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What's the Catch?

The crew of the Pacific Prince, a 149-foot pollock trawler, use innovative net design and a cutting-edge data feedback system to catch fewer unwanted fish.
In the frigid Bering Sea, the Pacific Prince tries to take only the fish it needs -- and leaves the ocean healthier

Editor's note: This story was a finalist for a 2011 National Magazine Award in the public interest category.

Deep within the bowels of the Pacific Prince, a 149-foot pollock trawler, 28-year-old biologist Monica Brennan stands in her orange rain gear, holding an empty plastic laundry basket, waiting for the fish. Two years ago Brennan quit her job as a groundwater specialist in Phoenix. She wanted to try something new. Something adventurous. So she signed on as a fisheries observer. And here she is on a two-and-a-half-month stint on the Pacific Prince. It's 1:00 a.m. on a stormy winter night in the middle of the Bering Sea off Alaska. The boat is bucking like a rodeo bull. Wind chill factor outside: 12 below.

Up in the wheelhouse, Captain Jack Jones watches his crew pull the net aboard. Bering Sea pollock boats tow cone-shaped nets that sieve the water a few hundred feet above the ocean floor, where pollock congregate in massive schools. Imagine a fishnet stocking the size of a boxcar, stuffed with wriggling fish. A crewman opens the net's side zipper and sends thousands of pollock, a fish with a trout's sleek body and a cod's wide-mouth head, sluicing down a hopper. If you've ever eaten Mrs. Paul's frozen fish sticks, a basket of Long John Silver's fish and chips, or a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich, you've eaten Alaska pollock.

One deck below, the fish crash onto a conveyor belt that whizzes past Brennan. A mist of saltwater and fish slime fogs the air. Brennan keeps her eye on a cheap wristwatch buckled to her clipboard. Six minutes into the conveyor run, she signals Jamie Buskirk, the ship's chief engineer, to swing aside a gate that diverts a random sample of the catch into her laundry basket. Then Brennan gets down to business: recording the raw data on the makeup of the net's bycatch -- those troublesome other species that get caught up in the net -- that may ultimately save or doom the largest single-species food fishery in the world.

Brennan is one of more than 700 frontline biologists who sign up for hazardous duty on America's high seas for meager pay. Most observers are in their twenties and early thirties. Few pursue it as a long-term career. The hours are long, and the conditions can be cramped and lonely. Observers go to work every day among rough people and in rougher conditions. The purpose of the data they collect is to make sure everyone plays by the rules, which are pretty simple, really: catch legal fish in legal places.

More than 120 observers work aboard 110 vessels in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. This year the U.S. fleet will catch 813,000 metric tons of pollock, worth more than $1 billion, in the nutrient-rich waters between Alaska and Russia. That's about 40 percent of the world's total whitefish catch. And unlike most fisheries around the world, this one has an observer on hand to observe the vast majority of all catches.

As the Pacific Prince heaves and rolls, Brennan works quickly with a steak knife and a pencil. She measures each pollock in her basket and sometimes removes an otolith, a fingernail-size ear bone. "You can read these like tree rings to determine the age of the fish," she explains. She has to shout to be heard over the roaring conveyor belt, which is moving 200 tons of fish into the ship's holding tank. Age data are critical in determining the overall health of the pollock stocks: the younger the caught fish, the smaller the future breeding pool.

The wide net of the Pacific Prince catches other species besides pollock. When Brennan pulls a flounder out of her sampling basket, she hooks it on a hanging scale and records its weight on a specially coated data sheet, which is spattered with fish slime.

"Bycatch," she says, tossing the flounder back on the belt.

Bycatch is everything a fisherman doesn't want , and it's a big problem. The accelerating loss of ocean biodiversity has raised alarms about a future marine world bereft of all but saltwater and jellyfish. There's no mystery about the main cause. "In 50 years we've taken -- we've eaten -- more than 90 percent of the big fish in the sea," the oceanographer Sylvia Earle remarked last year.

We've also not eaten an enormous amount of the collateral damage. Bycatch has been a nuisance ever since early humans began casting nets, but few realized the extent of the damage it was causing to marine ecosystems until 1994, when a team of scientists with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and Britain's Directorate of Fisheries Research ran the numbers. They found that bycatch made up an astonishing 26 percent of the world's total commercial catch. Every year 27 million metric tons of fish, birds, and marine mammals were being caught, killed, and tossed aside as trash.

Spurred by that report, governments and commercial fleets have made efforts to reduce bycatch through a combination of tougher regulations, equipment changes, design innovations (like the turtle excluder, which screens turtles from Gulf Coast shrimp trawl nets), and technological advances like sonar imaging. By 2004, global bycatch had begun to decline. One FAO report put it as low as 10 percent of all landings that year, though many marine biologists say the true figure is closer to 20 percent.

While the U.S. fishing fleet has made significant progress in the past decade in reducing the bycatch of birds, turtles, and marine mammals, its record on fish bycatch is atrocious. The latest tally of fish bycatch in America is more than 22 percent, driven mostly by shrimpers on the Gulf Coast and the groundfish fleet in the Northeast.

The key to improving this dismal record is the presence of impartial observers like Monica Brennan and the bycatch data she records on her fish-splattered sheet. "If you don't know how much bycatch is incurred in a specific fishery, you're powerless to bring about the regulations needed to reduce all that waste," says marine biologist Jeffrey Moore of Duke University's Center for Marine Conservation. "And observers are the critical component in that. They're the only way to gather information with any degree of accuracy."

This article was made possible by a generous grant from the Josephine Patterson Albright Fund for Special Features

image of Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction and is the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. He writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment for such... READ MORE >

I am grateful that there are owners of ships like the Pacific Prince who are exploring smart, innovative and healthful ways of continuing to make a living while keeping the health of our oceans in mind.

I have spent a few years on the Bering Sea as an observer. The captains of the boats do not welcome us with open arms. It is a lonely job. But it is one that needs to be done. I think that any year that there are observers on board, it is a successful year. It is a step in the right direction of keeping our oceans healthy.

The captains of the boats are not doing this of their own free will. I spent two years as an observer on the Bering Sea, and the majority of fishermen absolutely hated having an observer on board.

"Their small-mesh nets pull up 4.5 pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp, an astounding bycatch rate of 82 percent." Wouldn't that be closer to 450 percent?

no, because bycatch rates are measured as a percentage of the total catch. and i have also spent two years as an observer, and i find that most of the captains are accepting of the observer program and what it represents

One of the best articles on observing and the fishery I have ever seen. I also spent two years on the Bering Sea and almost all the crew on the boats were supportive and observer-friendly. It's just luck of the draw whether you get a good boat or a bad boat.

Congratulations on the NMA nomination, Bruce. Glad to see excellent reporting on the fisheries crisis, especially from the angle of creative potential solutions, getting the nod.