As I coiled rope on the deck of a commercial fishing boat in the western Gulf of Alaska, I felt the sudden thud of a revolver reverberate in my chest. I wheeled around as a crewmate fired more bullets; a round of buckshot followed, from a shotgun held by my captain. I’d known their anger was growing as sperm whales ate our catch but hadn’t expected they would vent their frustrations with live ammunition. I looked out and saw a sperm whale crest the surface for air around 20 meters away, seemingly unfazed by the heavy fire.

It was early spring 2013, and I was sore, exhausted, and cold. After working 20 hours a day for more than a week, my crewmates and I still owed the boat money because sperm whales had dined on nearly all the sablefish hanging from our hooks as we burned fuel and ate food—both of which came out of our pay. We were using longline gear, essentially a kilometers-long rope with baited hooks spaced at intervals, and all that we pulled from the depths were bent hooks and the occasional disembodied sablefish head.

In videos taken by researchers over the years, the whales are surprisingly graceful—giants weighing 15 to 40 tonnes gently biting half-a-meter-long sablefish off the hooks. Sometimes sperm whales will rake the rope as it’s being hauled in, letting the hooks run over their lower teeth, with the fish popping off upon contact. Other times, the whales will grab a taut rope in their mouth and pluck it like a guitar string, whipping fish off the hooks from the vibration.

Fatigue and financial loss made me indifferent to the agile intelligence displayed below my feet, but seeing my coworkers shoot at the largest species of toothed whales on the planet—an illegal act that could lead to a steep fine and a year in jail in the United States—revolted me. Yet I knew my protests would be futile, and I was more than a day’s boat ride from the nearest port.

In the Gulf of Alaska, as well as in longline fisheries throughout the world from the Bering Sea to the Antarctic and tropical waters between, toothed whales—that is, any whale that feeds with teeth instead of baleen, such as sperm, pilot, and killer whales—are learning to see fishers and their gear as a source of an easy meal. Scientists researching this behavior, known as depredation, say whales are increasingly eating lucrative catches right off the hook instead of foraging naturally. There’s no easy way to stop it, and the behavior is spreading through whale culture. Whales’ penchant for hooked fish might be the biggest fisheries story that hardly anyone knows about.

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I stood on the deck of a fishing boat this past summer, soaked from sweating inside my rain gear after an hour of picking sockeye salmon from our gill net at the mouth of the Nushagak River on Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Fishing is hard enough work, but an early July heatwave sizzled the region, making for grueling conditions on deck. The temperature in southwest Alaska pushed 32 °C. Smoke blowing in from wildfires burning hundreds of kilometers east blotted out the mountains on the northern horizon. Nothing about the conditions was normal.

I’ve worked as both a journalist and a commercial fisherman for over a decade, participating in more than a dozen fisheries from Southern California to the western Gulf of Alaska. I’ve seen booms and busts over the years, and this summer the fishing in Bristol Bay was booming. Estimates say 56.3 million salmon returned to the bay’s rivers. While down from 2018’s record-breaking runs, with 62.3 million fish, Bristol Bay has so far bucked the trend of declining salmon runs seen in other regions. But all is not well. As I was sweating on deck, the water was 18.9 °C—just a few degrees shy of 21 °C, when the temperature starts being lethal to salmon.

Twenty-five kilometers northwest, in the nearby Igushik River, the water was even warmer. One hundred thousand sockeye salmon waited for cooler conditions so they could move upstream to spawn. But, unwilling to pass through the hot, shallow water, the fish used up the available oxygen and suffocated—it was the largest sockeye salmon die-off seen in Bristol Bay, says Timothy Sands, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Elsewhere in the watershed, temperatures also soared. Read more…

A Dungeness crab on deck. Photo by Nick Rahaim.

The worst-case scenario has been averted — no multiyear closure of California’s Dungeness crab fishery. But fishermen will feel the sting for years to come after a settlement in a lawsuit over whale and sea turtle entanglements has closed spring crabbing in the state for the foreseeable future. And the fishermen are not happy.

