Pacific Northwest Fishers Trawl in Danger's Wake

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"Sometimes you prepare the boat all week to fish just a day," said Kit Cody, currently the owner of recent start-up Gypsy Productions, based in San Francisco, who spent nine seasons commercial fishing in Alaska. "Many boats vie to catch as many crabs or fish as possible in a limited time. It's easy to see how with bad weather and competition, things can get dangerous real quick."

Fierce storms and unpredictable weather are not the only dangers plaguing this inherently perilous profession.

Filthy, Exhausting, Accident-prone Work

"For halibut we typically motor 50 miles [80 kilometers] off the coast and set out our gear: continuous 600-foot [180-meter] coils, each with a baited hook every 12 feet [3.5 meters] anchored on the bottom. The whole thing can stretch five miles [eight kilometers]," said Cody, describing work in the Gulf of Alaska. "Then we pull it all in with hydraulic gear, and you better watch your fingers."

Halibut average about 30 pounds (13 kilograms) in weight, but occasionally an individual fish will reach upwards of 300 pounds (136 kilograms). Fish hauled on deck are immediately gutted and packed on ice inside the hull of the boat. Just moving such a heavy fish can be hazardous on a rocking boat with slippery, bloody decks.

"It's filthy, exhausting, accident-prone work. But you can pull in over 30,000 pounds [13,636 kilograms] of halibut in just a day or so," said Cody.

During his last stint fishing halibut, Cody was working the gurney—a hydraulic shim that pulls the ground line back from the bottom. An incoming hook snagged his glove and tore the meat from his right hand.

By the time the crew shut off the hydraulics, the flesh on Cody's hand had been ripped to the bone. "We removed the hook with pliers, doused the wound with peroxide, and wrapped it up and quickly went back to work," said Cody.

Some Fishermen Calling It Quits

For some states in the Pacific Northwest, commercial fishermen are a dwindling breed. Excessive fishing has depleted marine populations that once thrived. In Oregon, the government is buying commercial fishing boats and their licenses to reduce the number of fishermen, hoping the fish and crab stocks will bounce back.

Stricter environmental regulations issued by the California Department of Fish and Game via its Marine Life Management Act of 1999 are also causing fishermen in northern California to abandon their jobs and find new professions.

"In the last 20 years, the number of full-time commercial fishermen in California has declined by three quarters," said Chamois L. Andersen, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game in Sacramento. "Between 1977 and 1997, the number of commercial fishing vessels declined from 2,677 to 1700."

Dangerous and expensive Coast Guard rescues have led to new marine regulations requiring more types of safety gear for commercial fishing boats. Some complain it's getting too expensive to fish commercially anymore; for example, required modern life rafts can run thousands of dollars.

The image of commercial fishing has recently undergone a revival. The blockbuster movie The Perfect Storm reminded viewers around the world of the legacy of fishing and the salty men and women who dedicate their lives so others can enjoy fresh seafood. Despite the dangers, most commercial fishermen are ultimately drawn to the ocean for a simple reason.

"I love this work. And I love my boat," said Fraser. "My dad raised me a fisherman, and this is where I belong—out at sea."

Dangerous Jobs, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/9 p.m. PT in the United States, is available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it >>

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