Flint, MI high school grad embarks on first year commercial fishing in Bristol Bay

Jun 21, 2017

Captain Buck Gibbons hired Jawanza Brown to join his crew on the F/V Stevie K, hoping the young man will fund his college education by picking fish each summer in Bristol Bay.

Jawanza Brown (left) is embarking upon his first year of commercial fishing in order to pay for college. Buck Gibbons will oversee Brown’s work for the next several years.
Credit Caitlin Tan / KDLG

It was the middle of a school day and Jawanza Brown was playing catch football in Flint, Michigan. Out of the blue, his Boys and Girls Club coordinator proposed a wild job opportunity to Brown.

“He just looks at me in a small whisper he voices when nobody else was there, ‘How would you like to make $12 to $15,000 this summer in seven weeks?’ and I’m like keep talking, I wanna hear about this,” the 18-year-old Flint, Michigan native recalled.

Brown has since taken his first airplane to Naknek to sign on with a Bristol Bay drifter, only two days after graduating high school. He will soon set out for his first time to sea to fish for a month straight in Ugashik with Buck Gibbons.

Gibbons has fished Bristol Bay for 41 years and for the past ten he has only hired college students as crew.

“And I let one man go last year because he dropped out of college,” he said. “If you are going to be on this boat you are going to be in college. We are not going to finance a lifestyle, we are going to finance a career path.”

Traditionally Gibbons has only hired students out of his home state of Washington. But this year he widened his search. After watching a documentary on a Seattle Seahawk running back who grew up in Flint, Gibbons got creative. He contacted the program coordinator for the Flint Boys and Girls Club and flew out to meet Brown.

“In this case to go back East and try to bring my culture into their culture,” Gibbons said, referencing the unique work and lifestyle of a Bristol Bay fisherman. “This is a foreign language to Jawanza. It’s something practically nobody in that community is familiar with. It was out of the blue.”

Brown had never been on a commercial fishing boat or a plane, and had only been out of Michigan once. Gibbons believes his newest crewman has the right stuff to succeed, but knows that there is a big learning curve during the first season.

Brown said the anxiety of coming to Alaska got worse leading up to his flight.

“I’m gonna be so far from home, new culture, new experience, how am I going to take this,” Brown said. “One day I woke up at like 3 a.m. and started throwing up with just how nervous I was. It was wild.”

But he is doing what he can to embrace the fishing lifestyle and months ago started practicing tying knots and mending nets. He even asked his family to start waking him up much earlier than usual, as he admits he is a little nervous about the coming lack of sleep.

“And those days when I’ve been trying to do it, it’s been terrible,” Brown said. “I don’t think it’s too much to adjust to. I can adjust to any kind of situation quickly.”

This fall Brown will start working towards a biology and business degree at Saginaw Valley State University, paying around $8,800 in tuition per year. Depending on the season and the fish price, he might make up to $15,000 each summer fishing Bristol Bay with Gibbons.

“I never knew how I would pay for college other than scholarship money,” Brown said. “When this opportunity came along that was a big reliever in my family – financial stress was just gone. Yeah, it was like I can actually get through it.”

There is a bit of culture shock coming to a rugged melting pot like Naknek from Flint, which is predominantly a black community.

“My thinking of normal in Flint is way different than theirs. How do you adjust to that?” Brown said. “You just communicate, you socialize yourself with them and pretty soon you’re somewhat conforming but holding onto your own way the same time. It becomes this new culture that everyone can neutralize and accept.”

Like most crew before fishing starts, Brown has his nose to the grindstone, chipping away at some 50 items on the skipper’s to-do list. Developing good crew starts with preseason maintenance and chores, and Gibbons takes great pride in training these young men how to fish.

“If I have to yell at a crew man it’s because I haven’t taught them the right way. I try to be as thorough as I can in my explanations and everything seems to go really well,” Gibbons said.

The Stevie K will go in the water this week, and Gibbons will head for the Ugashik District where he fishes. There will be four on the boat – Gibbons, Brown and two other returning college students who are also working the hard way to fund their education.

Reach the author at fish@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.