“The settlement is going to be extremely painful and extremely difficult to deal with,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, noting that millions of dollars in product will be left in the water this year. “But this was the best possible deal that was acceptable to all parties.”

At issue is a 2017 lawsuit in federal court by the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Biological Diversity that argued the state of California was in violation of the Endangered Species Act after a three-year spike in whale entanglements in Dungeness crab fishing gear from 2014 to 2017.

The lawsuit sought to force the state of California to obtain a federal incidental take permit for whales and turtles — a process that takes around three years to implement. It would have been possible for the fishery to remain closed during the intervening years, although the CBD says it never sought an indefinite closure through litigation.

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A half-moon shone in the 10 a.m. sun in the parking lot outside the fuel dock at the Ventura Harbor—that was until the fat old man in sweatpants tugged the worn elastic band back over his hairy ass. After a week and a half of walking the docks for work and sleeping on a beach my future in the southern Californian,  squid fishery was presented to me in the cloudy slate eyes and black-toothed grin of a cranky old man trying to repair a 1979 Dutsun pickup.

“Sorry boys, we don’t have any work for you but talk to Turk, his boat needs a little work before it’s ready for the season,” said a Canadian skipper who landed the nickname Catch ‘em all Paul for having boasting to have caught all the fish there was to catch in Canada.

After some chitchat between the skippers I was dropped off with Turk. His self-proclaimed ‘grizzly bear paw of a hand’ had trouble fitting into the cracks of the small engine so my friend AW and I took over the task of installing a new water pump in a truck that was barely worth saving. He then brought us to his boat that was tied up at the fuel dock. There I met the Miss Deception, a 38-foot Kodiak beach seiner converted into a light boat.

Continue reading “Book Preview: The Old Turk and the Sea”

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While serving as a deckhand on a longliner in the western Gulf of Alaska in 2013, my boat couldn’t shake a pod of sperm whales who gobbled up most of our catch. After working 20 hours a day for a week in a blustery March, I owed the boat money. As we moved east toward West Yakutat over the course of the spring, sperm whales were an on-again, off-again problem. We worked longer and harder to catch the same amount of fish. But the main casualty in the game of cat and mouse between our boat and the agile behemoths was our shared target—blackcod.

A move to allow pots in the Gulf of Alaska fishery is in response to sperm whales, as well as orcas, increasingly eating fish from longlines. Negative interactions between longliners and whales in the Gulf of Alaska have steadily increased for decades. Depredation—the act of whales eating from fishermen’s hooks—has caused fishermen much frustration and has cost them a lot of time and money. The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Gulf of Alaska. From Norway to the South Pacific, the Falkland Islands to Chile, fishermen increasingly find themselves competing with whales in hook and line fisheries.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved in April to allow the use of pots in the Gulf of Alaska to harvest blackcod. The decision comes after years of review and strong support from various fishermen and industry associations. The motion was not without contention, however, with the Sitka-based Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association opposing the change in gear type, asserting that it would hurt fishermen with small boats that couldn’t carry the large pots, thereby creating a new gear conflict.

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deadliest_catchIn the 11th season of Discovery Channel’s flagship show “The Deadliest Catch,” the title’s fallacy still goes largely unnoted. Crab fishing on the Bering Sea isn’t the deadliest fishery in the United States, and it hasn’t been for the entire run of the show; it’s not even in the top three. Two East Coast fisheries are the ones where fishermen are most likely to become fish food.

 Groundfish—including cod and flounder—on the East Coast was the deadliest fishery in the U.S. from 2000 to 2009, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, followed by Atlantic scallops. The third, with which I have personal experience, is Dungeness crab fishing on the Oregon and Washington coasts. Data from 2010 to 2014 shows the trend continuing through this decade. The rankings are based on workforce estimates and their full-time equivalents.

