Women on the Water: Erin Ranney, Wildlife Photographer & Commercial Fisherman

Alicia Biggart, US Harbors’s Content Editor, recently had the chance to speak with Erin Ranney, a professional wildlife camerawoman, commercial Salmon fisher and deep sea video engineer about how she got into such varied lines of work.
Salmon fishing in Alaska.
ERIN: My name is Erin Ranney. I’m a wildlife camerawoman, commercial fisherwoman and a video engineer on deep sea exploration ships. I am 29 years old and I live in Washington half the year and Alaska the other half of the year.
US HARBORS: Did you grow up splitting your time between Washington and Alaska?
ERIN: I was born in Alaska and I lived there until I was in elementary school and then we moved down to Washington to be on my family’s tree farm. My great grandma passed away so we moved into her house so my grandpa didn’t have to take care of two houses. My dad’s entire side is still in Alaska so we continue to go up and commercial fish every summer at our remote camps. So we didn’t spend half the year there, I spent the school year in Washington and headed up to Alaska for the summer; the whole summer. And then when I was in college I spent more and more time there. I was working for my uncle’s adventure lodge and commercial fishing and then after college I ended up spending entire spring and summers there because the filming for wildlife is better in Alaska but it’s  easier for me to fly to shoots from Washington in the winters because oftentimes flights are cancelled out of Cordova, Alaska where I spend most of my time. So it made sense to just keep splitting the two. People on shoots aren’t very happy if you don’t show up.
US HARBORS: I’d imagine your tickets aren’t cheap either.
ERIN: No, No especially when there’s only two flights a day out of it but the little town where my family has the lodge, my uncle has the lodge, only has two thousand people and it’s a little fishing town. Flights are expensive and the weather is questionable so it made sense to stay down here during the winters.
US HARBORS: Did I see somewhere that your grandparents are both pilots?
ERIN: My grandma was a bush pilot. She just stopped flying I think five years ago; she had to get a pacemaker put in so she had to stop flying. Her husband, my step-grandpa is a helicopter pilot and then my other grandpa (my dad has two sets of parents) he did the commercial crabbing for quite a while and he flew and had his pilot’s license, not to the same extent as my grandma and then my step-grandma commercial fishes still. So they’re all really active and in that world but the grandma that flies she was in the Smithsonian “Women of Flight” for flying. She’s quite impressive. She was doing it at a time when women really weren’t flying in Alaska so she was pretty wild. She was a school teacher, saw an airplane, saw people flying and was like ‘I want to do that’ so she bought a plane before she could fly and just kind of figured it out and just kept going.
US HARBORS: Hopefully having pilots in the family helps you get from one remote place to another.
ERIN: My uncle and grandma has a flying business for quite awhile out of Yakutat, Alaska called “Fishing and Flying” and he ended up moving to Cordova and he bought the old cannery and basically hand built it into a lodge so it took a lot of work. But he still flies. I just did this big passion project in Alaska for six months and he flew me to most of the remote locations. He has some remote cabins and I stayed at them for a few months at a time and filmed wildlife. But he and I get on the plane and we’re looking into wildlife, he’s super into wildlife too so we still spend quite a bit of time in the air when I’m with them.
US HARBORS: I was curious about your internship on Nautilus – was that a one time thing or do you go back and continue with the deep sea video engineering?
ERIN:They have an internship program every year and it’s a paid internship which as you know is amazing in filming to have a paid internship so I spent about a month on the boat the first time and that was my internship year. They’re really hand on and you get into the controls right away. My boss Ed McNichol he is very much about learning, being hands on and you can do it. So that first year was my internship and then I come back as a contracted worker. So I’ve done it two other years on expeditions.
US HARBORS: Is there any similarity between wildlife photography and underwater video engineering?
ERIN: There are parts that are similar – a lot of it’s focusing with the cameras. It’s a bit different because your ROV is constantly – there’s an ROV pilot – I’m not controlling the ROV. They have these brilliant engineers who drive the ROVs around but when you’re in the water there’s obviously quite a bit of movement so to get really focused on small things and zooming in, you have to know that that movement is happening. So that actually helped me a lot for filming wildlife. My focus got better and better because I was used to trying to focus on something moving constantly but it is a lot different. The whole thing is livestreamed so it’s going 24/7 when you’re on a dive and you’re on comms so you’re actually talking and people are hearing what you say which is also a bit scary sometimes because you don’t want to say anything dumb. But yeah it’s a lot different. It’s nicer, you’re not in a little tiny hide freezing your butt off, you’re in a nice exploration ship and they have amazing food and you’re with all of these interesting people, you’re not by yourself. There’s a lot of different aspects but there are a lot of things that go hand and hand.
