We still don't hear much about the connection between catch share fisheries and the decline of those fish stocks. Halibut is undergoing a stock crash at the moment. The official word on this phenomenon is "I dunno," so officially I guess it's not happening. Naturally this kind of thing would make catch shares look bad. Lee van der Voo has captured the essence of life with catch shares. Doesn't look pretty in that regard either. Remember, the bad old 'derby days' didn't start until word got around that the fishery might be privatized. From one ditch to the the other.
Alaska's deadliest catches become more regulated, "slipper
skippers" exploit those who actually fish.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF LEE VAN DER VOO
Before you feel
sorry for anybody in this story, meet Jared
And remember your first impression, because he's eventully going to
call himself a serf. For the moment, he's just a guy you're about to
get jealous of. That's because he's 38 years old, and industry
sources say he's worth about $2 million.
of Lee Van Der Voo
Between his ordinary
upbringing in Ketchikan,
Alaska, and the day Bright invested in his fishing boat, there was no
winning lottery ticket, no trust fund. He's just a fisherman; been
one for 21 years. And lucky for him, he happens to be good at it. If
he can keep the bearded men in the embroidered shirts out of his
game, he's going to be even better.
But before we get into the
bearded men, get rid of the image of the Gorton's
fisherman. Forget the fish sticks, the wooden captain's wheel, and
that wholesome picture of the guy on the yellow box. Instead, put
yourself on one side of the Whole
fish counter, a chunk of halibut in the middle—price tag: $28 a
pound—and think of Bright as the guy on the other side, the guy
who's going to get it to you. Think six feet two inches of lean
muscle, pierced ears, and an auburn mug and sideburns, dressed in
black North Face and talking like 10 cups of coffee while texting on
This is your fisherman. You
are as likely to see him driving around West Seattle in his Smart Car
as out on the open ocean. And if you thought The
was wild, the game he plays to bring you this latest item in
white-tablecloth seafood is even weirder.
There's no captain's wheel
in this industry. Hasn't been in a while, if there ever really was.
The oddball universe that is halibut fishing, a fish that two decades
ago cost $3.99 a pound and came in a hideous frozen brick, is more a
game of floating Monopoly.
Guys like Jared Bright vie
for control of the industry's lower rungs, the only rungs that seem
to be left. Simply put, they're renters. They don't own the halibut,
not even when it lands in their boats. The
fish are instead the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most
of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right
time to get a stake.
Their ownership rights came
courtesy of the federal government. At the time, it was a good idea.
In ways, it still is. But
it's created what amounts to a feudal system over a natural resource.
It's a system, called catch
that the government and environmental groups will tell you is the
best thing to happen to fish since catch limits. But fishermen in the
halibut and black-cod industry—the first in the country to live
with the bizarre realities of these new policies—have weathered its
real consequences, outcomes that fly in the face of more official,
rosy portrayals. Outcomes like absentee landlords, brokers and
bankers, fish quota that costs more than your house, and a new
generation of people cluttering their hulls, demanding sandwiches.
It's getting hard for young
fishermen like Bright to stay in this game. Those who try, though,
are bettering their odds with a few comfy amenities, bait for a
different kind of big fish: owners. Big-screen TVs, staterooms, hot
tubs, saunas, and a super-sweet DVD collection are all things that
could potentially shift their odds.
Meet America's newest
a tough business. As fishing goes, it's child's play, but it makes
the typical 40 hours of desk jockeying look like a spa retreat.
Halibut is mostly caught in
that great swath of frigid water east of Canada and in the Gulf of
Alaska. Some halibut—the tough-to-find kind—is fished farther
west in the Aleutian
and north on the Bering
the roughest, meanest place man ever leaned over a rail and vomited.
