Pacific Northwest Fishers Trawl in Danger's Wake

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Channel
January 28, 2004
Thirty years ago, the Devil's Wind—hurricane force
southerlies—swept along the Southern Oregon coast. It was
mid-August and many commercial salmon fishermen were baiting their lines
miles from the safety of Brookings Harbor. With gusts pushing over 80
knots, every boat on the sea risked capsizing.

"I watched my best friend, John Crook, die when his father's fishing boat was swamped and rolled by the waves near the jetty off the Chetco River," said captain John Fraser, owner of the 42-foot (12.5-meter) wooden fishing boat Njord, based in Harbor, Oregon. "I was only ten years old then. But every time I cross that sandbar near the jetty I still think about it."

Along with thousands of other fishermen along the Pacific Northwest coastline—stretching from northern California to Alaska—Fraser's decades of commercial fishing experience are sprinkled with memories of painstaking days at sea, and close brushes with death.

Alaskan waters offer some of the most hazardous commercial fishing in the world. Waves routinely reach 20 feet (6 meters) and heavy winter storms bring blankets of snow, hail, and ice. Fishermen who fall overboard in northern Alaskan waters, where winter water temperatures hover in the mid-30s Fahrenheit (1° to 2° Celsius), survive only minutes before hypothermia begins to set in. Alaskan fishermen die every year.

Many Alaskan Commercial Fishing Fatalities

Throughout the 1990s, the fatality rate for commercial fishermen in Alaska was 28 times that of the overall U.S. work-related fatality rate of 4.4 per 100,000 workers a year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Between 1992 and 1996, Alaska commercial fishing suffered 112 fatalities according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, based in Washington, D.C. Massachusetts claimed second place with 32 deaths; Oregon was fifth with 21.

"We're always helping the commercial fishermen," said Michael Mueller, small boat engineer of the Chetco River Station Coast Guard in Harbor, Oregon, who participated in dozens of rescues last year. "They go out far off the coast in the middle of winter and catch the worst stuff the Pacific Ocean has for them."

Dungeness crab season in Oregon began December 3, 2003, and will run through August 14, 2004. The most bountiful catch occurs during the first few days, when the population of crabs has had four months to recover from the pots of commercial fishermen, but when the weather is at its worst.

Fishermen Brave Storms Early in Fishing Season

During the 2002/2003 season, 23.7 million pounds (10.7 million kilograms) of crab were caught in Oregon, said John Seabourne, fisheries information systems manager for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, based in Salem. A large portion of that total catch was harvested during the first few days of the season, "regardless whether the ocean was stormy or calm."

In the world of commercial fishing, extreme weather is no excuse to remain on shore; and fishing accidents are far more common during the first days of any limited fishing period along the Pacific Northwest. In some regions, it's common to limit fishing opportunities to a three- or four-day window for certain populations, like Alaska's red king crab. When government quotas for a species are reached, the fishing stops.

"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 >>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.