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Fishing Where Few Even Dare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Aleutian natives have a name for this place: “The shores where the sea breaks its back.” Outside the harbor, where snow falls on uneasy gray waters, is where the Bering Sea winds up its throwing arm. To know the Bering Sea in winter is to believe in the malevolence of water.

Every year at this time, when most fishermen are home mending their nets and painting their living rooms, the Bering Sea fleet is steaming out of Dutch Harbor here into one of the most treacherous marine environments on Earth.

This far north, ocean spray settles onto bows and freezes into ice so heavy you have to knock it off with a baseball bat. A parade of gales forms up on the west end of the Aleutian Islands and then squats in the middle of the Bering Sea, churning up 30-foot seas and 60-mph winds that can blow for days. Waves sweep onto the boat and, if they pull a deckhand back in with them, he has five minutes in 34-degree water to claw his way out or freeze.

There is a reason this sea between Alaska and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula is populated with fishing trawlers each January through April: the Alaskan pollock--a small, mottled fish that just 20 years ago few Americans had ever heard of.

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Today, the lowly pollock is to retail seafood what the cow is to hamburger: the main ingredient in millions of fish sticks, breaded filets, McDonald’s sandwiches and fake crab sold all over the world.

Thanks to pollock, Dutch Harbor is America’s biggest fishing port. The pollock catch here is 3 billion pounds a year--a $1.2-billion industry whose technological and physical fishing capacity is unprecedented.

These are not the small, rusty fishing boats made famous in such movies as “The Perfect Storm.” This is industrial fishing, and it is an industry in turmoil as scientists have begun to suspect the potential costs of its massive harvests.

Pollock stocks, while robust in the eastern Aleutians, have plunged in three heavily fished regions of the western Bering Sea. Also, the National Marine Fisheries Service now believes that near-shore fishing has hampered the recovery of the brawny Steller sea lions--for which pollock is a staple--that once sunned themselves on the rocky shores of the Aleutian chain.

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Tough new fishing restrictions that took effect in January cover more than 24,000 square miles of ocean near sea lion rookeries, including one of the pollock fleet’s most important trawling grounds. The regulations, now under review by the Bush administration, could lead to $746 million a year or more in revenue losses.

The limits placed on near-shore fishing also will bring new danger to one of the world’s most perilous jobs.

The Bering Sea, a virtual caldron of weather fronts because of its location at ground zero between the Arctic and Pacific air masses, already claims about 48 lives a year. In the worst Alaskan fishing disaster since 1982, 15 men died this month when the Arctic Rose, a catcher-processor boat fishing for flathead sole, sank in high seas 205 miles northwest of the Pribilof Islands.

With the new regulations, catching pollock for a big part of the season will mean plying these remote, unsheltered waters at the very edge of the continental shelf--waters where bad things can happen and help is a lifetime away.

“When I first started fishing out there, I felt like I was in a Jack London story,” says longtime Dutch Harbor resident Pete Hendrickson. “Thirty-foot seas are fairly scary, and they get bigger than that. If you’re smart, you’re scared [witless]. My personal opinion is there isn’t enough money to go out there anymore.”

Thanh Pham, deck boss on a big factory trawler, the Northern Eagle, was knocked off an ice-covered deck into the water one night and survived only by hanging onto a wire off the back of the boat. As the rocking stern pulled him in and out of the water, the wire sliced through Pham’s hands. He held on for eight minutes before the ship’s skiff found him, suffering from severe hypothermia.

A Grueling Season of Storms

For a look at the winter nether world of industrial fishing, the Northern Eagle is as good a window as any.

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It is a fishing battleship: 341 feet of powerful cranes and winches, equipped with two 3,750-horsepower engines and an on-board processing factory that allows it to remain at sea for weeks at a time. The Norwegian-built trawler easily can haul in 200 tons of pollock in a single catch.

The chances of a vessel this big sinking in even the worst weather are slim. Good thing. This has been a grueling season of storms, one on the heels of another since January.

