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In the "Jobs We Don't Often Think About" Department, Halibut Catch in Alaska Becomes Safer and Leisurely With Change In Catch Rules

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In the "Jobs We Don't Often Think About" Department, Halibut Catch in Alaska Becomes Safer and Leisurely With Change In Catch Rules

 

 

 

 The Less Deadly Catch

ROBERT SMITH NPR

MAKO HAGGERTY: I've trolled for salmon. I've herring fished up here, and Dungeness crab and halibut.

JESS JIANG, HOST:

I met Mako on the pier in Homer, Alaska. He's got these great big, bushy eyebrows and this Albert Einstein hair tucked behind a black beret.

SMITH: Mako loves the competitive thrill of fishing. And Alaska used to be the most competitive place of all. Fishing season would open on a certain day, and it was a race, a race to get your boat out in the water and get all the fish you could.

HAGGERTY: The whole harbor would just be abuzz. And there were a lot of people beating the docks, looking for jobs. And there were a lot of boats participating in the fishery, and it was wide open. Nobody was limited in how much they could catch. They were only limited in how much time they could spend.

JIANG: People made a good living, which attracted more boats. And altogether, everyone was catching more and more fish. So in order to protect that fish population, the season got shorter and shorter.

SMITH: In 1970, the season for halibut was 150 days long. Then it was shortened to 100 days. And by the early 1990s, it was 24 hours, 24 hour openings just a few times a year.

JIANG: Just imagine how intense this is. These fishermen are trying to earn their entire year salary in a handful of 24-hour sprints. It became known as the derby, an all-out race to fish. And back then you would see thousands and thousands of boats all going out to sea.

HAGGERTY: If everything that floated went out in the right kind of shape and the wrong kind of shape, it was open access, and people had - everybody was involved. And you'd have skiffs go out. We had sinkings.

SMITH: But if you wanted to make money, you had to go. You went out if you were sick. You went out if you had a leaky boat. You went out if you were inexperienced, if you didn't know what you were doing. You went out if there were dark clouds, threatening on the horizon.

JIANG: And even if the weather was good and the fishing was good, you overloaded your boats during the derby days. And that meant your boat might sink.

SMITH: The 24-hour derby made fishing in Alaska one of the most deadly jobs in the country. Fishermen had higher death rates than firefighters, than pilots, than police officers. And finally, someone said, we have to figure out a better way to do this.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show, how fishing went from deadly to safe, well, safer anyway. This year, there were no fishing deaths in Alaska, which is stunning.

JIANG: The solution was not about getting better gear or better warning systems. It was an economic fix, one that could help solve much bigger problems.

SMITH: So you have to ask, what kind of person would go out in a tiny, little boat in miserable, dangerous weather to catch fish for 24 hours straight?

JIANG: Everyone.

SMITH: Everyone in Homer, Alaska wants to do this.

JIANG: You can pretty much grab anyone on the fish dock, and they would tell you these crazy stories about the derby days. Like, I met Kirk van Doren. He goes by the name Carcass.

SMITH: Carcass.

JIANG: Yeah, he kind of looks like a carcass. He's wiry, thin with crazy hair. And he's a deck hand. He works on other people's boats. And Carcass told me the reason the derby got so dangerous was because the government chose what day it was months in advance, way beforehand.

SMITH: They didn't know the weather when they chose the day.

JIANG: And that meant the weather could be really bad, and you would still go out. Carcass remembers one really bad day.

KIRK VAN DOREN: Well, I was on watch, and I'm just sitting up there. I'm thinking, man, this is a 1912 old wood boat, how nice the boat was taking these waves. We're in, like, 45 to 50-footers, and, we - I mean, they are huge. And it's a little 52-foot boat. We got big curlers, you know? And we're going, (unintelligible). I'm going, oh, (unintelligible) pretty nice.

JIANG: Feeling pretty good.

VAN DOREN: Oh, yeah.

JIANG: He's feeling so good because the fishing had been really, really great, and that meant he was going to get a share of that catch, and he thought he could get about $15,000. He had even picked out what he was going to buy, a new truck.

SMITH: So that's what he's thinking.

JIANG: But the next wave came.

VAN DOREN: All of a sudden, we took one, and we're not coming back up. Rail buried, water's all over the deck. And I'm like, Mark, get up. We're (unintelligible) to bury the rail. We're like, we're not - and Mark was the skipper - it doesn't seem like we're coming back. The next wave hit us, and we just leaned right over. And it's like, Mark (unintelligible), get everybody the [expletive] up. We're going down.

JIANG: Carcass grabs the crate with the life raft and pops it open.

VAN DOREN: And a big wave came up, washed the life raft overboard, the brand new one. So we go, (unintelligible) goes - the skipper - we still got the old one. Let's release it. Boom. We pull and release. It's stuck in the crate. We're trying to break it out of the crate, and we got a flagpole, and we're all in water up to our waist. And, I mean, we're talking big smokers.

