By Doreen Leggett
Mountains and sea. East Coast and West. Cubicles and ocean. Fishing and retail.
Those may seem like opposites, but in the case of Alaska commercial fisherman and native Cape Codder Tracy Sylvester they are wrapped up in one individual.
Stephanie Sykes remembers meeting Sylvester for the first time last year when they were in Washington D.C., Sykes flying from Cape Cod, Sylvester from Sitka, Alaska. They spent hours in various legislative offices, talking about how important the Young Fishermen’s Development Act is to the industry’s future. Sykes was impressed by Sylvester, 34, who had her two children, then 2 and 6, in tow.
“This woman is a boss,” said Sykes, who was fishing full-time then and is now the program and outreach coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance. “First of all she is a fisherman, and she is playing the mom role and dominating the whole policy world as well.”
Sylvester was introduced to a career on the ocean through forestry. She was an undergrad at the University of Vermont when she had the opportunity to go to Alaska and spend the summer as an intern for the U.S. Forest Service. Having grown up on Cape Cod, she was familiar with seafood and the commercial fishing industry, but had never commercial fished herself. She was fascinated by marshes and estuaries where land and sea connect, which inevitably led to studying anadromous fishes like wild salmon.
“It was a wild internship and an incredible way to experience Alaska for the first time. The job involved flying around in helicopters, weeks of camping, and long river hikes -in waders – through grizzly bear country… all with the end goal of blowing up old logging bridges and culverts,” she said. “These old structures from the logging days are constricting water flow, degrading watershed integrity and salmon spawning habitat.”
Sylvester returned to Vermont when the summer ended, but she kept getting drawn back to Alaska. Moving back and forth across the country, she contracted for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the East Coast, worked as a commercial fisherman on the West Coast, and worked plenty of odd jobs, including more than 10 years of waitressing, to make ends meet.
“Right out of college with a fisheries degree, I tested waters with different government agencies, but kept coming back to fishing and the food industry for the good income and supportive community. Female fishermen are held in high regard in Southeast Alaska, which is refreshing (even a little odd!) when you’ve adapted to male-dominated work and educational spaces that are not always so encouraging,” she said.
Sylvester’s first introduction to commercial fishing was tendering Southeast Alaska salmon gill netters on the F/V Kariel. The boat is owned by Steve Fish, a board member at the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, ALFA, in Sitka, one of the Fishermen’s Alliance’s partners in the Fishing Communities Coalition. Years later, Sylvester would work as the Fishery Conservation Network Coordinator for ALFA, helping to facilitate collaborative research between scientists and commercial fishermen.
After walking the docks in Sitka for a few weeks, Tracy and her best friend (who travelled from Vermont with her) took the advice of a few friendly skippers they had met and focused their search on a tendering job. She remembers getting the job by walking into the Pioneer Bar in Sitka, and writing “Tendering Job Wanted” on a chalkboard, above the pool table, that fishermen use like an employment agency.
“The board typically has all sorts of hilarious things written on it, but it has been an effective source of employment for myself and many others,” she said with a laugh.
At 21 years old, Sylvester first saw the promise of a life at sea during those first few months deckhanding in Alaska. With a crew of three and around the clock work, it was no easy gig. “It was the best crash course I could have had in seamanship, fleet dynamics, identifying the five different species of Pacific salmon, and understanding quality control in regards to fish handling and grading,” said Sylvester.
Tender vessels act as couriers between fishing boats and processors back at the dock. During the height of salmon fishing season, when fishing boats do not have time to make a long run back to town, the processors sometimes contract larger tender vessels to unload the fresh catch from several vessels and run the fish back to town for prompt processing. The tender crew offloads and grades the fish before writing the skipper a fish ticket (a receipt for the catch). Oftentimes tenders also drop off supplies or otherwise help the fleet keep fishing. The job involves lots and lots of long runs to and from town, which can be an “exquisitely beautiful” cruise through Southeast Alaska’s mountainous Inside Passage… or a long night in pea soup, thumping through weather that keeps most other boats tied to the dock, Sylvester explained.
Steve Fish happened to be a neighbor of fisherman Jesse Remund, who Sylvester met in 2009 when she went on a camping trip to the Chem Chi Islands outside of Sitka with mutual friends. Remund and Sylvester found they had a lot in common. Jesse had been fishing and living by the sea in Alaska since he was a baby, studied marine biology, and like Sylvester thinks advocacy is an important part of being a fisherman.
