Updated: Jan 17, 2021
Today was an adventure, a little something new. We went out on a fishing boat, F/V Martina. We were fishing for striped shrimp.
This is how it works:
There is a huge trawl, that is deployed off the side of the boat. The trawl sits on the side of the boat when not in use and is probably about 50’ long and 6’ tall and 6’ deep. The trawl is lowered to the bottom of the seabed by a cable. We fished at a depth of about 50-60 fathoms, (1 fathom is 6 feet, so 50-60 fathoms is 300-360’ deep). Once the trawl (a framework with a net) is lowered to the seabed, we drag it behind the boat for a couple of hours. Then we winch it back up to the boat and it collects the shrimp that feed on the kelp on the muddy seabed.
There are very limited trawl permits and limited locations where trawling is allowed. We asked about what if it snags a large rock? (If so, they pull it up and work to get it out of the net. If unsuccessful, then they cut the net). The shrimp only reside on the muddy seabed, so they only fish in areas with a lot of silt and not much else on the bottom. Of interest, I amend this note after a second outing. On this one, we got a large tree branch, another piece of wood and some other sea life—a crab, skates, ratfish with spikey tails and the usual cod like fishes. The gulls, and some eagles, stand watch until the fishes are tossed. Then, the ‘great circle of life’ continues and the birds get their fill of the fish that didn’t make it.
The winch is under a lot of strain. Dragging the trawl behind, plus the momentum of the boat going forward, plus the weight and drag of the trawl through the water, the distance etc. The fishermen were very precise in how they lowered the trawl and how they picked it up. It was all 3 men working the situation, one winding the cable, one operating the winch and one operating the boat. For me, it was enlightening, because the cable ‘jumps’ a little when it is let out or comes in and it reminded me of our dingy cable when we launch and retrieve the dinghy. Occasionally ours ‘jumps’ and I usually tend to panic. I see it now occurs in other systems too, so I need not fret too much. It just happens.
What about the by catch? What is by-catch? It is the other fishes, and too small shrimp that are caught in the trawl. I thought there would be a fair amount, but it was a lot less than I expected. I was pleasantly surprised to see the gulls taking care of the small fish. They sorted the shrimp and pulled out the small fishes. They barely hit the water before they were snatched up by the eager gulls. The remaining by catch, the shrimp that were too small, amounted to 20 lbs of the 140 lbs caught. Jim and I took a bunch of the too small shrimp, to process and put in our freezer. It didn’t cost the fisherman anything, and it was a fun ‘reward’ for our time out.
The weather matters. It got pretty snotty out there. When we started the weather was pretty good, but it just really kicked up. Elmer, a local who was helping out, has 3 generations of shrimp trawling in his family. He explained that in rough weather, the boat pitching up and down will cause the trawl to bounce, potentially losing many of the shrimp initially harvested. The wind also played a role in getting the trawl up to the boat in the correct position. It took two trys to get it up correctly. The second time we went shrimping, it also took two trys to get the trawl lifted in the correct position. It was not as windy and choppy, but still took some finesse to get it right. There is a very real risk that if the net is too full, and if it is lifted too far from the boat, it could cause the boat to tip or overturn. What an interesting fishery
This has the potential to be a really dangerous profession. By the very nature of their work, these boats are built with low side rails so that they can perform their work. We have traveled the back channel in Sea Venture, and have experienced the unrelenting winds. I felt safe being in Sea Ventures pilot house and watching the waves go by 8-10 feet below me. On F/V Martina, when you are out on the back deck working, the water is 3 feet below the side walls. I walked to the edges to film, and I was surprised at how vulnerable I felt. These guys are working, in 40 degree temps (this is a winter fishery, and the weather is unseasonable warm right now) with 20-30 knot winds and waves accordingly. There were no life jackets, no harnesses—yikes! It is just part of the job, and an everyday occurrence for them.
There are 28 permits in SE AK for the Striped Shrimp Beam Trawl Fishery. Of the 28 permits, only about 10 are active. As a result, fisherman can catch whatever they can sell. The quota limit, for the 28 permits is much more than the 10 active fishing boats can ever catch.
The biggest issue impacting the fishery is that there is no market. The fisherman also need to be businessmen. All of the fish processing plants nin SE AK are closed in the winter. Therefore, each boat needs to create its own market. F/V Martina has a farmers market in Bellingham WA that they work with, and a middleman that occasionally will buy up some shrimp. If they could sell more, they could certainly catch more. It is a balancing act.
Once the shrimp are in the boat, they are sorted and processed. What this means is that they are sorted into the larger keepers, that are put into large bins. Once they are all sorted, then the bins are emptied onto a packaging table where the shrimp are boxed up into 1.5, 2 or 3 pound boxes. They are weighed, boxed up and placed into a flash freezer. Once frozen, about 3 hours later, the frozen shrimp are dipped in a saltwater bath to give them a saltwater glaze and placed into a freezer.
The time on F/V Martina was a great experience, incredibly interesting and shared with us a peek into the joys and challenges of the Alaskan fisheries.
One final note: F/V Martina is a part of the Striped shrimp fishery in the winters, but in the summers, she is transformed. During the busy summer months, the shrimp sorting tray, the house and flash freezer are removed from the deck and a large crane is added to the boat and she is converted into a fish tender, collecting fish from the many gillnetters and long liners. We learned earlier this summer that many fish boats are changed up to work multiple fisheries. Gone are the days of a singe use vessel. To make money, fisherman need to work more months of the year, meaning additional types of fisheries.