The job of catching the
foodie favorite and its companion, black cod, requires a certain kind
of mind and body. Both fish are typically caught long-lining, a type
of fishing that translates into baiting hundreds of hooks on
9,000-plus feet of line, then hauling in the "strings" of
catch. String is a funny word for it, fishing jargon that belies the
heft of the haul. At least 1,250 hooks full of fish can sit on each
string, and on average each fish weighs about as much as a
fifth-grader. But owing to the sheer tedium of standing 18 hours a
day baiting hook after hook, fishing halibut lacks the glory to
attract its own reality TV show and an ever-present film crew, now
accoutrements to the crab industry.
a 33-year-old fisherman from Oregon, describes halibut season as a
thing he grew up loving and now hates. "I dread long-lining
season, just because it's so repetitive," he says. These days he
wakes up in the morning with his hands clamped closed and pain
screaming up to his elbows, an ailment fishermen refer to as "the
claw." He needs surgeries for carpal tunnel syndrome, and his
shoulders and back have also fared poorly.
Painter grins and shrugs:
occupational hazards. Like the time he pitched a hook through his
hand, or filleted a finger like a hot-dog roll to escape donating an
arm to a gadget known as a crucifier, an injury he contained with a
paper towel, black tape, a glove, and more fishing.
But there are good days in
fishing. When the water is calm, the sun is shining, and the fish are
biting; when whales aren't cleaning your strings like shish
kebabs—this is a good business.
"When fishing is good,
you're making money quick. It's not uncommon to make $1,000 a day,"
says Painter. During a particularly good run two years ago, he earned
$50,000 in less than 72 hours.
But there's something even
he won't do to get those fish: He won't take walk-ons.
fish owners who walk onto a boat while other fishermen do the
fishing. They're a byproduct of the ownership rights birthed in 1995,
when the business of making fish into private property was the
government's—and environmental groups'—answer to a lot of things
that were going wrong in halibut and black cod. Bright was in high
school then, back when anybody could get in on fishing it. He got his
start as a crewman at 17, fishing halibut.
"What I always liked
about fishing was you could make a bunch of money and then go fuck
off," says Bright.
But by the time he became a
partner in his own boat in 2008, a fiberglass Delta aptly named The
those days were over. The federal program intended to make halibut
and black cod more valuable, safer to fish, and spare it from
inevitable extinction had taken hold. In what was blandly dubbed the
Individual Fishing Quota Halibut and Sablefish Program—or IFQ for
short—the feds sized up the fishery, diced it up into pieces like
pie, and gave boat owners with a history of fishing it a slice. Those
slices are today worth a combined $245 million, and many of the
people who received them became, quite literally, instant
millionaires. Their wealth is derived from a simple shift of
ownership from the public trust to them, accomplished, after years of
meetings, with a stack of paper and a few brisk pen strokes. It was a
move that created basic inequities in a system that has yet to right
Those owners, the ones who
were gifted the shares at the outset of the program's launch, own
that fish now—or, more specifically, they own the rights to catch a
certain amount each year. The program is designed to make them
eventually sell that quota as they get older and stop fishing. And
it's intended to land those shares in the hands of young fishermen,
as no one is supposed to be able to purchase quota unless they can
prove 150 days or more of commercial fishing experience. But the sad
truth is that few of those initial quota holders let go of their
shares. They're too valuable an asset to sell. And for the next
generation—who have to buy quota rather than receive it from the
government—catch shares are expensive, an investment on par with
buying real estate in a volatile market.
The result is that about
half the halibut caught in 2011 was dragged out of the sea by guys
who leased quota from these owners. Legally, the first generation of
quota owners are allowed to hire a skipper, like Painter or Bright,
and lease them the right to fish for their shares. That means
whenever Painter and Bright go fishing, they not only provide the
boat, pay the crew, and take the risk on the sea—they also pay rent
to their fishing landlords, who sit at home and collect a check.
The rent used to be about 50
percent of the value of the fish, worth up to $7.14 a pound at the
docks in 2011, to the owner. The deal has earned the owners nicknames
like "slipper skippers" and "mailbox fishermen."
Greedy as the practice can be, it's permissible, the government's way
of making the new program look and act like the old one, in which
seasoned fishermen traditionally hired skippers to helm their boats
as they aged out.
