Fishing boats dock along the coast of Northern California in Crescent City. Fishing is one of the riskiest ways to make a living, but fishermen have found ways to cope, like depending on surrounding communities.
Fishing boats dock along the coast of Northern California in Crescent City. Fishing is one of the riskiest ways to make a living, but fishermen have found ways to cope, like depending on surrounding communities. Jessica Goldstein/NPR
Tom Estes of Fort Bragg, Calif., has made a living fishing. "It seems like, kind of like with the farmers, we're the first ones to get hurt and the last ones to recover," he says.
Tom Estes of Fort Bragg, Calif., has made a living fishing. "It seems like, kind of like with the farmers, we're the first ones to get hurt and the last ones to recover," he says. Jessica Goldstein/NPR
Many Americans are suffering emotionally as well as economically from the financial crisis. But for some people, life has always been full of big ups and downs — especially for fishermen.
Imagine trying to make a living by catching Dungeness crabs in the waters off far northern California. It's the most dangerous fishery on the West Coast. Lots of commercial fishermen all rush out at the same time to compete for a limited resource. To top it off, the crab population goes through natural cycles of boom and bust. But the fishermen have learned how to manage.
"All these variables — they're almost impossible to calculate, so you never know what's going to happen. And that's what kind of makes it interesting," says John Brunsing, a 64-year-old fisherman.
The topsy-turvy life he leads is interesting — but interesting ups and downs are not what most people want from their jobs, home values or investment statements.
When the unexpected happens — like home values plummeting — most people are shocked, says Arthur McEvoy, a historian at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. "And a lot of us are completely unprepared to deal with this."
How To Enjoy Risky Living
McEvoy has studied California fishing culture and admires the philosophy that fishermen have developed to ride out their continual ups and downs. And if you hang around on Brunsing's dock in Crescent City for a little while, you'll start to learn what makes this life not only survivable, but enjoyable.
The white-haired Brunsing offers friendly advice to his younger neighbor, Brett Fahning. They're competing for the same crabs, but they're friends. Bonds of cooperation run very deep in the fishing community. They swap advice and tips all day, by radio and cell phone, while they're out at sea.
Cooperation is one survival strategy. So is diversification. A few fishermen go after crabs exclusively, Brunsing says, but not many.
"The rest of these guys do other things during the year, you know. They fish salmon or albacore or shrimp," he says. "So, yeah, there's other ways to make a living."
Brunsing married a teacher with a steady job and health insurance. So his family income is diversified, as well. And Brunsing takes the long view about money. He knows he needs to save during the good years to get through the inevitable bad ones.
"You've got to manage your money right," Brunsing says. "If you manage your money right, it's fine, you can do it. We all do it."
Committed To The Way Of Life
But fishermen not only try to average out the ups and downs, they are often comfortable taking on big risks. Some fishermen don't even insure their boats against catastrophic loss. Some lose everything and can't keep fishing. That's part of the fishing culture, says historian McEvoy.
"It's a scary business, it's very dangerous and it's very strenuous work, and it calls a certain kind of person to it," McEvoy says. "People who are committed to it by nature, I suppose, or it's been in their families for generations."
One thing he noticed in his studies is that fishermen aren't doing this hard and dangerous work to get rich.
"They stay in the business because they're attached to the livelihood. They're committed to the way of life. They're committed to the communities and the other people who are doing it," McEvoy says.
In fact, they depend on their communities. They rely on their neighbors and their families — along with their savings — to weather the ups and downs.
"All those are historically tried and true and very effective means of self-insurance," he says. "What makes [fishermen] different from other kinds of people is they don't purchase that insurance through markets."
Unlike farmers, who can buy crop insurance to reduce their risk, there's no such thing as fish insurance.
"We've never had that luxury of a guaranteed anything," says Tom Estes, a fisherman who lives down the coast from Brunsing in Fort Bragg, Calif.
Like Brunsing, Estes is on the verge of retirement. He's spent his life riding the ups and downs of fish populations and the greater economy. Fuel prices rise? Tough luck. Fish prices down? Too bad.
"It seems like — kind of like with the farmers — we're the first ones to get hurt and the last ones to recover," Estes says.
The Secret To Success
Through the years, Estes has earned enough to buy a comfortable ranch-style home along California's coastal highway and to raise a family. Now his sons are carrying on the family tradition.
"It's been a good life for me," Estes says. "I think both of my boys will be all right, hopefully. They're both go-getters. ... I've taught them is a good work ethic. So, I'm sure they're going to be fine."
His secret to success, perhaps as much as anything, is an attitude you hear from a lot of people in his business.
"I think it's going to get better. I have high hopes," Estes says. "But that's what a fisherman runs on."
Optimism certainly doesn't guarantee success, as investors have painfully discovered. But as a coping skill, it seems to work just fine.