Commercial Fishing Navigates Change to Bring Home Profit

Karter Larson’s talk on commercial fishing from Barnegat Light’s Viking Village dock is standing room only each year at the LBIF. Tragically, mylar balloons of the kind filled with helium and hoisted for parties are killing sea turtles. They end up on the ocean floor, where they fatally resemble the jellyfish that turtles gobble as food.Larson brought an armful of spent balloons to show the audience.

A taste of the enthralling work of commercial fishing Saturday described a tug-of-war with not just the deep, but also a sea of federal regulations. How the captain and crew know where to set up the hooked lines for tuna, how the moon rules when fish bite, the extent that Big Brother’s eye is on the industry, the astounding amount that a scallop fishing permit is worth, what happens when one guy, days out to sea, gets a fever – secrets surfaced in a Science Saturday presentation at the Long Beach Island Foundation of Arts and Sciences on Feb. 10.

Karter Larson’s talk on commercial fishing from Barnegat Light’s Viking Village dock is standing room only each year at the LBIF. It’s a porthole into the dangerous occupation, and it comes with a sample of the renowned Viking Village scallops prepared by Chef Ian Smith, an instructor at the Ocean County Vocational Technical School’s Culinary Arts Training Center, located at Cuisine on the Green at Atlantis Golf Club, Little Egg Harbor.

“I can tell you 95 percent of this entire Island has no idea what goes on down there or offshore,” began Larson, one of seven siblings whose parents, Marion Larson and the late John Larson, co-founded the dock with Lou and Fran Puskas.

The “oohs” and “wows” from the audience during the half-hour talk proved that declaration.

The commercial dock produces seafood from three methods: longlining, gillnetting and scalloping.

Longline Boats Go Long Distance

The longline fleet catches tuna and swordfish using a line 40 miles long with a hook every 150 feet, pulled below the surface at least 100 fathoms deep. A fathom is 6 feet.

“Where the warm water meets the cold, that’s where they set their lines; that’s where all the baitfish hang out, and that’s where the tuna know the baitfish hang out,” Larson said.

“Ahh,” audience members responded.

The longliners also supply the restaurants and fish markets of Long Beach Island with mahi and mako.

“However, we only fish around the full moon – one week before to one week after the full moon,” instructed Larson, who grew up fishing the sea with his dad. “Because on the dark part of the moon, fish don’t bite. Anybody have any idea why?

“I don’t have a clue,” came Larson’s unexpected answer to his own question, with a round of laughter from the listeners.

“So, in order to keep those restaurants open, we import fish from other countries that fish differently than we do. Mainly, their boats overseas are at least three times the size of our boats. They have a lot more space on their boats than we do, so they have fish holds that carry live bait. They fish with live bait in the daytime; we fish with frozen squid at nighttime.”

In fact, there are a couple of commercial boats at the dock “that have no bathrooms; there is not enough room on the boat for that,” he added. Enough said, as listeners took a second to let that tidbit digest.

The talk had started with the stark danger of the occupation – a mention of past fatality and near-fatality. The topic turned to the government regulation that in recent years has become a way of life for fishermen in the industry.

“Last year the government imposed a law on … U.S. fishermen: You cannot leave the dock unless a government expert installer will install a camera system on that boat, that watches everything we do,” said the speaker, to murmurs of surprise from the audience.

“That’s for the whole trip, out for two weeks. When they come home, the captain puts that disk in an envelope, ships it to the government … so a lot of the fishing boat owners decided they’re not participating in that fishery. Last year at Viking Village was our lowest landing of yellowfin and bigeye tuna ever; they’re not going to play that game. So they fish for something else.”

The longline boats go out in a crew of five, and they fish from 100 miles out to 1,500 miles out, to the Grand Banks where swordfish are caught.

“Everybody saw the movie ‘The Perfect Storm,’ right? When they leave Barnegat Light, it’s pedal to the metal, steaming 24 hours a day. Eight days later, they put the first hook in the water – that’s how far away it is.

“So after 15 or 20 sets, according to the weather, each set is a day, and it’s another eight days before they make it home,” he outlined. The fish are not frozen, but sent to the market fresh.

Sandy’s Effects Still Felt By Net Boats

Viking Village is home to 15 gillnet boats, which set out nets to catch fish as they swim by. The fish’s gills get snared in the net.

“They catch what they can catch seasonally; right now it’s monkfish,” said Larson, who is treasurer for the Viking Village commercial dock.

Allowed to fish certain days of the year, “every boat that comes in has to report the poundage, the species and price, every day.”

