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What’s It Like Fishing as a Family in Rural Alaska?

Fisherman Profile: The Carpenter Family

    The Carpenter family

    Len and Matt Carpenter start their day in the pilothouse of the F/V Fish Tale with some coffee.

    They’re looking for fish on their depth finder and baiting hooks before most people wake up. Matt sets out their jig gear while the sun rises behind snowy mountains on the horizon. The day prior was windy and they had to retreat into a protected bay to escape some nautical weather, but Len seems upbeat, “[There’s] nice fish up here . . . we’ll see. Fishing is fishing — hey!” As he speaks he looks over and spots an irregular tug on the jig. It’s more than ocean swell. “First bite,” says Len.

    He and Matt start running their lines — each man is responsible for two jigs and each jig has a line with 12 hooks. “Rubber” is what Matt calls them. They’re working hard, so despite the chilly winter air, they stand on the back deck of the F/V Fish Tale in just sweatshirts and some warm layers underneath. As they pull up string after string of gear, Len and Matt chat about the wind, the direction of “the scratch”  they’re fishing (an area where there’s not a reliable bite, but with effort one can catch a few fish), and the grade and shape of the ocean floor. They imagine what the fish might be doing down below and joke back and forth about who’s caught more. Between jokes and conjecture is a steady stream of appreciation for the fish and their surroundings.

    The Carpenter family poses on the back deck of their small boat, the F/V Fish Tale. From left to right are Matt, Anita, Tristan, and Len. Photo provided by Anita Carpenter.

    I first met Len and Anita Carpenter, the husband-wife team that owns and operates the F/V Fish Tale, while I was piloting Sitka Seafood Market’ Fisherman Ambassador Program, a program aiming to give small-boat fishermen the opportunity to communicate directly with the customers that are eating their catch through messages, photos, and videos. From the very first fishing video that Anita sent me, I was a fan.

    Matt and Len, the father-son pair who feature most prominently in their videos, have an inviting candor when talking to the camera that’s so sincere I catch myself smiling at the screen. “Nice fish, Dad, nice fish,” comments Matt as Len pulls in a string of Pacific cod. The scientific name for Pacific cod, Gadus macrocephalus, is Latin for “large head.” Len goes on to hypothesize that it’s because of its large head that the fish’s center of gravity is shifted slightly, making it more challenging to pull the fish over the boat’s rails. He laughs, “It gets me every time!” This consistent sanguine commentary is as much the backdrop to their videos as the beautiful seascapes where they live and fish in Kodiak, Alaska.

    That’s not to say that the fishing is easy. On the contrary, the work is constant and taxing. One video documents a halibut longlining trip where the family has to haul their longline in by hand after the “lovejoy” on their mechanical reel breaks not once but twice, and eventually forces them to drive back to town for repairs. By the time they return to the fishing grounds early the next morning, their gear is a snarled mess that catches on the bottom and breaks their line. Matt and Len stand on the back deck after nearly 24 hours of problem solving mechanical issues in cold weather: they’re drained from lack of sleep as well as hauling tangled lines, heavy anchors, and strong fish. Matt looks at the handful of halibut on deck, turns to his dad and says, “Better than nothing.” Len replies, “We got a couple nice fish off of it.” They laugh and I marvel at their good humor.

    Matt Carpenter smiles while standing in front of a double rainbow on the F/V Fish Tale.Photo provided by Anita Carpenter.

    I’m not the only one that’s been won over by the daily charm of the Carpenter family fishing business, either. Their direct marketing endeavor, Emerald Isle Seafoods, has nearly 70,000 subscribers on YouTube, and each video is regularly followed by long strings of comments from interested viewers around the world. “I have so much respect for your family, for the patience you give to each other in all of your videos,” says one commenter. Another writes, “Your work ethic is amazing, but even more amazing is the love and respect you each show for one another.” People sense the authentic family cohesion that’s imbued in their day-to-day operations — likely because it was baked into the founding philosophy of their business: to spend more time together as a family.

    F/V Fish Tale leaving the Kodiak harbor. Photo by Jen Hagan.