Yet as the quota era of
fishing has taken hold, the stealthier and more opportunistic
practice of walking on has become a trend that stalks a fine line of
legality. Those who bought quota after January 1995 aren't allowed to
lease. They are supposed to sell as they retire instead, encouraged
to do so by a "boots on deck" rule that says they have to
be on the boat while their quota is fished, unless they own the boat,
or at least 20 percent of it. The idea was to transition the fishery
away from leasing over time. But while the goal of the North
Pacific Fishery Management Council—one
of eight regional councils the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
uses to implement fish management—was that quota owners actively
participate in fishing their quota, they set no requirement that
those owners actually lay their hands on fishing gear. That loophole
let a leasing culture sink deep hooks into the halibut fishery.
There are a few exceptions.
Some walk-ons still fish alongside their skippers and crew. Others
are young crewmen who buy quota as a guarantee of finding work, or
bought a little but can't afford a boat. And some are fishing widows.
But the remainder are visitors, industry retirees, tourists, or
investors. They don't fish. They simply walk on the boat, climb below
deck, and entertain themselves while others do the work.
"This last fella that I
leased, he was in his 80s," says Painter. "He would come on
board, read four or five books and watch movies, and that was about
it. He doesn't come outside."
But the lure of catching
someone else's quota hasn't been enough for Painter to stay in the
walk-on business. "When I'm catching somebody's fish for, say 40
percent, and we've got a fairly good-sized, comfortable boat, good
equipment, good food . . . it's hard for them to stay with me at 40,"
he says, because other skippers are constantly offering to catch fish
at lower rates. The pressure of a declining cut caused Painter to
concentrate on gray cod, only fishing his father's quota, and leaving
the business of walk-ons to guys like Jared Bright.
Bright makes the bulk of his
money in other fisheries—a diehard who rarely takes time off, he
participates in six of them—but he fishes halibut and black cod
between shorter seasons for favorites like salmon and gray cod, where
fishing is still a sport, there's no landlord, and being good at it
is directly tied to his earnings.
"Halibut and black-cod
fishing is sharecropping," he says, explaining why it's only a
sideshow in his fishing repertoire. When he does fish halibut and
black cod, he fishes walk-ons.
"If you talk to enough
people, you're going to run into a lot of stories about guys laying
in their bunk doing absolutely nothing. And that's just, I mean, it's
just the way it is. This guy owns quota, he comes out, he lays in his
bunk. You're out there working, and he opens the galley door and
says, 'Hey, will you come in and make me a sandwich?' " Bright
says. "It is frustrating, I guess, if you let it get to you."
He did once, then quit. But
it was November, at the end of the season. And by the time the next
one started he was back to fishing walk-ons again, and right in time
to compete with those guys in embroidered shirts.
in the states outside Alaska and Oregon, the Old Believers are a
sea-savvy religious sect that lives in four unique communities around
Homer, Alaska. They are also an easy population to spot: colorful
embroidery is a hallmark of their culture.
You can see them Sundays,
beautifully adorned in garments stitched by matriarchs. The women
wear long dresses. Men don't shave their beards. When those men take
to the seas, though, they do it in the same no-nonsense rain gear
that dominates the decks of the gulf. And lately, they've become a
powerful force in the long-lining industry.
Old Believers are
descendants of the religiously persecuted. Their forebears broke away
from the former Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, refusing
to accept reforms meant to realign it with the more modern Greek
church. They fled to northern Russia and Siberia
to escape punishments for resistance that included being imprisoned
and burned alive. Though formally welcomed back to Russian society in
1905, many eventually fled to China during the Russian Revolution to
escape military duty and food shortages. By the 1950s, communism put
them on the move again. Many laid down roots in Brazil. Others later
landed in secluded communities on the Kenai
in the 1960s, where their observation of some 40 holidays a year has
since kept them out of regular jobs and steered them into the fishing
and boat-building businesses.
That's true for Nicholas
who has fished for 42 years. His own life has cut a path that traces
the history of his people. The 57-year-old was born in China,
immigrated to Brazil as an infant, then moved to Alaska's Nikolaevsk
community at 14. With a lyrical Russian accent, he describes how his
first forays on the ocean started a year later when he and his
brother built their own boat, then learned to read nautical charts by
drifting away from shore and reconciling the lines with what they
"At first the idea was
to try to live a subsistence type of life," says Yakunin, who
notes Old Believers came to Alaska for the isolation, finding their
traditions were too quickly eroded in Brazil. Instead, he says, they
found it difficult to raise crops, or even dairy cows. The men tried
the canneries and construction for work, and a few landed in a
boat-building shop in Homer. They learned the trade, and since then,
Old Believers' signature boats have dominated the Homer fleet.