They have both spoken out frequently about the needs of young fishermen and the importance of protecting the Tongass National Forest. At 16.7 million acres it is the largest national forest in the United States and is often referred to as “America’s Salmon Forest” because it is essential spawning habitat for wild salmon populations and the health of innumerable flora and fauna.
“It’s not only about sustainable fisheries, but sustainable land management and healthy ecosystems that the entire community depends on,” Remund said.
“Without forest conservation we wouldn’t have a sustainable fishery,” Sylvester agreed.
Through all her bouncing back and forth between coasts, Sylvester kept commercial fishing. She worked mostly on salmon trollers (not be confused with trawlers) out of Sitka, but also longlined for halibut and black cod with Jesse and his dad out of Port Alexander, a small fishing village a 12-hour run south of Sitka.
She crewed with a few different skippers before she and Jesse got their own boat, the F/V Faithful in 2014. “It is a beautiful, classic old wood boat, built in 1939 in Spokane, Washington” she said. They typically salmon fish with their two young kids on the F/V Faithful, while the longlining happens on Grandpa’s boat, the F/V Teasha.
Like many fisheries here, the halibut and black cod longline fisheries are quota based and individual fishermen hold Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs) that can be caught anytime during the longline season, which runs March to November. The salmon troll fishery is permit based with no individual quota limits, focused on coho salmon with brief king salmon openers throughout the year.
For over a decade, Sylvester and Remund have been trying to launch their own Alaska fish company to offer their catch on the East Coast, where they have always spent time in the off season, Tracy working contracts in fisheries science and Jesse doing some commercial scallop fishing as well as a brief stint as an observer.
Belonging to the Seafood Producers Cooperative, a 100 percent fisherman-owned processing co-op that was founded in 1944 (the oldest in the nation) has been a huge help in bringing their marketing ideas to fruit. SPC fillets, vacuum packs, and flash freezes the catch and markets wholesale and retail (Alaska Gold Brand). In January, Sylvester and Remund made the leap and, partnering with the cooperative which ships fish east, started Wooden Island Wild, named after a remote island in Southeast Alaska. Then Covid struck.
All in all, it has gone well. “We’ve been busy,” she said, spending the last nine months personally filling direct to consumer orders all over New England from their base in Woods Hole and working one farmers market a week up in Boston.
People often start with an interest in their wild-caught salmon, but once they try the black cod, also called sablefish, they are hooked.
“Everyone who has tried sablefish says it is a mind-blower, there is literally nothing like it,” said Remund.
Sylvester and Remund feel the idea of local boats fishing sustainably resonates and is a welcome message no matter what coast they’re standing on. Remund says the fisheries are part of the traditions and culture of Alaska, as they are here. “Our whole fleet is family owned and our catch is a wonderful renewable resource that we hope to have for generations to come,” he said, “it is why conservation advocacy is so important to young fishermen like us.”
“We want to encourage consumers to eat ever more healthy, sustainable seafood,” Sylvester agreed, “local and fresh responsibly harvested seafood is always ideal, but to really sustain our industry, and especially small owner-operated vessels, we need to work together to get more consumers demanding our nation’s high quality catch in all its forms. Fresh, frozen, canned, smoked… east coast, west coast, and the Gulf… as U.S.A. fishermen, we are all in this together.”
For all her work on policy and on the water, Sylvester feels it was also her work as a waitress, serving hundreds of people a night, that helps inform her.
“There is a story of positive social change that can be told at the table,” she said. “Keep the story with the food and in this case with the fish.”
By marketing sustainably-caught fish, that story goes home to tables across the state. People want to know their meal is not only good tasting, but fish they can feel good about buying:
“When it comes to seafood sustainability and the health of our oceans, I have found that many people are eager to hear a fisherman’s point of view. It is one reason I feel it is so helpful to maintain strong ties with the scientific community and support collaborative research.
“We are in a unique position to be story tellers and tell that story alongside our fish,” Sylvester said.
Sykes at the Fishermen’s Alliance appreciates that Sylvester is one of those storytellers.
“She will take people with opposing views and bring them together to talk,” Sykes said. “She just has a will to create community and bring people together.”