Xtra Tuf: "Free to Commercial Fisherwomen"

By Cathy Camper

    Today, most jobs plunk you in front of a computer for forty hours, exercising your fingers and mind, not your body. But imagine a job that takes you out on the open sea, where instead of navigating Microsoft Office Suite, your life depends on knowing how to really navigate, as well as splice rope, cook, sail, drag in fish lines, read tides—basically, to catch fish.
    Moe Bowstern’s time spent fishing the Alaskan seas is chronicled in her unique zine Xtra Tuf. Bowstern’s choice of the do-it-yourself zine format to tell her story reveals her identification with punk culture. She took on her pseudonym (a common practice in zine culture, especially by women writers who want to maintain their privacy or avoid being harrassed by creepy guys) back when she was a skiff operator, to create a mythical image for herself.   Her notation “Free to commercial fisherwomen,” inscribed on every issue, tips readers to something else: this is a woman’s view of a traditionally male job, meant to reach out to other women, who are a small minority in this business. On boats with four to a crew, roughly one out of twenty is female, and maybe one skipper out of 300. In fact, it’s Bowstern’s unique perspective as a radicalized woman onboard a boat that is a big part of what gives her zine bite. Like most people in fishing, she needs every penny of what her job can provide. If a fishing season is cut short or a cannery lowers the price it pays per fish, the hurt is real. But Bowstern goes beyond griping to consider personalities, class, race, and gender. She provides historical context, and she examines the power structures that shape the fishing business, including the government, canneries and skippers.
    The zines covers in detail the years 1996 to 2005, and more broadly, the nearly twenty years of Bowstern’s fishing career and union activism. Issue number one is lush with nautical art as well as tales, songs, and a recipe for hot dog pie. Number two includes a glossary, as well as instructions for splicing rope, reviews of several books about fishing in the Northwest, and an account of a transient man, “Brad Boodie,” who wandered the roads around Kodiak, somehow always managing to survive. Thick and juicy issue three recounts a whole summer Bowstern spent beach-seining—fishing from shore—which gives her the leisure time to explain Alaskan fishing history. She also includes an adventure about finding a human skull washed up on the beach. How I Got So Xtra Tuf, issue four, includes Bowstern’s tales of small-boat cookery and a recipe for spaghetti that accidentally had broken glass as an ingredient.
    Xtra Tuf number 5, “The Strike Issue,” is Bowstern’s magnum opus. It’s more like a small book, covering strikes during 1997, 2000, and 2005—or, as Bowstern characterizes them, “Win, Lose, Draw.” The issue includes strike-related songs, cartoons, fliers, company and union postings, and Bowstern’s observations of other strike participants. (Actually, the work stoppages were officially “standdowns,” not “strikes.” The United Seiners Association—USA—which represented the fishermens’ concerns, is a marketing association, not a union. Each boat is a considered a corporation, and unionizing would be against antitrust law.)

Before 1997, at the beginning of the season, the canneries would post a price for fish—a “token cent,” literally a penny per pound—and then raise it as the season progressed. The fishermen wouldn’t fish without the posting—producing fish in a competitive market, from an unpredictable sea, placed the skippers under too much financial pressure, as they hired a crew and outfitted a boat, for them not to be assured of payment. Once the token cent was posted, the skippers fished away, trusting that the canneries would eventually settle on an acceptable price, while the canneries trusted that the fishermen would bring them their fish.  The canneries also kept a private list of high-producing skippers, whom they paid more.
But in 1997, everything changed.
Before the Kodiak herring season, one of the big, Japanese-owned canneries on cannery row did not post the usual token-cent price before the fleet went fishing. The herring skippers hired tenders, deckhands, and airplanes anyway. They caught and delivered their fish, all on an open ticket. At the end of the season, the fishermen did not get paid for their herring. The rumor was that the cannery just shrugged and said, “We never said we would pay you.” The USA decided to negotiate preseason contracts with the canneries for the fishermen—a big change from past practice, in which each skipper had his or her own relationship with a processor and negotiated each deal individually.
When the USA called a meeting, salmon fishermen flocked to it, “to ensure that this would never happen [to] the salmon fleet.” As the chairs filled up fast in Fisherman’s Hall, Bowstern depicts herself hurriedly scribbling on a notepad on her knee. She’s shocked by the meeting’s built-in hierarchy, whereby the fishermen who catch the most fish also speak the most, deckhands remain mum, women are considered secretaries, and the one female skipper aligns herself with other men, not women. Bowstern says,
I was accustomed to meeting with people on the fringes of society to discuss methods of sustaining resistance to or outright dismantling of the patriarchy; here in Kodiak was the patriarchy itself, struggling to establish itself on an equal footing with the processors.