These are the boats now
running the Blake
of the world out of the walk-on industry.
In the past decades, Old
Believers have deftly moved into long-lining, an industry where their
geography, skill, and traditions have combined to make them nearly
unbeatable in competition for walk-ons and leases. Their business
model, often running family-centric fishing operations that rely more
on kinship than wages to attract crew, is one that for several years
has allowed them to undercut the 50-50 lease rate pursued by the
likes of Jared Bright. Their boat-building skills also eliminate boat
mortgages, and their typically small boats consume less fuel. They
also benefit from simple proximity: They are closer to the Gulf of
Alaska than much of their competition.
The result? Old Believers
pay rents as high as 75 percent to quota owners. They're still able
to make money, sometimes inching up profits by involving sons and
nephews, brothers and cousins—crew that can work for less.
"There's some degree of
prejudice against them because they can pay their son less than the
boat that's parked next door that is not a family operation and
actually has to hire someone," says Doug
who brokers quota and permits at Alaska Boats & Permits in Homer.
Yakunin, who typically pays
about 65 percent rent to quota owners, says sometimes the rates are
so competitive that even he can't compete, given his smallest boat is
about 18 feet longer than many. "If you provide the product for
less money, people will go there," he calmly reasons.
But mention Old Believers to
other skippers and crew, and they get feisty very quickly.
"Why are the Russians
fishing for 25 percent? Why would you do that?" wonders Bright.
In 21 years of fishing, his business was built on hard work and
handshakes, on a reputation for catching fish, for coming home safe,
and for never having burned anybody along the way. This race to the
bottom in pricing negates that. He's bothered by the undercutting,
greed, and calls to his walk-ons from other skippers, offering to do
more for less. It hurts everyone, he says. He doesn't believe the
argument that quota owners would catch fish for themselves if they
can't find someone to catch it cheap.
As fishermen grope for an
edge on the Old Believers, some sell their speed, professionalism,
and safety features to keep lease rates up. Increasingly, though,
they also tout luxury amenities, catering to walk-ons who simply
The long-lining season
starts in March, a time of year that typically begins with checking
lines and hooks in preparation for the tedious job of baiting. But in
the past few years, it's also had another opener: the brightly
colored fliers that solicit quota owners to walk on, advertising
big-screen TVs, massive DVD collections, quality grub, staterooms,
showers, saunas, and hot tubs.
Thanks to an online list of
quota-share owners, finding them isn't tough. Nearly 80 percent have
addresses in Alaska, while the remainder dwell around the U.S.—a
substantial chunk of those from Washington state.
a 38-year-old boat owner from Yakutat, Alaska, says amenities are a
lure in hooking such owners, "especially with older people that
don't want to sleep in the bunks with a bunch of 21-year-old boys. I
try to keep the boat as nice as I can. And that's really all I've
got, because I can't beat the Russians' rate."
His 58-foot steel seiner and
has a washer and dryer, and is a member of a Sitka co-op that helps
him get top pricing on fish. He lets his walk-ons lounge in the
stateroom and, as an avid moose hunter, supplies them with meat they
can't get elsewhere.
it's a business model that works. The bay is sidled up against the
town of Yakutat, a former fur-trading and mining outpost inaccessible
by road and surrounded by parks and preserves, including Glacier
Bay National Park.
Nearly a third of Yakutat's 656 current residents have commercial
fishing permits. More important to walk-ons, the town also has daily
That convenience combines
with the bay's supremely easy fishing to make Crane's business a
high-end, boutique version of long-lining. He can take walk-ons out
in a day and get their fish caught by the next.
Crane sometimes brings more
than one walk-on aboard at a time, not worrying about the
occasionally prickly dynamic that develops below deck.