JIANG: Big waves that Carcass says were 50 feet high. The wind was blowing 100 miles per hour. And they decide to jump, swim for that life boat that was being swept away. They hauled themselves inside.

VAN DOREN: And the first thing we hear is, it was a big crasher coming up. Boom. All our heads banged together. And a four-man raft for four people on it, it's not very big. And we hear another one coming right away. Boom. Oh, (unintelligible), and we're going, oh, my God, let's go. So now we start locking our arms around each other's so when the waves hit, we're not all bash into each other. And then we hear, it's the Coast Guard airplane. And I'll tell you the most beautiful sound in the world is a C-130. That's when you really think you're going to survive, you know.

JIANG: Carcass and the three other guys, they all make it back. They all survive. They just don't have the fish anymore, they don't have the money, and Carcass was not getting a new truck. But the crazy thing about Carcass is he goes back every year. He's told me he sank five times.

SMITH: Five ships have gone down under Carcass.

JIANG: Five ships have gone down, and he still goes back.

SMITH: Man, the lesson is do not go out with Carcass.

JIANG: I will never go out with Carcass. I know that for sure.

SMITH: You know, I've been to Alaska. And you talk to these guys, and the bravado really is stunning, the ability to just keep going out and out and out again.

JIANG: It amazes so many people and even old-time fisherman like Clem Tillion. He's 90 years old now, and he fished for decades. He was looking at all these sinkings and just wondering why.

CLEM TILLION: Young men love the action, the excitement. It was going to, like, Las Vegas. You went roaring out of these storms, and you caught all you can catch. And the guy that took the most risks got lots of money, and they weren't looking at anything else except the fun of it.

SMITH: Clem was on the Fisheries Council at the time. His job was to help protect the fish population. And the 24-hour derby was in fact really good at protecting fish because the catch was limited by the number of minutes in a day. No one was overfishing. But he started to worry that the rules the government had set up were basically encouraging all these young men to take risks.

JIANG: And there were real consequences. For every thousand fishermen that went out, three didn't make it back.

TILLION: It was a very stupid system. It was murder by government, you might say, and...

JIANG: Murder by government.

TILLION: Yes, and a few of us were looking at other ways of doing it.

JIANG: There was an idea out there, a way to protect the fish and make fishing safer. Instead of limiting the amount of time people fish, limit the total amount of fish that could be caught.

SMITH: If you were a fisherman, instead of having to fish in these 24-hour sprints, this crazy race, Clem wanted a system where it would be basically leisurely because each fisherman would be guaranteed a certain amount of fish at the beginning of the season.

JIANG: It was this simple solution. But anytime you distribute something valuable, you know people are going to fight over it.

SMITH: Sure, Clem thought that the catch should be distributed among boat owners and captains. Please remember, basically, halibut is money if you live in Alaska. That's how you make your living. And Clem thought that the catch should be distributed among boat owners and captains. And his thinking was, those are the people who have invested a lot of money in boats and gear, and so they should reap the reward.

JIANG: But when guys like Carcass heard about this plan, they got pissed. Carcass didn't own a boat. He was a deckhand. He worked on someone else's boat, hauling in the fish and risking his life.

VAN DOREN: And it was a real ridiculous thing that each one of us crew members shouldn't have got our share of it, you know? It's like the owners knew what was going on. The owners kept it to themselves.

SMITH: You could see why they would be so upset. Under the old 24-hour derby system, the fish went to the people who worked the hardest. The fish went to the people who took the most chances, that sort of frontier mentality. But now, the government was coming in and saying, you are winners, and you are losers. The boat owners - clearly the winners - the boat owners were going to be rich.

JIANG: And the deckhands like Carcass - they weren't going to get anything. They were being left out of the system. They could fish, and they could still work, but they weren't going to get a guaranteed share of the catch.

SMITH: So you can understand why the losers, the deckhands, basically confronted the fishery council. They confronted Clem Tillion.

TILLION: There were mass demonstrations in some towns. And my niece had her tires slashed and my kids got beat up in the playground. I mean, it was violent.

JIANG: Your kids got beat up.

TILLION: Yeah, because they were Tillion's kids, you know. And that was just one of the things that happened. When people don't like something, they can get pretty mad about it, especially when it's their livelihood. And I was rearranging their whole livelihood.

SMITH: Now, Clem and the fisheries council did look at other ways that could be considered more fair. They looked at a lottery system where everyone gets an equal chance of getting the fish...

JIANG: ...Or an auction where the permits went to the highest bidder. But no one wanted to pay for something that they had always gotten for free.

SMITH: And so, with no better option, Clem drafted the proposal. Here's what they were going to do. Fish scientists would estimate how many halibut there were in the sea, how many could be safely caught. Then the boat owners would each get a share of the fish - no more race, no more derby. It went into effect in 1995.

JIANG: And when I visited Homer Harbor just a couple weeks ago, you could see how different it was compared to the derby days. When I wanted to go out fishing, I didn't have to wake up super early. I didn't have to race. I just called up a boat owner and she said I could come any time - no rush.

So this is the boat.

