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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Fishy Story

Or How Observers Help Save the Fishing Industry

By Lois Barton

Posted on Nov 1, 2005

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"Crab Boats at Dutch Harbor, Unalaska," by Scott Darsney, use of photo by gracious permission of the photographer at MountainWorld

We have a nephew who has been an Observer on commercial fishing boats for around ten years. I learned some years ago about the problem of dolphin deaths involved in net fishing for tuna. The dolphins swim in the ocean where tuna do, and fishermen netting tuna may catch dolphins who can be drowned in the nets. The loss of dolphins has been serious enough to promote legislation requiring the fishers to protect dolphins, and I've learned to read labels on tuna cans to see whether they are labeled "dolphin safe" or "dolphin free."

I recently had a chance to talk with our nephew about his experiences as an Observer, and thought I could learn from him how the dolphins are protected. As it happens, his experience has been limited to fishing in the North Pacific Ocean. He explained that there are no dolphins in that area. What they have to contend with is a "fat little porpoise call the Dall Porpoise." And in the end he didn't explain what the fishermen do to keep those porpoises free. There was too much else to talk about in the time we had.

Judd (not his real name) added to my computer icons the web site for the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program which is a great source for useful details. NPGOP "collects and diseminates information essential for the management of sustainable fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska and the eastern Bering Sea which support one of the largest commercial fisheries in the world."

Judd's first official assignment as an Observer was in 1990. At that time one could become an Observer on the basis of two years college education. After 4 years he took time out. Five years later Judd went back to school and got a degree in Biology. Biology or some other appropriate degree is now a required standard by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Once that qualification is met, the actual training is conducted by the Observer Service Program.

There are six organizations that train and provide Observers. The competition is acute. Turnover in this job is high. College graduates looking for an opening in government work view this as a good place to start, but find the job so demanding thay don't last long. Women as well as men apply and are trained. Observers with experience are in demand and so valuable to the service organizations.

Because of Judd's experience, he only takes a one day refresher before being assigned again. His assignments are for three months at a stint. He goes out on a "catcher" boat about 130 feet long. Those boats have a load limit of 500,000 pounds of fish. It takes two days to get to the fishing grounds and can be loaded in as quickly as twelve hours. The fish are taken to a much larger processor boat, maybe another two days run. There they are fileted or otherwise dressed. The major catch is pollock, formerly known as cod. These are mid-water fish. Most of these fish go to Asian markets. Filets of pollock in American markets are known as white fish. After unloading, the catcher boat goes back to the fishing ground for another load.

"Hauling in the Nets," Harvesting Pollock in the Bering Sea, courtesy of American Pride
Approximtely two million metric tons of fish are harvested from the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone of this region each year. Salmon and halibut, two kind of crabs and Stellar Sea Lions are forbidden, but inevitably included in the catch. An arrangement has been made to sell the forbidden species to private organizations licensed to deal in those kinds. And on the basis of Observer samples, the future catch quotas are calculated.

A trawl net is used to catch the fish. The dictionary definition of trawl net is "a large tapered fishing net that is towed along the sea bottom." It has large mesh at the beginning, slowly reduced in size toward the back end. It is deployed at 5 to 10 fathoms down, not actually on the bottom. There are a number of "undesirable" smaller fish, some of whom, at least, can escape through the larger mesh at the top of the net as it is pulled along.

The observer's job is physically demanding. When there is only one Observer on the boat he may be obliged to sample a catch every few hours around the clock. It is hard work, lifting heavy samples of slimy fish in all kinds of weather. The Observer's sample is minuscule--maybe one 80th of a catch of 40,000 pounds. The combined samples from all the Observers in an area are extrapolated to provide a statistically justifiable number of organisms from which to derive their "allowable catch." The observer, by law, is required by federal regulations to be on the boat. The fishermen don't necesarily want him there and the job can be pretty nerve wracking.

The Service Providers expect him to do his job because the future of fishing in those grounds depends on the combined work of Observers, of which there are hundreds just in the North Pacific. " Some of them," Judd says,"are really tough capable women. While the fishermen resent this observer requirement they realize that without the Observers and their work, the fishing grounds could be pretty well fished out by this time."

I asked Judd who paid the Observers. He said the Observer organizations do. "Is it Federal money?' " No the fishermen are required to hire Observers, and they pay the NPGOP," he told me. On his last contract before our conversation, Judd had been on four different boats during the three months. He says the Observer Service provides the Observer with plane tickets, some equipment, travel to and from the boat and a plane ticket at end of the contract to the debriefing site. He particularly likes the job, at least in part, because he is his own boss. The NPGOP training information explains: An Observer "must be capable of performing strenuous physical labor, and working independently without direct supervision under stressful conditions."

Judd's findings from the sampling are electronically reported daily to the Regional Council which is under the U.S. Department of Commerce. He is concerned about the political ramifications of the entire process, but that is another fishy story...

Copyright © 2005 by Lois Barton

Writer and historian
Lois Barton

Lois Barton is an 86 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.

Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton, including:

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Different Peace

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Hal and the Mountain

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Rogue River Adventure

Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Obituary for a Country Cat

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Cortesia Sanctuary

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Tree and Me and Lady Slippers

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Cranberries

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Butterflies and Community Development

and The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Last Gift.

See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife–The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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