"I have a few that have
bought quota just because they have money, and they are absolutely
not fishermen. These guys don't even know how to tie a bowline,"
says Crane. "I've had a guy tell me, 'Look, I've got a tee time
on Wednesday, and I don't want to miss it at the country club, so we
need to hurry up and get these fish caught so I can get on the jet
and get down there because my golf game starts.' It's really hard to
go catch fish and be back exactly when the guy says, with no leeway.
It can be tough. And the guys that don't fish for a living are
especially a pain about that."
Alexus Kwachka calls these
effects of baron lordships."
His cynicism is hard-earned. A commercial fisherman from Kodiak,
Kwachka serves on the advisory panel for the North Pacific Fishery
Management Council and has watched lease rates climb steadily in a
similar program for crab, where the vast majority of wealth has
shifted to absentee owners.
"The real story is
that you see the inheritors of a public resource that are extracting
the rents from the resource. It's unbelievable," he says.
While the ownership programs were supposed to make the fishery
better, and have in some ways, "What we've done is we've created
these barons that are just sitting back, getting these returns on
something that they were given," he adds.
Many people still make a
business of fishing halibut, says Kwachka, who adds that the push for
catch shares, mostly driven by a need to preserve declining fish
stocks, isn't all bad. But he thinks policymakers have forgotten to
take stock of their negative social impacts, instead touting success
stories before hurrying on to remake the next fishery. Egged on by
NOAA, which made implementing catch shares a national policy in 2010,
and by environmental groups focused primarily on the impacts to fish
health, catch shares already control about half of the value of
federal fisheries. Another six are being considered nationally, while
dozens more fisheries are considered either overfished or have a
notably low population, making them ripe for catch-share
consideration. Catch shares are also being adopted in state-managed
which declined to comment for this story, is the nation's largest
supporter of catch shares, pumping millions into research, lobbying,
a catch share design center, and an interactive game meant to teach
people about the failures of the fishery management tools of old.
Other environmental groups, including The Nature
have since joined that effort, ultimately building a language around
catch shares that makes ownership rights synonymous with good
Reasoning that fishermen
with an ownership stake would logically invest in the health of the
fish, they promote ownership rights as naturally leading to healthier
conditions, and a stable supply of fish worth more money. The claim
that catch shares produce better outcomes for fish has proven true
more often than not, and they do lead to a steady, fresh supply of
fish. But catch shares benefit one class of fishermen, not all of
them. And absentee ownership, high lease rates, and ballooning costs
of entry are among the problems that have emerged.
a nonprofit foundation in Oregon that marries environmental goals
with social equity and economic well-being, is among a few agencies
urging more attention to the social fallout that follows catch-share
programs. "Catch shares have some serious issues that are hard
to deal with, but are important to deal with," says Ed
the organization's vice president of fisheries.
In 2010, Ecotrust convened a
national expert panel to draft recommendations for how communities
could benefit from implementing catch-share systems. A year later,
after reviewing every catch share in the nation, the panel's primary
recommendation was that NOAA spell out how it would be accountable to
fishing communities and revise catch shares if they eroded the tie
between those places and their fishing cultures, or led to negative
economic effects—something they thought national law required.
Ecotrust has also launched its own nonprofit trust to help
communities fund quota acquisitions by locally based groups. But
speaking about the social inequities of such programs has had its
drawbacks in an environmental community that mostly promotes them,
especially when the latest head of NOAA is a catch-share proponent
and a former board director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Backus says he's been
branded a catch-share opponent for urging reforms. Seth
a former commercial fisherman and now a researcher and assistant
professor in the Department
of Marine Affairs
at the University
of Rhode Island,
has studied catch shares for 20 years. He has been similarly
criticized for suggesting a rather obvious but unpopular solution:
that the government lease fishing rights in federal fisheries, not
give them away. "I'm
very disappointed that the American environmental movement is either
supporting, or just ignoring, the privatization of public resources.
I don't think you'd be seeing this if we were talking about
privatizing the public parks." The fact that the federal
fisheries are supposed to belong to Americans has been lost in
catch-share designs, says Kwachka, who adds: "Why the hell did
we do this?"
Eighteen years ago, there
were several good reasons.