On this March day, however, it is relatively calm. The ship is only 97 miles out of Dutch Harbor. But with the sky hanging low and shedding snow, with the water boiling hard around the bow in every direction, the Bering Sea feels like an outpost on the moon. Then again, the moon wouldn’t keep pitching under your feet. The moon wouldn’t smell like the insides of 110 tons of fish.

The Eagle’s crew fishes 24 hours a day, stopping only for brief offloads until it reaches the season quota of 15,500 metric tons of pollock.

In the wheelhouse where Capt. Mike Kraljevich sits, schools of pollock show up as yellow blips on radar screens. When the blips are wide and thick, Kraljevich feeds out a net that trails up to a mile behind the ship.

If there are pollock, the Eagle will find them.

In three previous trips this season, the Eagle has hauled in more than 12,000 metric tons of fish. But a lot of that has been either smaller pollock or those low in the $12-a-pound roe that is the fishery’s most valuable product.

For much of the best pollock spawn in the very areas designated as critical habitat for the Steller sea lion.

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“There’s a lot of pressure, some of it self-inflicted, to do well,” Kraljevich says. “If you catch too much before the roe is optimum, or too much after it’s over-mature, you’re really losing out big time. I mean, millions of dollars. There’s always this balance of trying to know how many fish to catch. When to move. When to stay.”

It used to be worse.

Before 1998, the trawler fleet would race out on opening day to get as big a share as possible of the annual catch--ignoring weather, safety and the fact that they also might be snaring large numbers of salmon and halibut.

The North Pacific fleet caught more than 300 million pounds of unwanted fish and other marine wildlife in 1999, most of it thrown back overboard dead--even as salmon stocks were plummeting on western Alaska rivers.

Late last month, an alliance of conservation and fishing groups launched a campaign to ban the most destructive form of trawl fishing, in which boats such as the Eagle drag nets along the bottom of the Bering Sea in search of flatfish such as yellowfin sole. (Once the pollock season ends later this month, the Eagle will begin bottom trawling; pollock nets generally don’t hit the bottom and have a bycatch rate of less than 2%.)

Still, nearly everyone agreed there was too much fishing power in the pollock fleet in the late 1990s. To deal with the problem, American Seafoods--owner of the Northern Eagle and six other factory trawlers and the dominant force in the fleet--accepted $90 million, paid by onshore processors and the federal government, to scrap eight of its vessels.

The seven companies fishing in the Bering Sea also were guaranteed by federal law the right to nearly half the yearly total catch. They set up a voluntary co-op that ended the dangerous, often wasteful practice of competitive, free-for-all “Olympic” fishing. But the arrangement has raised questions among such groups as Greenpeace and the American Oceans Campaign, not to mention among many small Alaska fishermen, about giving a handful of large corporations exclusive access to a major public fishing resource.

“Our fleet is more flexible and better able to adjust to changes, and we’re environmentally more benign,” American Seafoods President Mike Hyde explains.

Still, many conservationists wonder, how can a boat that can catch 50,000 pounds of fish in a single minute not leave a massive footprint in the sea?

Three pollock stocks in the western Bering Sea have crashed since 1989. Pollock in the eastern Bering Sea is relatively abundant and, in fact, has increased substantially over the last year thanks to successful management.

In federal hearings last month, conservationists urged regulators to look at where pollock fit in with the rest of the Bering Sea’s fragile life web.

“We have no idea what we’re doing when we’re out there taking billions of pounds of fish out of the system--no idea,” said Kristin Stahl-Johnson, a former fisheries service biologist who now works with conservation groups.

“Are we managing for a small number of large corporations that can roll that fish into Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks around the world? Or are we looking at balancing the many things that the most productive ecosystem in the world can provide us, if we adapt our harvest strategies?”

Up in the wheelhouse, mate Brooks Stephens hasn’t moved his eyes from the monitor screens for hours. It’s nearly midnight, and the only light is the glow of the radar. Stephens has set his net and is hoping for fish.

As the hours drag on, he talks quietly by radio speakerphone with Lars Oterhals, the fish master of the American Triumph, who is trying his luck a mile or so away.