    Len and Anita bought the F/V Fish Tale together in 1998 — almost exactly a decade after they met — in order to leave behind the world of high-volume industrial fishing in which they’d been working for years. “It was too much time away from home and our family,” says Anita. They set out to build a small-scale fishing business with their children where they wouldn’t have to be apart from one another for long stretches of the year. The affection between the two of them goes back over thirty years and is apparent in how they treat one another today. Len offers Anita a helping hand when stepping onto the boat. When Len suggests that he’s nervous about catching fish, Anita is quick to jump in and reassure him, “You’ll get them, hon. They’ll be there waiting.”

    Their children, Tristan and Matt, are partners in their family business and share their aim to continue fishing their small boat while being mindful of the environment and its resources for years to come. “We're in this for the long term. We want to grow old on our deck and continue to do this well into the future. We're not looking for a fast buck. If we were then we would have gone a different route,” smiles Len.

    Tristan and Matt Carpenter work together to untie a handful of gangions while longlining for halibut. Photo provided by Anita Carpenter.

    Over the last 23 years, their 35-foot fiberglass boat has become more than their livelihood. “It’s as much a part of our family as one of our children, honestly,” says Len. Both he and Anita agree that it’s what allows them to access their favorite parts of fishing for a living. That is, the freedom that comes with being one’s own boss, working together as a family, and being able to enjoy their beautiful surroundings while targeting a variety of fisheries, including Pacific cod and halibut — two of the species that Sitka Seafood Market sources from the Carpenter family.

    One of the things that drew Len to working with Sitka Seafood Market was that he felt the company sees the value in small-scale operations, whether it’s supporting rural communities or talking to consumers about the importance of traceability.

    Small-boat fishermen primarily catch Pacific cod using jig, pot, or longline gear. Jig gear is “pretty simple,” explains Len. The setup is a spool of monofilament nylon line that gets threaded through a small pulley suspended by a fiberglass arm. The give in the fiberglass allows the pulley to bob up and down when a fish is on the line. They either specifically target Pacific cod or they catch it as incidental catch, also known as bycatch. These fish are kept and sold just as any targeted species would be so long as they are compliant with relevant state and federal fishery management guidelines. The Kodiak jig fishery is relatively accessible for young fishermen to enter when they’re starting out and has become the bread and butter of many small-scale boats in the area.

    Halibut, on the other hand, is an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program which means that each year, the International Pacific Halibut Commission sets the total allowable catch that can be sustainably harvested in a specific area. Individual fishermen, like Len and Anita, are then allowed to catch a percentage of that total catch based on how much quota, or shares, they own. Purchasing quota can be prohibitively expensive and presents a challenge to many young fishermen who want to join the fishery.

    Halibut longline gear. Illustration by Emma Bruhl.

    The Carpenters catch their halibut quota using longline gear. This involves a weighted line of large baited hooks that lie along the ocean floor with a buoy on either end. Fishermen let the line sit or “soak” for a number of hours before returning to reel up the longline. Despite the challenges to enter this fishery, their investment has paid off due to their hard work resulting in ultra high-quality seafood and their ability to find consumers who value that quality.

    Matt and Tristan Carpenter set longline gear on the F/V Fish Tale. Photo provided by Anita Carpenter.

    When I ask them what they would like to say to the folks who eat their fish, they write back: “We'd like to thank them for supporting small-boat fishermen like us — when you're buying directly from a fisherman, or even through a community supported fishery like Sitka Seafood Market, it makes a huge difference to us in our bottom line.”

    Len tells me that one of the things that drew him to working with Sitka Seafood Market was that he felt the company sees the value in small-scale operations, whether it’s supporting rural communities or talking to consumers about the importance of traceability. That alignment in values is underscored by simply feeling valued for the extra work that he and his family put into handling each fish individually at the highest quality standards in the industry. Despite the challenges of forging ahead as a small family business, Len seems hopeful as ever.

    "It's a beautiful day out on the water with my family . . . I can't complain."

    In one video Len happily refuses to say that he's having a bad day — even after he declares it one of the "worst" for catching fish, "It's a beautiful day out on the water with my family . . . I can't complain."

    When I ask him and Anita what’s the secret to their positive attitude, they write back that it’s simply about loving what you do. “Fishing is not for the faint of heart. Long hours, rough weather, and a cold, wet environment can take its toll. But when the seas settle, the sun comes out, and the fish are biting, you forget about the hard times. You are in the moment. Life is good and you truly love what you do.”