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PSS Summer '13

A Hunter-Gatherer at Sea

By Jessie Meyers Moore ’10

During his time at Hobart, Bill Hayes ’73 read Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, a story of living “a basic life full of passion and heartache”—a life after which Hayes “inadvertently” modeled his own as a captain of a fishing vessel for United States Seafoods.

“I am a hunter-gatherer,” explains the former oceanography student. “It’s not like being in an office with the windows shut and the door closed. It’s a very basic lifestyle of ‘if you’re not successful, you don’t eat.’ I like that basic work.”

This “basic work” includes four and a half years on a highline crab boat, three years on a pollock joint venture catcher boat and 27 years on the fishing vessel Vaerdal, a 125-foot trawler and processor whose name means “peaceful valley” in Norwegian. Over the past three and a half decades, Hayes’ work has yielded enough fish to feed dinner to 600 million people, about one fourteenth of the world’s population.

Hayes, who resides in Edmonds, Wash., currently spends about four to five months a year captaining the Vaerdal around the Bering Sea. An advocate of sustainable fishing, he has given testimony before the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council in support of regulatory changes to make fishing safer and more ecological.

“One of the biggest pleasures of fishing in Alaska is that the Bering Sea is the gem of the world, fisheries-wise,” he says. “You truly can’t get any better than wild, natural fish. There are no hormones and they’ve been feeding in a really clean environment.”

But before the fish reach the dinner table, Hayes and his crew must tackle the challenges that arise in fishing: “day after day of frustration, the agony of the position’s responsibilities that comes down to ‘you’re only as good as your next catch’” and working 16-hour shifts, 7 days a week. It’s not a career for the faint of heart. Hayes remembers that he “quit a thousand times” on his first voyage.

But the sea called him back with “all its beauty, wonder and splendor.” Hayes recalls one particular night in the Aleutian Islands, “an oily night with no wind, the water calm enough to reflect the island with its volcano spouting shots of lava into the air and big, red streams coming down the side of the mountain.”

Wonder and splendor, indeed.