US HARBORS: Does it ever get claustrophobic on the ship?
ERIN: I mean, the exploration ship, the Nautilus it’s pretty big. You do have some space. I think the thing is I grew up in a place where we would go out in our little fishing boats or be out at a remote camp or you know for filming we are out in small group. I think I’m used to being in small places and you kind of learn how to cope with it and it just becomes quite normal.
US HARBORS: Tell me more about the commercial fishing you do.
ERIN: I’m third generation in Bristol Bay fishing. My grandparents, some of them still fish. We started fishing in other remote camps in Alaska and we basically started going to what we called “fish camp” since we started walking and we’d pick the weeds out of the net and then at the end of the season if we did a really good job picking weeds out of the net, we’d get to pick a toy from the toy store. So I started when I was really teeny and my dad’s been fishing since he was 13. He loves fishing, he’s the most excited person about fishing. Every time a fish hits his net he jumps up and down, cheering which gets really old when you’re catching a hundred thousand pounds of fish. He’s awesome. Now I have my own permit and site. The type of fishing we do now, our family used to have the bigger boats, the 32″ boats for gill netting but now we use small little boats and we actually do a thing called set netting where you fish with the tides. So you’re putting the net in and the tides comes in. The tides are so huge in that area that they’ll cover it up and then you’re fishing for eight hours at a time or if the tide’s really big and then you can get multiple tides depending on how big the tides are. And you listen to the radio every day to find out when you’re open – they’re monitoring the Salmon runs constantly. So it’s this month and a half of really intense fishing for that season.
Growing up I started working with my aunt – I was 13 and she was 14 and we started running a site together and I mean nobody wants to deal with teenage girls anyways and I’m sure we were really annoying to everyone around us but then you have to run a business together and it’s even worse. But it did teach me a lot of independence, it taught me to work hard and it gave me financial independence too. When you fish pretty intensely for the Salmon run you make a decent amount of money especially as a teenager.
US HARBORS: Do you think that you’ve had an easier or harder time being a female fisherwoman?
ERIN: Hard work does pay off. I grew up with all of these strong females and they just did it. For me it was normal for women to just do whatever they wanted and the men in my life were so supportive. My dad grew up with his mom being one of the pioneering bush pilots in Alaska. So my dad doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman. My brother is the worst fisherman out of the four siblings and my dad’s like ‘oh well, my daughters kick ass and my son’s bad at fishing but he’s a great chemical engineer.’ So the family never set a tone but traveling in a fishing community sometimes you did get comments and stuff. You definitely had some funny experiences but I think where we are fishing there’s so many women now fishing. All my aunts fish, my sister fishes, grandma still fishes, my stepgrandma still fishes and a lot of my friends who are fishermen are women as well so it’s quite a huge amount of women there now. When my mom used to commercial fish on my dad’s boat she got a lot more comments and people offering to pay her more if she joined their crew and that kind of thing.
US HARBORS: Has the current shutdown impacted your fishing season?
ERIN: My filming work is completely cancelled at the moment but fishing doesn’t start until June for my season. So right now Alaska is trying to figure out the best way for fishermen and processing worker to travel because they have to go through remote villages and stuff and they’re figuring out how to do that safely and there are processors and we sell our fish to processors who gut them and freeze them. They’re trying to figure out the best way to get these people (including ourselves) through the villages and onto our boats and into our remote camps without infecting the community because their hospitals are teeny. They don’t have the proper equipment if there’s an outbreak. Some of the communities go from 2000 people to 10,000 people during the fishing season. So it’s this massive push and influx of people from all over the world coming into these communities and I was reading in 1918 when the Spanish Flu was a problem, it got into some of the Alaska villages and it really took a toll on the community so I think there is a lot of apprehension about letting people come in. Right now fishing is considered, commercially for food, in Bristol Bay as an essential job but they’re just trying to figure out the best way to let us in without hurting local communities.
US HARBORS: Has much changed for you under the shutdown?
ERIN: I haven’t been home in spring for like 10 years – home in Washington because I’ve spent it in Alaska or I’ve been filming or on a job. It’s weird being back here but it’s giving me time to catch up on paperwork, to organize my stock video, to play with my dog but I do get a little bit restless. I’m ready to work, I haven’t not worked and sat still for this long in years, I’ve always been working. It’s a weird time because some days I’ll be in my pajamas all day and just kind of sad about it – ‘what am I doing, why am I sad? I have it so much better you know, I’m ok, I have food on the table, I’m healthy. And I’m like I’m being selfish and I’ll turn around and have a super productive day and get a lot done and workout, do a bunch of paperwork organized, have meetings. So I go up and down between things. It’s just weird to have this much time. I’ve never had this much time.

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