After being hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, sea otters from southeast Alaska to central California have made a remarkable recovery. But it’s one that is causing anxiety for those who make their living harvesting sea otters’ prey, including Dungeness crabs. While it has long been assumed that a steadily increasing population of sea otters would lead to lower crab catches, a new study shows that—in California at least—that’s just not the case.

Instead, says Andre Boustany, the lead author of the new study and a fisheries scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, Dungeness crab landings have actually been increasing in areas that have sea otters. “It doesn’t seem like they have a measurable impact on crab populations.”

The study assessed commercial Dungeness crab landings in California ports from 1980 to 2018, breaking out three regions with sea otters: Half Moon Bay, Monterey Bay, and Morro Bay. Boustany says that despite the presence of sea otters, Dungeness crab populations are increasing in those areas because of improving environmental conditions that are more favorable to larval crabs. Similarly, he says, the decreasing Dungeness crab harvest in Northern California ports, where there are no sea otters, is likely due to climate change and higher levels of ocean acidification.

While sea otters are ravenous eaters—every day they consume around 25 to 30 percent of their body weight—Dungeness crab is not exactly their favorite food. Based on observing 117 otters conduct 57,186 feeding dives, the scientists found that Dungeness crab makes up as little as 1.6 percent of a sea otter’s diet on average.

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I’m happy to have been able to contribute to the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust’s recent newsletter on the important, yet all-too-often overlooked, contributions women have made throughout the history of Monterey Bay’s commercial fisheries. I also dive into why the term “fisherman” is still used when so many women fish and gendered terms are being taken out of common language.

The hidden history of women in Monterey Bay fisheries
Women have always played pivotal roles in the success of the commercial fishing industry, whether as cannery workers, fish cutters, biologists or business managers. Yet, their work has often been overlooked. To remedy this, we’ve taken a deep dive into the work of women in Monterey Bay fisheries, going back more than a century. And while there’s presently still work to be done before achieving gender equality on the water, supporting women within commercial fishing is easier than you might think. Read more…

Why do we still use the word “fisherman?”
There was a time in this country when women were largely excluded from working on boats and catching fish as their occupation. For generations, only men worked as fishermen. But times have changed and there are now more women on the water than ever, so why do we still use the term “fisherman” to describe the men and women who harvest fish?  We asked women who fish and write for a living what their preferred terms are. The answers may — or may not —surprise you. Read more…

The future of California’s iconic Dungeness crab fishery seemed uncertain after a three-year spike in the number of whales entangled in fishing gear from 2015 to 2017. A warm-water blob, domoic acid and a coinciding of whale migrations and fishing caused by the delayed start of the Dungeness crab season spurred a record number of whales and other marine animals to become twisted in crab gear.

Few fisheries were spared entanglement issues on the Pacific Coast, but California Dungeness crab fishermen came under fire for their lines snaring the largest number of whales. Negative publicity, threats of a federal shutdown and a lawsuit in federal court made California crabbers fear the worst. But with ocean conditions returning in the direction of normal and state legislative effort looking to head off litigation, crab fishermen can breathe easier. Still, there’s no returning to the way things were.

577d630039379.imageNearly 30,000 watts of stadium lights hang from the rigging of a light boat off the Channel Islands in Southern California. Once flipped on, the lights slowly increase their illumination. After five minutes, the 2am darkness on deck has transformed into a gleam resembling a San Francisco Giants night game at AT&T Park.

Squid fishing in California is done at night with one boat equipped with lights to attract and hold the squid in one spot, partnered with another larger boat with a seine – a 1,000-plus-foot-long fishing net – to bring in the catch.

I peer into the calm ocean and see a milky mass rise to the surface, as hundreds of thousands of squid emerge from the depths – translucent, with large eyes reflecting light like a cat’s would.

Read more at Monterey County Weekly…

IMG_3040I wrote this last fall for National Fisherman’s North Pacific Focus on my failed experience chasing the few remaining schools of Pacific sardines.

Last April I received a text from an old captain telling me his boat was in Reedsport, Ore., and that they needed a replacement deckhand for sardines. The Pacific Coast was dry with a looming closure of the fishery for the 2015- 16 season imminent. They were fishing the last of the 2014-15 quota, after most boats from California to Washington preferred to stay tied up rather than test their luck in the empty seas. A local crabber claimed there were schools of sardines as far as the eye could see out- side Winchester Bay, so a market was set up and a few lucky seiners came in.

The few boats shing had already landed nearly a million pounds each. With an ex-vessel price in excess of $350 a metric ton, they were raking in money. Tax Day was fast approaching and the IRS demanded money I didn’t have, so I packed up my things and hightailed it to Oregon, even though I felt like a cowboy chasing after the least heard of buffalo on the Great Plains.

Under current regulation, the Pacific sardine fishery must be shut down when the biomass falls below the cutoff threshold of 150,000 metric tons. NOAA biologists found there to be less than 100,000 metric tons in 2015. On April 12, the Pacific Fishery Management Council said there would be no directed sardine fishery from July 1, 2015, to June 31, 2016.

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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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