Even with the crisis, getting the fishermen to go on strike is no small feat, since each crew, under each skipper, is an independent work unit that is usually fiercely pitted against others to scoop up as much salmon as possible. The fishermen have to choose whether to swallow the loss, and try to fish more to make it up, or to strike—which means sitting unpaid while schools of fish swim by, uncaught.
Bowstern sets the stage well, explaining the relationship between the canneries and the market, which is more and more likely to be Japanese. She explains the effort involved in uniting three groups of fishermen: purse-seiners, the largest group, who travel the islands chasing and netting fish not more than two miles off shore; setnetters, who buy a permit and a site, live on the beach, and use nets to catch fish from a specific site; and beach-seiners, who also fish from shore but may wander, as long as their nets have one end anchored on shore at all times.
    The alternative and punk writers with whom Bowstern identifies often get caught up trying to prove they are “hipper than thou,” but Bowstern sees the similarities between punks and traditionally conservative fishermen, both of whom value independent thinking above all. A self-identified greenhorn back in 1986, the Bowstern of these zines is a seasoned fisherwoman, a tight-lipped observer and sensitive listener, whose accounts are even-keeled, even in rough water. She lets you know who the enemies are, but she generously considers their circumstances too, and the reasons for their actions.
I don’t feel any loyalty to a cannery because I am a bug to them, a piece of equipment they don’t need to maintain. But if I think about a situation where we deckhands organize into a union and none of us can tell our skippers about the meetings or what goes on in them, then I can understand the challenge guys might have in keeping their mouths shut. I can understand the difficulty of seeing the cannery as the Enemy.

She knows that most of the fishermen want the canneries to like them. As she says, they get their “Atta boys!” from the canneries, and good perks if they produce. The canneries foster competition among workers, and fear about the consequences of biting the big hand that feeds them.
    Not all the writing in the Strike Issue is by Bowstern. One of the most moving stories is “The Light on Mission Road,” by Toby Sullivan. During a winter strike in Kodiak in the 1970s, Sullivan is in Tony’s Bar watching a blizzard rage outside, when eleven men walk in—the crew of the Marten, which is loaded with 50,000 pounds of crab. They are scabs, and Sullivan wonders how they have the nerve to come into a bar full of fishermen on strike.
    Later that night, the Marten’s skipper calls his drunken crew out to sea, with disastrous results. The ship is wrecked in the storm, and few survive. Sullivan describes what he saw on shore the next day:
At first I didn’t realize what they were. But then down at the point I could see a pile of shattered planking, some of it painted white on one side, bent nails sticking out. In among the pieces of the hull were other things, a kitchen drawer, a book, a yellow Helly Hanson rain jacket, a sodden pillow.

The risks of bringing fish to the table becomes visceral here—and added to that is the sad irony that the men who died were scabs, who, only the night before, strikers like Sullivan had wished dead, at least metaphorically.

Also not to be missed is Bowstern’s story collection Second Set Out, which includes “S.O.S. (Same Old Story),” her account of her unwanted pregnancy at sea. She has no one to turn to but the male fishermen, who at first are less than sympathetic.
19-year-old deckhands don’t have much to say to despondent pregnant skiffwomen who aren’t their girlfriends. Those poor boys lived with me at my worst, with my mood swings, my sleepiness and my hunger—I couldn’t eat anything but crackers and ginger ale without throwing up.

Gradually, her boatmates began to come around:
We were traveling between fishing spots in a little bit of weather. I made a sudden rush out the door and hurled my guts over the side. I was clinging to the davit with the sea spraying up in my face when I looked up to see Ben standing there, holding out a glass of water for me. My heart broke at the tiny and unexpected crumb of kindness expressed.
Allen [the skipper] apologized to me for yelling at me right off the bat. I just took him off guard, he said. We talked some. I told him I wanted to keep fishing. I had an idea that I’d take a day, have the procedure, go back out on the grounds. That’s the way they did it, those tough guys, and I was one of them. “You don’t have to have an abortion, you know.” He smiled. “ I don’t mind a chubby skiffwoman.” I smiled too, but shook my head, no no no baby for me.
Getting her pregnancy terminated in Alaska turns out to be no easy feat. Trying to find a clinic in Alaska to do the abortion, a flight to Anchorage, and a way to pay for the procedure is a nightmare.
Bowstern’s work is an example of why self-published/small press publications are important. Here’s a recording of a voice history usually misses, and not just because it’s working class or female; most fishermen, even if they were inclined to do so, would be hard-pressed to write at sea because of the strenuous work and lack of privacy. Bowstern’s maturity as both a writer and a fisherwoman are like a steady hand on deck, guiding readers through tales of labor disputes, marine lore and  personal  experience in this very human account of fishing.

You can order Xtra Tuf and Second Set Out from
Microcosm Publishing
P.O. Box 14332
Portland, OR 97293

Moe was very adamant -If you run an illustration, CREDIT the artist- they’re all listed in the back of the book
She said to call her at 503- 493-2785 if you have  questions about  the credits
She also requested 2 copies of the issue,  mailed to Moe Bowstern,  PO Box 6834 Portland OR 97228

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