“This is long-tow material. I imagine we’ll be hauling for six hours, unless it gets considerably better than this,” Stephens says. “How you doing, Lars?”

Oterhals sighs. “It’s light. Very, very, very light.”

This could mean anything. Oterhals is known for his caginess. But then, so is everyone else. “If I’m on a school of fish, I don’t necessarily want them coming in here and fishing off it,” Stephens explains.

Talk turns to the Amber Dawn, a 90-foot trawler that went down the night before to the west, off Atka Island, in 70-mph winds. Two men died and three others were pulled out of the water by a nearby boat.

“They were pretty close to North Cape. That’s a nasty place to be on,” Stephens says.

“I guess the weather’s really terrible out there,” Oterhals replies. “There were 35-foot seas, and they started taking on water. The boat went straight up and then straight down.”

To the west, the wind has been blowing at 60 mph for three consecutive days. Here, it’s only 20 mph and a full moon is pushing through the clouds. The night wears on. Oterhals sighs over the radio, says he’s going to look somewhere else. The Triumph powers up. The Eagle drifts on through the night. Fish move in the black waters below, and the net swells.

A Sickening Odor Workers Can’t Escape

In the ship’s factory, there is no day or night. Just six hours on, six hours off. Fish move through the filet machine at the rate of 130 a minute, whether or not the boat is pitching in rolling seas. Seasickness means you leave your post to go throw up, then come back.

It is 1:30 a.m., the sound system is blaring “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” over the din of the machinery and, on the gut table, there is a constant parade of hearts, intestines and bile sacs. Line workers from Seattle, Vietnam, Somalia, the Philippines and everywhere in between dig in with their hands to extract the valuable pink roe sacs.

Day one of the trip, the factory smells bad. Every day after that, it smells a little worse. Those who can’t take it usually can’t afford to quit: If they do, they forfeit all bonuses, are consigned to their bunk rooms and have to pay $25 a day for room and board--plus their own air ticket back home.

“I have one little girl, all day she would work, go to the bathroom to throw up, go back to work, throw up,” says foreman Stephen Garner, who is from Liverpool, England. “If I let her off, who else is going to do her job? If I let her off, I have to wake somebody else up.”

In January, 37-year-old Cuong The Dang, a Vietnamese filet flipper from Bainbridge Island, Wash., died after he fell ill with acute bronchial pneumonia and a bacterial infection and couldn’t convince anyone he needed a doctor.

Shipmates said Dang at first was given ear patches for seasickness and ordered to keep working. He soon became too sick to stand up, and he quit. When his moans kept his exhausted bunkmates awake, he spent several days laying in the hallway outside the galley and then was moved to another room. Gradually, he became unable to talk.

The ship’s purser and medical officer, Lee Ann Duncan, consulted doctors on shore and described his symptoms but said she had no reason to believe it was anything life-threatening. “I keep thinking, what didn’t I see? What didn’t I tell the doctor?” she says now.

As the Eagle continued fishing, Dang died.

Fishing has never been a job for the weak, most crew members say, and the prospect of up to $30,000 in a little more than two months--for workers who otherwise might be serving fish filet sandwiches at the other end of the pollock stream--makes hardship worthwhile.

“That other boat we were on--that was a hell boat,” says 32-year-old Vince Abate, a part-time actor and former cook at the Hollywood Palladium who left a crab processing ship earlier last month to join the Eagle’s crew. “We came over here and we met good people, decent people, and it makes all the difference in the world. It’s not really what you would call hard; it’s just very repetitious. It makes your body ache, but I guess that’s what Advils are for.”

Says Duncan, “For a while, we had a run of transgenders on the boats, because it was an easy way to make some money to finish their surgeries. One of them was this big Samoan. He dressed like a woman, acted like a woman, and I was thinking: ‘This guy’s gonna get beat up.’ But the thing is, when you get down in the factory of this boat, you all work so hard, and if people are holding their own, it doesn’t matter who they are. So this person held his own, and everybody ended up loving him. Her.”

