By Christina Whiting
Ian Pitzman began his career crab fishing the Bering Sea when he dragged 1,000 pounds across the deck of a boat.
“On the deck of Bering Sea crab fisherman Mike Tolva’s boat, I pointed to a shiny steel brick on the deck and asked him what it was,” Pitzman said. “He told me it was a 130-pound test weight for a crane.”
When Tolva was unable to lift the weight, Pitzman grabbed it with both hands and dragged it across the deck instead. Tolva told him that he had just dragged 1,000 pounds, and immediately offered him a job.
Pitzman agreed to make one king crab trip to the Bering Sea to earn some money, and then return to college. Instead, he spent the next 20 years crab fishing, attracted to the lifestyle.
“Preparing to crab fish is like preparing for an expedition,” he said. “It has a ‘go west young man and seek your fortune’ feel to it, which really struck a chord with me.”
Pitzman was first introduced to commercial fishing as a living while he was in the ninth grade. Pat Brown recruited him to fish on his boat, the F/V Warjack, after reading about Pitzman’s success as a high school wrestler.
“Pat figured if I was good at wrestling, I could be good at fishing, too,” Pitzman said. “I learned pretty quickly that fishing was a lot harder than wrestling.”
Pitzman was soon drifting Cook Inlet and long-lining for halibut. He spent the next few summers working for local fishermen. When he went out of state for college, he returned home each summer to seine for salmon in Prince William Sound with the Thomas family.
He has longlined for halibut off the Barren Islands, in the Gulf of Alaska and near Kodiak. He’s drift gillnetted salmon in Cook Inlet, seined salmon in Prince William Sound and crabbed the Bering Sea.
Pitzman worked his way up from deckhand to engineer with Tolva, and to skipper on Pat and Jennifer Dwyer’s boat, the F/V Jennifer A. Pitzman ended up running the iconic Bering Sea crabber for 14 years. In 2006 — under Dwyer’s mentorship — Pitzman and his wife Stephanie bought a 108-foot boat, the F/V Cape Caution, and crabbed the Bering Sea. They started their own business, “Fortune Sea;” an Alaska boat company that focuses on commercial fishing, tendering and vessel-of-opportunity charters.
When the couple added another crab boat to their fledgling fleet, Pitzman became more and more involved in the management side of the business. He and Stephanie were also expanding their family.
“I wanted to fish, but spending time with my kids became a bigger priority,” he said.” I had the opportunity to hire some really great guys to run the boats for me.”
Pitzman retired from fishing the Bering Sea in 2010, and took over the management of multiple boats. He currently manages five 100-foot boats based out of the Homer Harbor. Two are the Fortune Sea boats, F/V Kona Kai and F/V Cape Caution, which fish crab and cod in the winter and tender herring and salmon the rest of the year. The other three boats are similar in class to the Fortune Sea boats and have multiple owners, including the Pitzmans.
Pitzman has fished Cook Inlet salmon since 1992, most recently on the F/V Stephanie Anne, named after his wife.
“This is the fishery that I’ve been in the longest, and it’s my favorite,” he said. “I still drift for salmon every summer.”
Over the years, Pitzman has seen many changes within the fishing industry; some are positive, like rising salmon prices and dramatic improvements in product quality. Others are negative, such as Cook Inlet “fish wars” and perpetual Individual Fishing Quotas.
“IFQ’s have made fisheries safer and more manageable and have slowed down the pace of the race,” he said. “But I have a problem with the distribution and equitability of someone owning a public resource for perpetuity. I don’t quite understand how we can give these away to people forever; forever seems too long.”
Pitzman believes that — above all else — the fish have to come first.
“As long as the river is getting the right escapement for a sustainable return, it’s OK for us to fight over what’s left over,” he said. “As long as we keep maximum sustainable yield as our top priority.”
Fishing locally and sharing his love for fishing with his wife and seven children is one of Pitzman’s greatest joys. His oldest daughter Katie has been joining him on the boat since she was young and has worked as part of his crew for the past several years.
His oldest sons go out on the boat with him, but are too young to be crewmembers just yet.
“Fishing is in my kids’ blood,” he said. “One morning, after being on the boat with me the previous day, my son Ethan woke up and told me he’d been dreaming of fish and asked if I dream of fish too. I do.”
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