CHRISTIE FRY: This is us. This is our little boat.

DAVID FRY: As you can, see this is a work boat.

JIANG: (Laughter) It's nice that it's not just for show.

D. FRY: No, it's not a show boat.

JIANG: This is Christie and David Fry. They own the boat, the Realist.

SMITH: The Realist as in -

JIANG: Not fishing reel.

SMITH: OK (laughter).

JIANG: As in realistic - realism.

SMITH: Oh, they're realistic. OK, got it.

JIANG: And they tell me they have 1,700 pounds of halibut to fish. That's their quota for the whole year.

SMITH: And that's very specific - 1,700, how'd they come up with that?

JIANG: The government looked at how much fish the Frys caught in those old derby days. And they took an average and used that to calculate their share.

SMITH: Now, it's easier to enforce a time limit - 24 hours - than it is to enforce a very specific number like 1,700 pounds of halibut. How do they enforce it?

JIANG: David says there would be these federal agents from NOAA. And they would police the docks.

D. FRY: When they implemented this system, they just figured everybody was going to be a criminal, I guess. So that brought the feds into it. So that means there had to be guys with Flak Jacks on and guns and - like, you know, come down to my boat, on my boat, with a damn gun and a flak jacket - you're lucky you didn't go in the water, man. Boy, it just pissed me off. They're damn lucky I was afraid of them.

JIANG: (Laughter).

SMITH: (Laughter) I know - Alaskans are big into their freedom. And I'm sure at first this fishing quota seemed like this, like, straitjacket on what they did on the whole freedom, swashbuckling, fishing vibe.

JIANG: It did. People were not into it at first. But soon, fishermen saw the advantages. If the weather was bad, they could just stay at home.

SMITH: I picture them just sticking their head out the window and going like, yeah, there is no way I'm going out in this.

JIANG: And it goes further than that. If you don't want to fish all season, you can take a break and lease out your quota. You can have someone else fish it. And Dave and Christie have basically doubled the amount of fish that they can catch by leasing out other people's shares.

JIANG: The Frys drive the boat out of the harbor. Christie suits up, puts on this orange rain slicker, and she puts a few cans of Red Bull in the cooler. David baits the hooks.

D. FRY: We use herring and salmon, octopus and cod. I call it a salad.

JIANG: A fish salad.

D. FRY: A fish salad, yes. And I put the salmon on there and poke it right through the skin.

JIANG: The gear goes into the water, and a few miles of line with hundreds of hooks spools out to the bottom of the sea. We're out for about eight hours, and it's so calm. You don't see another commercial fishing boat for the whole day, and that, by the way, is the whole point of the new system. Now that people can trade or sell away their quotas, some boat owners have taken this easy money. They've given their fish to someone else and have totally gotten out of the business. The number of fishing boats is only a third of what it was before, and the theory is the only people left are the best and most efficient fishermen.

C. FRY: Fish, fish, fish, fish. Keeper. Slow down there.

SMITH: Are you beating that with a club?

JIANG: No, they're, like, one big muscle, and they're just trying to, like, get out of the boat.

SMITH: Oh.

JIANG: He's a fighter.

D. FRY: They're lively when it's shallow water.

JIANG: It's gigantic.

JIANG: Christy puts a knife through the gills and then quickly removes the guts. She says in the past, during the derby days, she didn't have time to take care of the fish like this. She just threw all the fish on ice and hoped everything stayed fresh.

SMITH: So it's better to gut it on the boat.

JIANG: It is so much better. She says it's more delicious.

SMITH: OK, so the halibut quota system seems to be doing exactly what it was designed to do. The fish are more delicious. It's preventing overfishing. And the death rate for fishermen, you know, as we mentioned at the top of the show, has plunged. This year, no one has died while commercial fishing, which is amazing.

JIANG: And in some ways, this is a beautiful model for managing any scarce resource.

SMITH: This is exactly what we were talking about when you came back from Alaska - that this model that they have for resources in Alaska is a pretty good model for something like climate change. There is a limited amount of pollution, a limited amount of carbon that we should let out into the world. And the question really is how do you allocate that? Should we give pollution credits to factories in China or to people who are commuting in LA? It's essentially the same question as they faced in Alaska, which is how do you take something that everyone wants and divvy up in a fair way - in a way that doesn't make people terribly upset?

JIANG: The key question is fairness, and you can see from the Alaska case that it is really hard. It took 20 years for the fisherman to get used to this system. And there was only a couple thousand of them, and they still grumble about how it all shook out.

SMITH: Well, they are fishermen, and fisherman do grumble for a living. Even the people who are winners under this scenario who got the fish allocations, who can go out for these long fishing runs - it's not like the fish just jump into the boat. I mean, it's still, at its core, a really difficult job.

JIANG: Yeah. When I went out with Christie and David, they only caught six fish.

SMITH: All day long?

JIANG: The whole day. The thing is now they can go out tomorrow.

C. FRY: I guess we'll see what happens. Fishermen are eternal optimists (laughter).

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