MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Many Americans are suffering emotionally and economically amid the financial crisis, but for some people, life always has been full of big ups and downs. It's true for farmers, for instance, and especially fishermen. Fish populations boom and bust, and people who fish for a living have learned how to manage. NPR's Richard Harris talked to some of them to learn how they do it.
RICHARD HARRIS: Imagine for a minute 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. There are lots of other fishermen all rushing out at the same time to compete for a limited resource. And to top it off, the crab population goes through natural cycles of boom and bust. Welcome to John Brunsing's life.
Mr. JOHN BRUNSING: All these variables that, you know, they're almost impossible to calculate so you really never know what's going to happen. And that's what kind of makes it interesting.
HARRIS: Yes, to this 64-year-old fisherman, the topsy-turvy life he leads is interesting. But interesting ups and downs are not what most people are looking for when they look at their jobs, home values, or investment statements.
Professor ARTHUR MCEVOY (Historian; Law, Southwestern Law School, Los Angeles): We're so shocked, right.
HARRIS: Arthur McEvoy is a historian at Southwestern Law School.
Professor MCEVOY: The value of my house went down. I'm shocked, shocked. And a lot of us are completely unprepared to deal with this.
HARRIS: 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 John Brunsing's dock in Crescent City for a little while, you'll start to learn what makes this life not only survivable but enjoyable.
(Soundbite of conversation)
HARRIS: The white-haired Brunsing offers friendly advice to his younger neighbor, Brett Fahning. Sure, they're competing for the same crabs, but they're also friends. And those 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. So cooperation is one survival strategy, so is diversification. A few fishermen go after crabs exclusively, Brunsing says, but not many.
Mr. BRUNSING: The rest of these guys do other things during the year, you know. They fish salmon or albacore or shrimp or trawl for bottom fish and stuff so - yeah, I mean, there's other ways to make a living.
HARRIS: Brunsing, like other fishermen we met, married a school 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 that he needs to save during the good years to get through the inevitable bad ones.
Mr. BRUNSING: You know, you've got to manage your money right, you know. If you manage your money right, it's fine, you can do it. We all do it.
HARRIS: But fishermen don't only try to average out their ups and downs, they are often comfortable taking on big risks. For example, some fishermen don't even insure their boats against catastrophic loss. Some lose everything and can't keep on fishing. That's part of the fishing culture, says historian McEvoy.
Professor 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. People who are committed to it by nature, I suppose, or it's been in their families for generations.
HARRIS: One thing he's noticed in his studies is that fishermen aren't doing this hard and dangerous work to get rich.
Professor MCEVOY: 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 - their communities and the other people who are doing it.
HARRIS: In fact, they depend upon their communities. They rely on their neighbors and their families, along with their savings to weather the ups and downs.
Mr. MCEVOY: All those are historically tried and true and very effective means of self-insurance. What makes them different from other kinds of people is that they don't purchase that insurance through markets.
HARRIS: In fact, unlike farmers who can buy crop insurance to reduce their risk, there's no such thing as fish insurance.
Mr. TOM ESTES: We've never had that luxury of a guaranteed anything.
HARRIS: Tom Estes lives down the coast from John Brunsing in Fort Bragg, California. Like Brunsing, he's on the verge of retirement, and he spent his life riding the ups and downs of not only fish populations, but of the greater economy. Fuel prices up? Tough luck. Fish prices down? Too bad.
Mr. ESTES: It seems like we're kind of like with the farmers, we're the first ones to get hurt and then the last ones to recover.
HARRIS: But through the years, Estes has earned enough to buy a comfortable ranch-style home along California's coast highway and to raise a family. In fact, his sons are carrying on the family tradition.
Mr. ESTES: It has been a good life for me. And I think both of my boys will be all right, hopefully. I mean, they're both go-getters. Of anything I've taught them is a good work ethic. So I'm sure they're going to be fine.
HARRIS: His secret to success, perhaps as much as anything, is an attitude we heard from a lot of people in his business.
Mr. ESTES: I think it's going to get better. I have high hopes. But that's what a fisherman runs on is high hopes.
HARRIS: Optimism certainly doesn't guarantee success as investors have painfully discovered. But as a coping skill, it seems to work OK. Richard Harris, NPR News.