Georgeana Harden was working as a housekeeper on the boat when she fell in love with Rick Nelson, the chief technician working on the processed pollock paste known as serimi. Nelson would come out of the factory smelling like fish paste and leave love notes for Harden in the laundry.

Now they are going to get married, and Harden will quit fishing after this season. “I got a 10-year-old daughter. She’s growing, and she wants me to be with her,” she explains.

It is close to 2 a.m., and the crew that got off at 8 p.m. is coming back on. The line doesn’t stop; people shift on and off the tables a few at a time. The music keeps time with the parade of fish heads marching toward the fish-meal plant. “Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese,” it sings, “I really think so!”

Stephens, meanwhile, has been on the radio all night. And the tow is going slow. Then, unexpectedly, the net monitor flashes red: full. Stephens leaps to his feet and begins dancing around his chair. ‘Yesssssss!” he shouts.

Out on the deck, Thanh Pham and his crew haul in an 85-ton bag of fish. It is hard to imagine what 85 tons of pollock looks like unless you have stood next to it--a mass of fish 70 feet long, 15 feet across and 8 feet high, squirming in a pool of blood and seawater and their own primitive, bug-eyed fear.

Kraljevich allows that most people don’t understand the dimensions of fishing on this scale. “You tell a lot of people you pulled up a 200-ton bag of pollock, and they look at you like you’re full of [baloney],” he says.

Still, the roe count has been down on the Eagle’s catches so far this season, it’s taken several hours to fill the nets, and the Eagle has fallen behind in production value. The Seattle office wants to know why.

The next day is worse: A net catches on a crab pot and breaks, spilling 40 tons of fish. An engine goes down, leaving the Eagle unable to fish for five hours. Kraljevich barks down at one of the deckhands and tells him to clean the sea gull feces, so thick that it threatens to obscure the windows. He stares at a big patch of blips on the monitor, the biggest school of pollock he’s seen since Dutch Harbor, a load of fish he has all to himself if he can get the engine running again. He calls down to the engine room for a report.

Not yet.

Kraljevich looks out the window, sees the Ocean Rover heading for the pollock school. And here comes the Arctic Storm from the west, and the Northern Jaeger. “This is killing me,” Kraljevich mutters, “killing me.”

Holding On for Dear Life

It is 11:30 p.m., and the fog is so thick you can hardly see the lights of the Constellation, a small rock sole processor that’s going to take two visitors off the Eagle and back to Dutch Harbor. The black water below the boat is pitching and rolling, and Thanh Pham prepares to lower a skiff into the water to motor over to the other boat.

“Hold on,” he advises. When the skiff hits the water, it will be like stepping on a locomotive in the swell. Don’t lose your balance. Don’t fall off. And Pham is right--the boat makes contact with the sea, and the world is instant pandemonium. Waves crash over the side, the boat pitches wildly from side to side, and Pham strains to see through the fog and spray.

As the skiff approaches, the Constellation looms like a pitching skyscraper, with a small rope ladder hanging down one side. Pham starts yelling. “They were supposed to put the ladder down on the lee side!” he screams. “What happened?”

The other deckhand screams back, but it is lost in the wind. Pham edges the skiff in, but as soon as it gets close to the big boat, it gets drawn into the waves, hurling violently against the side--again and again. The visitors hang on until their fingers feel like they will break with each crash.

Finally, the deckhand gets a rope tied onto the Constellation. Pham yells: When the skiff lifts up in the swell, grab the ladder and hang on. When the skiff sinks back down, there won’t be anything else to stand on.

Wait for the heave. Grab. Hang on.

“I can’t watch this,” an assistant engineer on the Constellation, peering down from above, says as he turns away.

With the determination that comes only when life depends on it, the visitors grab the ladder and scramble up, three sets of arms pulling from above into the ship. Pham unties and heads back off through the fog. The Eagle hoists the skiff aboard, powers up the engines and heads off toward the Pribilofs. There’s pollock there, someone said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Inside a Catcher-Processor

Sources: At-sea Processors Association and National Marine Fisheries Service


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