July 8, 2009
Last week I was recruited to work as a deckhand on a 40-foot commercial Halibut long liner. I spent 5 days out in Hecate Strait catching fish that were bigger than I am using fishing lines that are 3 km long. We fished in water 60-100 fathoms deep (400-600 ft) not including the 2-3 meter high waves. I learned a lot about deep-sea fish. I also puked. We landed 2,300 lbs of halibut (~50 fish of which 8 weighed more than me), 500 lbs of snapper, a few other species, and my prize... one black cod. I can honestly say that I have never done anything where I have been so utterly filthy in my life. Perhaps the only thing dirtier was the colorful skipper's stories about all his ex-girlfriends!
Picture this: two men, covered from head to toe in full rubber rain gear on an unstable deck that is often awash with 12-degree sea water and covered in fish slime, blood, machinery, and thousands of fishhooks. There was a few times that I thought to myself, 'This is insane'. The first day the fishhooks were pre-baited with rotting fish heads and octopus bits. What smell! Like I said, I blew chunks, but only once the first day - enough times to empty the bran flakes. It was the combination of that rotting fish juice, the diesel engine stink, and the big choppy sea.
Long lining basically works like this: I am at the back of the boat at the baiting tray loading hooks and controlling the drum where all the line is stored. We put out 4-600 feet of float line with two huge floats attached to it. Then the long line is attached to the float line and an anchor is attached and dropped. As soon as the anchor is on the line and descending, I start clipping massive (as big as my hand) fishhooks to the line. Now this is the really dangerous part because the line is going out really fast as you attach each hook. If the hook were to snag you, which could easily happen, you would get sucked out from the back of the boat and dragged down with the anchor! Apparently this happens once and a while. Sound insane yet? We do this for 3 km of line placing a hook about every three meters. That’s certainly numerous hooks! Then another float line is attached. It takes about 2 hours to set a line and we set two lines. The lines soak for about 4 hours then we go bring them up. The line is retrieved with a hydraulic winch and all the hooks are taken off and replaced in a rack. When a sea monster is attached, the line starts to shake and you can feel it pull the boat this way and that. The skipper yells “fish on” and I grab a gaff (meat hook), bend over the rail, and wait for fish to surface and open its mouth. Then WHAM! I ram to hook into its jaw and the skipper and I struggle to pull the fish aboard. I then cut one of the gills and let it bleed out on the deck. Pretty brutal really, but admittedly, it was a bit of a rush. That is until I almost fell over once. The idea of falling into the cold water near a huge angry fish with steel hooks sticking out of it has a steadying effect on my balance.
The fish are kept in the hold covered in ice. After the fish are gutted on deck (which is more akin to gutting a deer than say, cleaning a trout), each one is handed down to the rookie (obviously, there are only two of us aboard!) who gets to crawl around in knee-deep crushed ice and pack handfuls of ice into the core of each fish. The hold is only 4 feet high and the opening is 2x3ft. So the when the big fish come in, they basically cover the entire opening and have to slide past me. When I say filthy, I mean I have had a 200-pound fish pin me to a wall and slide all 5 feet of its slimy length across my face! My hat was turned on its side and my hair was all matted to my ear! Gross! Apparently that reminded the skipper of an ex-girlfriend who used to cover her self in oil and … well another colorful story. Try to imagine what slime covered rubber feels like to live in for 5 days! There is a shower if you want, it pumps high pressure sea water through a hose on deck. Take as long as you want! I managed to warm some water each night and at least wash my hands and face before I slept. It was not all big seas and hard work. I did see some beautiful places even though I was told “in this place the sun does not shine”. It did not shine... which is great because on this boat there is no toilet, “ya get to hang it over”. I’ll remind you that we did not go ashore for 5 days. When you finally got to drop a deuce, you get to hang your boys out over the side in the 20 kph wind. With a cross-swell rolling in to the anchorage, one has to brace on something, and that cold steel bar across the back of the thighs sure can send a mighty chill up the spine.
In the end, I learned a lot about the biology of these deep-sea fish and some anatomy as well. We also have a freezer full of our own fish, almost more than we can handle. Tonight we ate halibut cheeks (the best part of the fish) that I cut off one of the big ones. They were bigger than 12 oz steaks. I kept two of the small halibut (30 lbs each), a couple of snappers, a lingcod, and my black cod (which is the best fish I have ever tasted and is the most expensive fish in North America). Overall, it was a pretty amazing experience and I may do another run next week. The pay is good, too, 15% of the catch at market.
As for the tree huggers reading this, I am not condoning our current fishing policies and was not stoked about contributing to the current the state of our fisheries. However, I did learn a lot about such issues from the fisherman's point of view. I also just wanted to see it for myself. Further, ground long-lining is a very selective fishery which maximizes target species and minimizes bycatch (not to be confused with the very destructive pelagic long-lining that kills everything including mammals). We did snag three sharks and a dozen or so rays, most of which were returned relatively unharmed. Compare this to any drag fishery and the numbers speak for themselves.
As for our sailing trip, we have a couple more weeks here in Bella Bella. Then we hope to spend some time cruising around here before we head south in September. We cannot leave earlier because of all of the hurricanes crossing our intended path. Those should clear up by the end of September.
P.S. sorry about all the metric switching. Sailors are caught in an odd world of different measures.