At work on
Alaska's Factory Trawlers
Big Fishing
There’s no politics like fish politics.  As if getting the balance right wasn’t challenging enough for the fisheries council, into the equation swam another call-him natural fisherman: Hershel.  Clownish, bewhiskered Hershel brought to the discussion a completely fresh perspective for managing the region’s natural resources, and he had powerful friends to help make his case. 

Greenpeace claimed that chronic severe overfishing had depressed Alaska Pollock stocks to such an extent that the population of one native fish predator, the Steller sea lion, warranted recognition as an endangered species.  Such an official declaration would give conservationists de facto influence over management of the North Pacific fisheries, if not a seat at the council table, and the Doughnut Hole calamity appeared to make the council vulnerable to reorganization. 

However, while the conservationist lobby had political clout in Washington, that support was insufficient to breach the council’s ardent desire to keep them out.  So, to circumvent the entrenched establishment, Greenpeace resorted to a tried-and-true strategy – creating a groundswell of public support.  Not an easy task, mobilizing Lower 48 beef eaters to rise up for Alaska Pollock. 


Enter huggable Hershel, popular local poster child for saving the endangered covey of migratory sea lions, that each summer stationed themselves at the entrance to the Ballard Locks, in North Seattle, playfully decimating the migrating salmon populations coming home to spawn.  Hell, a bunch o’ sporting folk wanted to shoot ‘em!  Along with local groups, Greenpeace rallied to defend Hershel and his buddies – but somewhere along the line, their dilemma and the alleged plight of their distant kin thousands of miles to the north were joined in the public mind, and on petitions they were asked to sign.
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The wheelhouse of a factory trawler, be it cramped and moldy or modern and spacious as a suite at the Sheraton, is a technologically sophisticated milieu. From his aerie at the top of their world, Island Enterprise captain Pete Richardson manipulates levers that control the disposition of the trawl, from the fishing deck to hundreds of feet below the surface. This is pretty specialized stuff, indeed, but then again not too sophisticated - just twiddling joysticks that make spools of net, rope and steel cable out on the fishing deck rotate back or forth. In other words, pretty much like commercial fishing throughout the developed world - only very big.

The cool part is watching it all happen on TV.
The ship's bridge has ten to fifteen monitors that tell every-thing about the status of the vessel, from the engine room to the factory deck to the trawl in the water. The monitor image above, a personal favorite, displays the outline of the trawl's mouth - the oval shape just beneath the dashed line across the middle of the bullseye - as "seen" by a sonar transmitter mounted at the top-front of the maw. The bright red slash is the sea floor, the tiny yellow and red speckles aee fish. To catch them, the captain shapes the mouth by adjusting the ship's speed and manipulating the trawl's "doors," iron wings the size of a Ford sedan that spread the mouth laterally (they "appear" as black holes on each side of the mouth).

You can see that this image was made at night because the targeted species of bottomfish linger in mid-sea; in daytime, they congregate in dense clumps and hug the seabed. The mouth of this trawl skirts the bottom for maybe 100 feet, rising with a fine shape to catch fish with maximum efficiency. In daytime, to widen the trawl on the ocean floor - where all the fish are - some captains deploy "roller gear," nets heavily weighted on the bottom and strung with automobile tires that literally plow the ocean bottom. A real favorite with environmentalists, as you might imagine.

Looking at the full-screen image, the rings of the bullseye are spaced seven fathoms - 42 feet - apart. You can see that the distance from the top of the trawl to the bottom is nearly three-and-a-half fathoms, about 150 feet, and left-to-right is roughly double that - 300 feet, the length of a football field. Were you to see this trawl in profile it would look like a giant cornucopia maybe a thousand feet long. From the mouth back 600 feet or more are "strings," a very wide web designed to allow sea mammals and large fish to fall out, while causing the smaller targeted fish to swirl in a vortex towards the center and into the 100- to 200-foot cod end. Each foot of a cod end can hold a ton of fish.
Between "sets," when the trawl is in the water and fish in the tank, the deck crew has a little breaktime in the Kodiak Enterprise "dry room", in a corner of the fishing deck.
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5. Modern Fishing

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