Book Review

ALASKA FISHING GOLD RUSH OF THE 1980s – A Gritty Look at a Gritty Life

By Jana M. Suchy  (illustrated)          Self-published

Review by Brooks Townes submitted to the Port Townsend Leader and Peninsula Daily News (Port Angeles, Wash.) in advance of the Feb. 7 Photo Exhibit and book signing in Port Townsend, Wash.:

Jana Suchy participated in the great commercial fishing bonanza of 1980s Alaska crewing out of Sitka on salmon and halibut boats, one of a wave of women working in what had been a male preserve.  She photographed and wrote about it all for the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal – and now again for the rest of us in her brand-new book, Alaska Fishing Gold Rush of the 1980s – a gritty look at a gritty life.  

An “unending opportunity full of endless possibility, the Alaskan dream was available to everyone – any boat, big or small, could go out on the open ocean and potentially fill up with fish, or call a Mayday, or sink…  All or nothing,” wrote the former Port Townsend resident.   

There was unlimited potential and great risk, Suchy wrote, “A crazy time – big money made, big money spent but who cares, there were always more fish in the sea, more untapped fisheries to explore. It was a frontier, full of frontier spirit.”

You can get a good glimpse of all this at a Port Townsend showing of her stellar photo essay beginning February 7 with a reception for the author from 5:30 to 8 p.m., in the Port of Port Townsend’s Administration Building, The Boat Haven. It runs through March, co-sponsored by Sunrise Coffee (also in the Boat Haven) where more Suchy photos grace the walls.  

Her photos also live large on the walls of Anthony’s restaurant at Sea-Tac Airport and in Chinook’s at Fishermen’s Terminal.

Suchy’s new book contains hundreds of black & white photos documenting an outrageous time & place on the water.  It includes comprehensive reporting on the fishery, and on fishery management practices that came with the end of the bonanza. Some of the tale is told in reprints of her contemporaneous Alaska Fisherman’s Journalwritings, which are very readable, enjoyable by laymen, not simply by fishermen and fishcrats. 

It’s a comprehensive volume. A graduate thesis on good and bad management of natural resources could almost be written from this book alone, and the way Suchy’s presents the story make this a good volume to have in the car,  read a section or article at a time while waiting, say, for ferries.

It’s not a single-topic affair.  Suchy puts Southeast Alaska’s fishing bonanza 30 years ago in broader social context:

  “Restless young men and women from across the Lower 48 went west in the heady years of youth still strong, daring, excited, eager and apparently fearless.  They journeyed so far west, then so far north, they found a raw, rough land… so far away, so outsized in scale… the 20th Century equivalent to the open range of the Old West exactly 100 years before.”

For landsmen and women curious about the commercial fishboats seen around Puget Sound, the various kinds, how they’re used and have evolved, what this part or that one is for, Suchy’s book has  answers – but its biggest value may be for those in the photos whose stories are told, a way for them to let their children know what they once did. 

For anyone concerned with wholesome resources management, the book gives an education. Suchy details how difficult it was to really understand fish stock health, how fishcrats mishandled the boom days and attempts to curtail dangerously large catches; how more sensible regulations evolved and how they’ve worked.  Some are still governing Alaskan fisheries.  

Suchy’s book is by no means a dry telling. Included are descriptions of days on the water, of boats plugged with so many fish they nearly sank, the grief when one does sink and good friends drown, a look at the business side of fishing,  a peek into fisherman’s bars where business is conducted. She includes a litany of qualities successful fishermen need that should convince the faint to remain ashore. 

       It will be sold on the website,, and all books are signed. The price is $70, with a a debut discount (free shipping; $60 at the exhibit).

– Brooks Townes