly with nonmembers. Some radio groups are family-only and multi-generational. Young members as well as the old each had people in their age group who they socialized with in town, but these people weren't allowed in their radio group. A cellphone made it easy to pick up the phone and share information that made social bonds strengthen and often guaranteed that the call was returned in the future with important, and perhaps illicit, fishing information. Somewhere in the conversation were usually the words, "You didn't hear this from me, but …"
After cellphones came satellite phones. These were a game-changer in the world of radio groups. Units costing $5,000 were wired in and installed on boats, and boats were assigned individual four-number codes. Communication could happen instantly and privately across immense distances, which complicated the etiquette of sharing information.
When my father began fishing, communication with fishermen who fished a different area of the state usually only happened over a seaweed-covered timber while their boats were on the grid together in May, or back in the harbor after the season.
Several seasons ago, I was throwing my net out, hoping to catch fish running offshore, when a voice came into my top house from the satellite phone speaker. I answered and had a chit-chat with a friend from Kodiak. When he heard that I was having a slow day, he subtly mentioned that a mutual acquaintance of ours was doing pretty well. I picked up my binoculars and saw the aforementioned boat making sets in a small bay just off my port side. I was fascinated at that interaction — I would have never known that the fish were running just a little closer to shore than I was, but someone picked up their satellite phone, called a friend in Kodiak, that friend in Kodiak called me, and suddenly I had valuable fishing information that I didn't feel all that good about using.
The etiquette of the radio groups is generally clear cut. Information on where fish are is as important as where fish aren't. Both of these things are reserved for your radio group only. When you talk with other friends who are not a part of the group, there is a constant tug-of-war and almost joke-like quality about the exchange because everyone is trying to eek out a little information from the other person.
Within the group, there are expectations. If someone goes silent on the radio, people start calling them repeatedly, knowing that they are probably in good fish and keeping quiet about it. It's a bit of a black mark if you load your boat and the first thing your group hears from you all day is you calling the tender for an offload.
Each radio group is a bit different, but from my experience and happening upon a few scrambled channels of other groups over the years, there is almost-constant radio chatter about how each set is going, what other boats around you are catching, and how fast you think you're filling up.
You can start to sense which boats overestimate or underestimate the weight of their catch, and what a certain tone of voice means when someone says, "There's a few fish here today."
The advent of mobile data and social media has brought the crew inadvertently into the radio groups. Traditionally, only the skippers determined who information was shared with. Irresponsible crew might let a few too many details fly at the bar after a good opening, but otherwise the social connections that led to the exchange of fishing information were created over years and years by the skipper.
Facebook and Instagram immediately changed this, with a crew member posting a photo of a deckload of salmon and the unsuspecting skipper trying to figure out why all of a sudden the horizon is filled with the bow wakes of boats steaming toward his "secret spot." Hashtags are easy to search, and all of the sudden a smartphone becomes an overwhelming source of information. #deckloaded #pws #loadedbyten #humpiesfordayz
The crew will sidle up into the top house, phone in hand.
"Check it out," they whisper with a bit of uncertainty, "Wherever this boat is, they are pumping off to a tender." That information gets shared with the radio group, and usually within minutes the group has pinpointed the location of said boat and the information is added to the collective knowledge.
A radio family evolves
The radio group becomes family if it isn't already. Older fishermen are part mentor, part cheerleader for younger members, sliding lessons about fishing etiquette and tactics into conversations. Slow days dissolve into political discussions and fall hunting plans. Mechanical issues are solved and medical situations are addressed. Loyalty runs deep and group members protect each other in crowded fishing areas, often working as a team.
This winter my father and I got called out on a search and rescue for Ken Jones, a former radio group partner of ours. Ken was a hardworking, highliner fisherman, and when he was having a good day of fishing and keeping busy making set after set, he would not often stop to talk on the radio. When he did make a fish call on the radio, however, I always knew they were the BEST fish calls. I would run to him without hesitation and start loading tenders. Like the other men in our radio group, he was like another dad, supportive when I had a good day or figured out how to fix something that broke.
The seven of us who suddenly found ourselves out looking for him in the middle of the night, ocean, wind and rain used everything we had. We formed an impromptu radio group, but instead of looking for fish we found ourselves looking for a fisherman. The Coast Guard channel, a different channel to coordinate our search pattern, a Facebook post requesting sightings of a yellow kayak, cellphone calls and text messages were all lighting up our phone screens and coming in through speakers.
We did find him — but not alive — and I listened to my Dad choke out those words on the radio.
For once, the radio went silent.