Friday, June 8, 2012

The Cost of Fish

I started thinking of what to write about a few days ago when we were getting tossed around the Copper River Flats as it was blowing westerly, which makes for a lumpy ride.  I kicked around a few ideas in my head, jotted down some notes, as I frequently do.   And, as often the case, I started with one idea, then it took a life of its own and turned into something that I didn’t see coming.

What spurred this post was hearing buddy recall his weekend on the VHF radio.  He had gone out to eat at the Reluctant Fisherman, a restaurant here in Cordova, just to enjoy a nice meal.  But half way through his halibut he started getting pissed.

There were a couple of gentlemen at the table next to him lamenting that over the high price of fish, practically insulting fisherman. Typically a bad thing to do in a fishing town, but lucky for them my buddy isn’t the head-butting kind of fisherman.  He just quietly stewed as they went on and on about how expensive fish is, especially, compared to beef. 

I laid in my bunk that evening wondering if you could compare fish to beef.  Yeah, sure, farming is somewhat similar to fishing in that it is seasonal, dependent upon the weather and markets, guys are independently employed and the like.  Farmers, like fishermen, rely on their equipment to make their harvest, but, one difference I thought of at this point is while their ground remains mostly still, ours, the ocean, is ever in constant motion, bucking and surging.

Farming can be dangerous, growing up on one, I know this.  I knew a guy who lost his arm to an auger, another one got smashed when his tractor tipped over on him, my own Dad once kicked a pig and broke his toe (long story).   So yes, there are some similarities with farming and fishing, but still,  I’m not really sure you can compare the cost of beef to salmon. 

In a fisherman’s defense, let me just say a little about our costs.  For starters, if you wanted to buy into the gillnet fishery here on the Copper River, a permit would cost you about $180,000.  A boat would run you, oh, depends what you get, but anywhere from I’d say $75,000 to $150,000 to get a decent starter boat.  $300K + to have one built.  Then you need a net, $5,000 for that.  Hope you don’t need to replace it. Or an engine.  Or a jet or outdrive.  Fuel is around $5.00 a gallon, you need that.  Plus boat insurance, raingear, something to eat, to name a few.

Then there are other costs too, unforeseen costs, like, for example my buddy Dennis, who put a gaff hook through his foot by accidentally stepping on it.  Went right through.  Woke up in the morning, out on the fishing grounds, with that dreaded red line running up your leg, tell tale sign of blood poisoning.  Better get to hospital before that hits your heart. He was out a few fishing periods but is better now.  Though Dennis had another scare last opener when he broke down near the breakers.  The tender Saturn, a beautiful old 80’ wooden boat came to the rescue to tow him out. But somehow, as the towline went out from the Saturn to the Hang Fire, Dennis’ boat, the deckhand on the Saturn got caught in the bight of the line.  She went over with the towrope.  Into the 48 degrees ocean near the breakers.  Lucky for her, it wasn’t still blowing 40 knots at the time.  The wind was clocking around and was blowing about 10 out of the west, with 2-4 foot seas.

Dennis threw her a life ring, but missed.  She was able to reach the towline and walk her self up it, hand over hand.  Ralph, the skipper of the Saturn, ran to the stern to grab her and help her aboard.  He got there, clutched her jacket and yelled at the crew to take the boat out of gear. 

By this point, we heard something was going on and tuned into the VHF channel everyone listens to on the grounds, channel 6.  Just then we heard Dennis scream over the radio “Goddammit, she can’t hang on much longer!”  There was sheer panic in his voice.

Just then, the gal fell back into the water.  Turns out, the crew inadvertently hit the wrong lever and instead of pulling the boat out of gear, push the throttle forward to wide open.  Neither Ralph nor the gal could hold on and she fell back into the water.  She went under a few minutes this time and no one could see her.  She ended up travelling under water under the Hang Fire and popped up about 150 feet away.  Luckily, Dave on the Rocky Point had heard the commotion and started to run over there.   When she came up, he as able to scoop her up out of the water and bring her aboard his boat.  Though I’m sure a little banged up and shaken up, I heard the gal is OK.

So I got to thinking, how do you figure that into the price of fish?

A few weeks ago the tender St. Joseph with a crew of 5 was crossing the Gulf of Alaska coming up from the Seattle area to Cordova to work the season.  In 20-foot seas the boat lost it’s steering and the crew had to abandon ship.   They had made the MAYDAY call with enough time for the Coast Guard chopper to come get them and bring them safely to town.  The boat though, washed up on shore some 80 miles southeast of here and is breaking apart with each wave.  The weather has been too severe to make a safe rescue of the ship.

How do you figure that into the cost of fish?

A few months ago, fellow fisherman and blogger Tele Aadsen who write Hooked ( posted an old article from the Portland Oregonian in one of her blog posts entitled the “the Price of Fish”.  I copied it here for you. 

The Price of Fish

“The deep sea fishing boat ‘Republic’ will never sail out for the tuna again, nor for the salmon – out of Astoria into the green swells from westward. Part of her bow has drifted ashore near Long Beach, and some of the forward deck – and where the hulk of her is, only the sea can tell. Her last port of call was the storm. And the fishermen who sailed her, and looked to her fishing gear, and harvested the sea? Where are they? Perhaps the gulls know, or the cormorants. Only this seems certain – that they and their boat will fish no more.

You walk through the market and glance at the fish stalls heaped with limp silver. Only a day or so ago these fish, most of them, were out where ‘the low sky mates with the sea.’ Now they bear price tags. Even fish, so we say, is high priced. That is true. Fish are high priced – and the least of the price is reckoned in coin.

Men who would rather fish at sea than work ashore sail out on the fishing boats to seek and follow the fish. It is a glad, hard life, and they love it well – but they stake their lives on the catch. It isn’t often that the boats don’t come back to port, for their oil-skinned skippers and crews to shout to their friends on the dock with word of their luck – but sometimes they don’t. The ‘Republic’ was one that didn’t. And how are you going to figure that into the price of a pound of fish?”

Good question, how do you factor men’s lives into the price of fish?

When we were out on this last one, we heard about the tragedy on the Northern Mariner, a boat that was making a long-line trip for halibut out of Cordova.  Among the crew was a young man of 34, Sean Johnson, on board.  I don’t know the whole story,  but sometime during the trip Sean had hit his head.  He complained of a headache and went below to sleep it off in his bunk.  When the crew tried to wake him a few hours later for his wheel watch, he was dead. 

Again, how do you figure that into the price of fish?  

My heart goes out to the friends, family, and loved ones of Sean Johnson and to all of those he left on shore.   The season's over, its time to go home.

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