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James Swift – Fishermen, AMSEA Board member

AMSEA is sad to announce the departure of James Swift from our Board of Directors. James joined the Board in 2011 as a representative of the commercial fishing industry and served for 13 years. In this role he brought 30 years of experience to AMSEA as a halibut and black cod longliner, salmon troller, seiner and gillnetter, tuna fishermen and crab fisherman working from Bristol Bay to S.E. Alaska.

In 1971, immediately after high school, James moved to Sitka, AK. at the age of 17. His graduation gift from his parents was a one-way ticket to Alaska. In Sitka he joined his two brothers and bought the F/V Bobby D., a 20 foot wooden WWII navy launch with a gas engine and they started long lining halibut by hand. Soon thereafter he bought the F/V Salty and hired his own crew. Commercial fishing in those days has been referred to as the wild, wild west. In Alaska at that time there were many open access fisheries, inexpensive vessels and feral, free range young people with high risk tolerance walking the docks looking for hard work and play, many without much maritime experience. “Living the dream” as they say and looking for adventure.

In the 1970s and 80s environment of fishing, some of these adventures turned into tragedies. James remembers many of his friends that were lost fishing. During this time there were many years where 30 to 40 fishermen died every year in Alaska alone. The major turning point in his life was in 1985 when he became sober. James said that sobering up made him philosophical about what he was doing in life up to that point and recognizing that onboard safety was part of a healthier life. 

He continued to fish and invested in fisheries with the purchase of the F/V Ardis. In the late 1980s and early 1990s James also worked as the Director of the Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Assn. (ALFA). His work at ALFA involved protecting the longline halibut and black cod fisheries with a focus on sustainability of biomass and local fisheries. He attended many fisheries meetings and gave input into what was to become the IFQ program in 1995. Since that time the quality and price of these two fisheries have reached record highs and the longline fishery has seen a dramatic decline in fatalities that continues to this day. Alaska fishing fatalities have fallen lower than any other region of the U.S. and we have recently witnessed two years without a vessel related fatality in Alaska- a historical record.   

His last vessel was the fish tender Ginny C. and he was self-employed as an outboard mechanic in the off season. In 2020 he retired from both jobs (please don’t call him to ask if he can work on your outboard). He now has more time to take walks and spend time with his wife Ilene who has worked as a substance abuse expert and counselor. He has been sober for the last 38 years.

We will miss his reflections on how far fishing safety has developed and what more can be done. We especially will miss his advice on substance abuse which, unlike fishing fatalities, is still a major health problem. Thank you James for everything you have done for AMSEA, the health of fisheries and the people who work on vessels that delivery wild, healthy, nutritious food to the world.

We look forward to seeing you on the trails in Sitka!

-Jerry Dzugan


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