Norm Pillen, a 51-year-old
Washingtonian who started fishing halibut in a skiff in 1974,
remembers too well when the sea was so jammed with boats and
fishermen that the government only opened the halibut season for a
day to control the carnage each year.
"It got so crazy,"
he recalls. "There were so many people doing it and so much gear
in the water and so much wastage and so much lost gear. And top of
the issue was lost lives. I have many friends that didn't survive
those openings over the years. Mostly because when you have a 24-hour
opening, you're obligated to go if you wanted to pay for your
investment, and guys took a lot of risk."
Dubbed the derby days, a
tsunami could have hit the water and fishermen would have still
rushed to sea. Pillen remembers his own boat rolling in a derby, the
weight of the catch shifting to the side of the boat on rough water,
and waves reaching over the bow, smashing windows as crewmen
scrambled to move the fish and right the vessel.
The outcome of such a season
was similarly hellish. Millions of pounds of fish would land on the
dock all at once, piling in totes while processors worked furiously
to keep up. The condition of such fish was mostly unappetizing, many
poorly preserved by boats that hadn't carried ice, opting to maximize
space for catch instead.
"It ended up putting a
lot of pretty poor quality product on the market," says Pillen.
Halibut hit the stores in frozen and annual spurts, a bottom-barrel
fish compared to today's juicy halibut steaks. Fishermen, for their
risk, were paid up to 80 cents a pound for it.
Since 1995, the season has
been lengthened to more than eight months, allowing fishermen to only
go fishing when it's safe. They have time to take better care of the
product, boosting the entire industry's value from $150 million in
1995 to $245 million in 2008, the last time anybody checked.
Jared Bright says he doesn't
mind being a renter in an economy this robust. He says he has no hard
feelings about quota owners, and he means it. Though his cut of every
$28 pound of halibut is only 62 cents, his income from halibut and
black cod still makes up what most urban land-dwellers would think of
as a solid wage.
But Bright is unusual in
that he aggressively invested in a boat and gear to capitalize on the
most profitable fisheries. His combined income lets him afford a
house in Petersburg,
Alaska, and a condo in Seattle. He's also an investor in a
shipyard—Piston and Rudder
in Petersburg—and in Silver Bay Seafoods, a fishermen-owned seafood
processor with facilities in three Alaskan ports. He'll likely
inherit quota in the next rationalized fishery: He has an extensive
fishing history in gray cod, which is all it will take to earn quota
if catch shares ever take hold. And maybe when he's older, he says,
he'll live in Arizona and become a walk-on.
is the data manager of the Restricted Access Management program at
Marine Fisheries Service,
a division of NOAA. RAM manages the halibut and black-cod programs
for the federal agency under the oversight of the North Pacific
Fishery Management Council (NPFMC).
Among other things, RAM
supplies an endless stream of data about the performance of fisheries
in the North Pacific. Positive outcomes have included better safety
for fishermen, a stabilized market, and rising value of the fish. The
economic and social challenges weren't all foreseen, however. In
addition to creating the problem with walk-ons, the system has caused
some other unintended consequences. Most notably, many rural tribal
areas have seen their fishing histories evaporate as quota shares
migrate to larger, more affluent fishing towns. Not understanding the
challenges of buying them back, tribal members sold quota in lean
times and have since been unable to reacquire it. The hired-skipper
provision has also been abused by quota owners who fudge their
ownership in boats to avoid fishing.
"The reason the council
insisted on that is they didn't want landlord tenants, a feudal
system," says Gharrett. "They wanted the people who had the
quota to materially participate in the fishery. That was the basic
intent. They either want the individuals on board, or they want the
companies to maintain some kind of capital investment and risk."
The NPFMC has drafted a new
rule that requires boat owners to show ownership of at least 20
percent of a boat for 12 months before they're eligible to hire a
skipper. It is also pursuing a rule that would disallow hired
skippers for any quota acquired after Feb. 12, 2010, taming a trend
by initial owners to roll profits into new quota purchases rather
than pay capital gains. Councilmember Dan Hull sees this as an even
more pressing issue than walk-ons.
