Family Life of Commercial Fisherman Has Crests, Troughs

Ed. Note: Fishing families in the North Sound number just a fraction from a century ago. What’s life really like for them in 2019? The present echoes the past. The work is still hard, and fishermen and women are absent from home for several months at a time. It’s still dangerous too – for proof, just check out the striking, haunting memorial statue at the Marina at Squalicum Harbor that features engraved names of those lost at sea, then and now.

We talked to Bellingham resident Kara Nelson, married to third-generation commercial fisherman Laeth Nelson, about what life’s like when your spouse makes a living from the sea. Laeth’s parents, Bellingham’s Stan and Diane Nelson, were a fishing family. Laeth’s grandfather is Jim “Gunnysack” Nelson, a longtime commercial fisherman. The Nelson’s boat, Pacific Journey, is 72 feet long, 21 feet wide and sleeps 10. Laeth captains a crew of four on board. Kara keeps the books and keeps up the house when Laeth is gone.

With their two kids, Gunnar and Jenaka, grown now, Kara had the chance to put things in perspective – like counting up the missed birthdays and anniversaries, but also occasional family trips to Hawaii, where Laeth could join them. She said she wouldn’t change much about her and her family’s life. In her own words, here’s how she describes it.

I was a farm daughter. My dad was home every night. Dinner was at 6 o’clock every night, it was consistent, constant. With Laeth, we dated for a year, then we got engaged for a year, so I had time to figure it out a little bit. It was kind of exciting because he was (fishing off) San Francisco and I would go down and see him. I was 23. Then he would go to Alaska for six weeks. We called. There were two payphones and guys would wait in line to use the payphones. You had five minutes to talk because there was this line of guys. I was (in Bellingham); he was in Bristol Bay. Once a week, they’d go in and deliver and get fuel and groceries, he’d call.

Back then he wasn’t gone for long periods of time. It was four to six weeks in Bristol Bay, then he’d come home and bay fish out here (in Bellingham Bay for pink, chum, silvers and king salmon) from September through October, then they went down to San Francisco to do a herring fishery from December to February or March. Then he’d be home until summer.

Then the fishery changed. He got out of Bristol Bay, and he went to Astoria, Oregon to do the sardine fishery, June through September or October. He’d be home a month or so. Then he’d go down to squid, October through March or April.

(Now it’s) totally different. He only does one fishery now. After the Oregon fishery got shut down just a couple of years ago it turned to mostly squid down in Ventura, Calif. In 2018, he was home actually a lot. He was home from January to about June. Then the boat came up and they worked on the boat every day. It was a lot of time. He’s (usually) never home that much. [On Laeth’s family – grandfather, Jim “Gunnysack” Nelson; dad, Stan; uncles Gary and Les]

Laeth is third generation. They all fish. Gary got out of it years ago. Stan and Les still fish. All three are in their 70s. Stan’s retired. He’ll come down and help Laeth, or he’ll help with the boat, but he’s pretty much retired.

On Laeth and fishing

He loves it. He. Loves. It. He likes being on the water, he likes the thrill of the hunt. I know if I’d asked him to find another job, it’d kill him, honestly. He just loves it, loves everything about it.

When he was in the mouth of the Columbia, that’s got to be the most dangerous fishery on the whole coast. You’re going in and out of there, there’s sandbars, there’s huge container ships coming down on you, there’s all kinds of sports fishing guys that don’t know what they’re doing… It’s awful. A lot of boats go down every year.

One night down in California, (he had) a huge set using a purse seiner [a deep curtain of net]. Sardines and mackerel, they dive – and they dragged the net down off Channel Island. The boat listed and Laeth and another crew member had to jump off, into the water, and cut the net. They were cutting the net, and Laeth could feel it starting to go back up. He said it was like Indiana Jones – he grabbed the rope and it pulled him right back into the boat. That still bothers me. It does. And there’s sharks in the water. I was freaked out.

It’s like being a single parent. (Early on) it was hard if he would come home sometimes for like 36 hours and the kids would be super-excited to see him and they didn’t get that he had to leave. It wasn’t long enough. So that was hard. It was hard on them, and to see their little faces so sad.

For most of our kids’ lives, he would be gone eight months a year. Two years in a row he was home two days Thanksgiving, two days Christmas, probably 2013 or 2014.

I don’t know if he’s ever made a parent-teacher conference. I think he’s been home for one or two first days of school, birthdays – maybe half their birthdays. We’ve been married 25 years. I bet he’s maybe been home for 10 anniversaries.

The kids were really good about it. As they got older, they kind of got used to it, they kind of accepted it a little bit. He would come home and see things that were run a little differently and want it to change but we’d say, “This is our way, it works for us.”

Some of my friends didn’t even think I had a husband. I had a friend that I don’t think met him for probably two years.

Bellingham’s a good community, though. There are a lot of ladies in my situation, they’ve done quite well. I’m friends with them, not really close acquaintances. You’re friends with who your kids are friends with.

Bellingham people get it. But people that are new to Bellingham say, “Oh, you must have a lot of fish in your freezer.” No, we don’t have any. Seriously.

On buying fish in the supermarket

Don’t just buy the pieces in the case. They have frozen pieces in the back. It’ll thaw really fast. You don’t know how long it’s been in that case. Laeth can even tell you where it comes from.

On getting seasick

I don’t, but Laeth does. He wears the patch or he’ll do ginger. As he’s gotten older, it has gotten better. Taking (the boat) up and down the coast – if it’s really rough, it’s not good. He’s done Dramamine his whole life. See what I mean? He loves it. It’s crazy.

If I could change anything? I don’t know. I like where we live. I wouldn’t want to live in California. It works for us. It doesn’t work for everybody. It’s definitely a two-way communication. I don’t know if I’d change anything.

On how long Laeth, 49, will continue to fish

We talked about it. Gunnar doesn’t love it like his dad loves it. I don’t know if he’ll be interested in buying us out. I think Laeth probably will fish about 10 more years, maybe more. Maybe once he retires he’ll just do this Bellingham, little Washington state fishery. Because he loves it. He and Gunnar will fish this summer, and they would be out there everyday fishing. It’s totally ideal. I see them right off the front of the house. He loves that. Just absolutely loves it.

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"He loves that. Just absolutely loves it."