The Last Days of the Ocean
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The Catch

What happens when industry insiders write their own regulations? Welcome to the fishing business.

OUT ON THE OPEN ATLANTIC, the approach of darkness brings no end to work on a lone fishing boat that hauls in multiple catches a day, 24 hours a day, from the Georges Bank shoals. Isabel S. is not one of those wooden Winslow Homer dories manned by yellow-slickered oarsmen. It’s a 95-foot steel-hulled trawler, powered by a 1,000-horsepower Caterpillar diesel V-8 engine and manned by a crew of five men—captain, mate, engineer, cook, and deckhand—who work in shifts around the clock for as long as they are fishing, usually for a week at a time. The boat’s hold can carry 180,000 pounds of fish layered in crushed ice, though owner Robert Lane says he rarely carries more than half that.

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The weather on the North Atlantic in February ranges from uncomfortable to hostile, with air temperatures in the 20s and water temperatures in the 40s, and wave heights commonly exceeding 6 to 12 feet. The winds are relentless. At this time of year, a man overboard in heavy seas could survive only a short while. “When the seas start running up to 20 feet,” Lane says, “we knock off and lay to. It’s too risky to have the men out on deck under those conditions.” Lucrative as it can be, commercial fishing is one of the most dangerousoccupations in America.

Incongruously, it’s also a business freighted with paperwork. Fishing is so heavily regulated by the federal government that Jeffrey Hatfield, who’s run this boat for Lane for 17 years, boards Isabel S. lugging a briefcase full of regulatory documents. Trawler owners like Lane, along with long-liners like Mike Russo—who runs Susan Lee out of Chatham, Massachusetts—spend much of their time trying to stay on top of groundfish regulations like the infamous Amendment 13, a document that’s four inches thick. The effectiveness of all that paper is another story. “The hardest thing about this fishery is the year-to-year uncertainty,” Russo says. “The plans take so long to develop that they’re defunct by the time we get them, and the rules change so often it’s impossible for me to do a business plan.” Both boat operators are savvy about their industry and belie the stereotype of the rapacious fisherman bent on catching every last fish. They understand conservation. And both are deeply frustrated. “The lack of fish isn’t going to do me in,” Russo says. “The management of the fishery is going to do me in.”

Aboard Isabel S. on a typical trip, Hatfield and his crew don’t suffer from a lack of fish: Working the controls of the massive hydraulic winches, Hatfield winds a 220-foot-long green nylon net aboard. For two hours, the net has been dragging along the seafloor at 30 fathoms. When the bottom of the net, the cod end, rises into sight bulging with two-foot-long silvery fish, Hatfield winches it high over the stern and dumps the entire haul onto the deck.

A good multispecies haul consists of about 3,000 pounds of haddock, plus some cod, whiting, pollack, sea dab, and the inevitable dogfish (an abundant small shark). Haddock is the money fish, the reason Isabel S. ventures out on Georges Bank at this time of year. Two crew members stand knee-deep in wet fish to sort the catch, tossing different species into different bins. The crewmen, veterans of years of work on Lane’s boats, eviscerate the fish and clean them with a hose before lowering them into the hold in canvas baskets. Below, the catch is packed neatly in layers of crushed ice.

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