"We've had letters and
testimony from people who are not only no longer active fishermen,
but they have decided that they would use the IFQ program as an
investment vehicle for all their other funds," says Hull. "And
this person wanted to be able to continue to invest other funds and
use the hired-skipper privileges. It was a better deal than being in
the stock market."
He anticipates those types
of investors will scatter as the general economy recovers, and stock
options look good again. Meanwhile, those issues have combined with
the rising value of the fishery to make it hard for new entrants to
buy into long-lining fisheries. Another challenge: Though catch
shares are supposed to better the fish stock, halibut hasn't fared
well so far, causing the value of each quota unit to drop annually
for years, making it a very unstable buy for anyone who has to borrow
money to get it.
Nick Versteeg took out a
loan to buy quota in 2008, only to watch his quota drop in value
every year since. Still, his ownership share helps him land crew
jobs, which he needs to make his payments. For crewmen who don't own
boats or shares but opt to spend their careers on deck, the current
wealth of the industry masks an otherwise declining trend in wages.
First mate Kit Durnil says he doesn't want the financial risks of
boat ownership or the headaches of operating a vessel, but he's
worried that the wage trend is being ignored.
"When the wages started
going down, the price of fish has trended on going up," he says.
"Even though their wages might be going down and the pie is
sliced in a different direction and somebody else has their fingers
in it, it doesn't get as noticed, and that's why it gets accepted."
was 8 years old when the halibut and black-cod catch share took hold.
Raised in Klamath
Oregon, he was hours from the nearest fishing town in a landscape
known more for its geothermal reserves than for surface water. He
doesn't remember a time when the pie was sliced any differently than
it was in 2010. That's the year when, after introducing himself to
Blake Painter, he got an offer to work a halibut and black-cod season
in Alaska. It was a saving grace for the then-23-year-old, who at the
time was staring down a layoff as a wildfire fighter and a $25,000
debt for a teaching degree that bought him no job prospects.
His first season paid for
his college bills, and he's since made an average wage of $60,000 a
year. And while Caulfield is aware that someone else owns the quota
he's fishing, he says he doesn't quite know how they got it, or how
the numbers shake out.
"I am thankful that I
actually have that job, and am able to have a cut of that," he
That mind-set, one in which
crewmen can't envision the top of an industry they won't climb,
worries quota owners like Rhonda
who sees crews making just enough money to be content with a deck
job, but not enough to invest in quota or a boat, particularly as
lease fees take a larger and larger chunk.
"This is a conundrum
for me too," she says. She grew up fishing. Met her husband that
way. They have a direct-market fishing operation based in Seward,
Alaska, a boat with a processor on board, and work hard to treat
their crews fairly. When it comes time to divest, she'd like to do it
in ways that don't make deep pockets deeper. But finding a buyer will
"I'm not about taking
this to the grave," she says. "For us to sell our
portfolio, we'd have to sell it to a high-financed group of people.
I'd like to see somebody grow into the profession."
Hubbard is among a few quota
owners who have lobbied to close the loopholes in hiring skippers.
And neither she nor her husband charges a lease fee for quota that's
already paid for, something a minority of quota owners—including a
sizable fleet from Seattle—have chosen to do to counteract the
industry's increasing greed.
Hubbard says many quota
owners aren't tuned in to serious questions about how young people
will get into the industry when it comes time for them to take over.
There is only one small union to represent this new generation, she
says, and it's in Seattle, too far to represent the mostly Alaskan
crews. There are no standards to resolve disputes or wage claims,
either. Many crewmen simply aren't aware of how their options for
entry—and pay—have changed.
"This is what they do,
this is what they know, and there is no expanding them beyond their
cubicle on the deck," says Hubbard. "What is our succession
plan for the industry?"
She wants boundaries and
regulations. She wants a percentage of quota to be set aside for a
pool for qualifying, serious, first-generation owners. And she wants
quota owners who hang onto their quota the longest to contribute the
most to that pool.
Lacking interest from the
young, however, the tough job of revising the program will be up to
the industry's current owners. They'll have to reverse course to
realize the once-lauded vision that made them inheritors of a public
resource. The one in which they were good stewards. Where there was
wealth for everybody. And where things turned out well for both fish
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