Aside from an inaccurate title for a “reality” program, we should cheer the fact that fishing in an inhospitable environment is becoming safer by the year. Far fewer people are dying so vacationers in Las Vegas and affluent businessmen and bureaucrats in China can gorge themselves on what appear to be overgrown spiders. Commercial fishing is becoming safer. From 1990 to 2014 there was a 74 percent drop in commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska, according to NIOSH. Furthermore, in 2013 commercial fishing dropped to No. 2 — behind logging — in the list of deadliest occupations, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Read more at Salon…

National Fisherman recently published an article I wrote on labor law in the commercial fishing industry in their September 2014 issue. The legal rights outlined in the piece not only apply to deckhands in the fishing industry but to all seamen working from US ports of call.

photoCommercial fishing is a brutal industry. Whether in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico or the North Atlantic, sleep deprivation, harsh conditions and strained muscles are routine. Those of us dealing with the ferocity of the job are usually in it for more than just the love of the fishing life. There’s got to be a financial reward that comes with getting beat up for a living. The last thing a deckhand should have to worry about is getting their wallet beat up by captains looking to improve their own bottom line.

There is no shortage of stories of deckhands getting ripped off by captains: shares lower than agreed to, inflated expenses and manipulated costs As a greenhorn, I got on the wrong boat for three weeks, got zapped by faulty wiring numerous times, and never got paid — that is, until I showed up to the skipper’s house nearly a year later, more than 1,000 miles away, and demanded my pay. He gave me 500 bucks and told me if I wanted more I’d have to take him to court. There also are many cases of deckhands making spurious claims against skippers for both pay and injury.

While we hear these stories of skippers and deckhands getting the better of each other, one thing is clear: Too few have a solid grasp of what rights deckhands on commercial fishing vessels have under federal law.

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Four bald eagles flew playfully with each other in the sun’s last rays before the 11 p.m. dusk. Their wings flapped quickly as they chirped in a high-pitched juvenile manner. It struck me as odd that the powerful predator emblemized as the national bird had such a disarming tweet, and not the fierce screech normally associated with birds of prey. In many places in Alaska bald eagles are more common than seagulls. Yet for most in the United States, the sighting of a bald eagle is an once-in-a-lifetime experience, if at all. Protecting these stunning, mostly unseen, creatures makes sense to most because they taken on an unreal—unicorn-esque—status.

“Goddamn glorified vultures,” said my former captain as he saw me admiring the birds. One swooped down and snatched a small pink salmon out of the water with its talons. “Thief! It’s a goddamn thief! Stealing dollars out of my pocket!” he hollered in a husky tenor.

A teenaged crewmate laughed and told me they’re the best trap bait for minks and martins. I gave a look of disgust, that egged him on and he delved into stories of blasting raptors with shotguns. Nonetheless fur—wild fur—subsidizes more than a few incomes in Alaska—not to mention generous government programs that many who perceive our northern most state as a libertarian bastion conveniently overlook.

Continue reading “Authoritarian environmentalists and democratic pillagers?”

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Somewhere off the Alaskan Peninsula, in the barren 525-mile expanse that separates Kodiak from Dutch Harbor, I realized that we would soon run out of milk and bread. Being in such a remote location we would not soon be able to resupply on these basic provisions. As the boat cook, it was my job to plan and keep track of our food supplies, I hadn’t realized when I stocked up in the tiny village of Sand Point just how long we would be out and just how much milk and bread the crew would consume.

I alerted the captain and the crew that we had about two days of milk left and four days of bread if we continued consuming as we had been. I suggested that we should slow down eating and drinking these staples to make them last longer, but this turned out not to be the case.

In the face of scarcity the crew started drinking more milk and eating more bread than before. It was as if, and likely was, that the realization this “resource” would soon be wiped out, pushed the crew to “get theirs” or risk being left with nothing. I too found myself eating more peanut butter and honey sandwiches than before, with the thought, these guys are eating so much if I don’t snag an extra sandwich here and there I might not get anything.

Continue reading “Bread, fish and scarcity”