The data influences decisions at the government level on how many days at sea will be allowed. That number is small, about 28 to 32.

Superstorm Sandy made rules of its own.

“Since I’ve been born and before, those boats have been catching thousands and thousands of pounds of bluefish; it’s been a staple of Barnegat Light forever,” Larson said, adding that there used to be 13 head boats catching bluefish day and night, and that dwindled to one.

“On Oct. 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit the area, and we haven’t seen a bluefish yet,” he said, speaking of the waters where the net boats go. “So something changed the bottom out there. We don’t catch bluefish anymore. So every summer, the captains let their crews go; it’s kind of sad.”

Scallop Fleet Faces Limits

The scallop fleet at Viking Village numbers 10 full-time permitted boats. Each extremely valuable permit is a certificate issued by the government. Only about 300 permits have been issued for the East Coast.

“Years ago when they gave out these permits, my dad stocked up a few of them,” Larson said. “They’re not giving them away anymore. If you have a scallop permit … that piece of paper today is worth about 3 million bucks, because of the way the industry went.”

Laws apply in federal waters, as Larson outlined.

“Years ago, when my dad first got involved, he built some scallop boats – there were no times (time limits) at sea, there was no scallop plan, there was no government intervention,” he said. “They fished 300-plus days throughout the year.”

When regulation began, with input from scientists and the fishing industry, the plan was to close a couple of areas and leave others open. The plan later designated a number of days allowed for scallop fishing. The scenario is too complex to detail here, but that number has decreased.

“It started out as 150, which was pretty good, and prices are good,” Larson said. “Everybody was making a living. They cut it down to 75, to 50; last year they fished 27 days out of 365. This year it’s 33, I believe.”

One audience member wanted that number clarified during the question and answer period afterward. “You mean the boats just sit there the other 332 days of the year?” The answer from Larson was yes, except that the government periodically opens up a closed area for limited fishing, which does not count toward allowed days at sea.

The large, highest price scallops, going in restaurants for $25 a pound, can bring a scallop boat $275,000 gross for 18,000 pounds.

“The less they fished, the higher the price goes, so the fishermen don’t really care; they’re still making a good living,” Larson added. “Then they throw in a little chip now and then for a closed area opening, and you’re allowed to go into that area and catch 18,000 pounds, not one pound more, and that trip does not count as days at sea.”

Someone crossed the line out of a permitted area by 10 feet “and got a phone call from the government: ‘We’re watching.’”

“The government made all owners of these scallop boats buy an antenna that sits on top of the pilot house – costs about $10,000 – it’s never turned off, and it goes up to a satellite, comes down to Big Brother’s desk, and they can see where we are 24 hours a day.”

When boat operators get the go-ahead to harvest a closed area, they do not want to turn back. A story related this. Years ago, a captain had a crew of seven heading to a closed area.

“One of his crew members got sick, as in a fever,” Larson verbally set the scene. “You can’t be 100-plus miles offshore with a fever because that’s kind of dangerous,” he continued, with the room’s full attention.

“So he had to make a decision. The other crew of six still had to make this closed-area trip. This one guy had to go …”

During a pause in the tale, a woman in the audience spoke out, “so, they threw him overboard!”

She, like the other rapt listeners, thought she was kidding.

Larson finished the story. “They put him in a survival suit and threw him overboard. Sorry!”

They called out to a boat that was in the region, “‘Please pick up James.’ And they went out.”

A collective “wow” buzzed the room.

The final segment of the talk concerned sea turtles and the excluder devices and special hooks that fishing vessels are equipped with in order to try to deter their getting caught by the vessel.

Tragically, mylar balloons of the kind filled with helium and hoisted for parties are killing sea turtles. They end up on the ocean floor, where they fatally resemble the jellyfish that turtles gobble as food.

Larson brought an armful of spent balloons to show the audience. They were caught in monkfish nets 40 fathoms down.

“My buddies catch monkfish offshore. They catch a ton of these mylar balloons from everybody’s congratulatory party; here’s a Valentine’s balloon … people let them loose and they go east and they sink to the bottom.

“So, on the bottom, this looks like a jellyfish. The turtle’s main diet in life is jellyfish. He sees this and he eats it. He can’t digest it; he can’t regurgitate it because of the way his neck is made, and it sits in his gut and he rots to death. There is no hope for turtles that eat these things; it’s 100 percent mortality.”

Swordfish have also been found with their insides rotted from ingesting a balloon. Larson said, shaking his head, “I just can’t believe these things are still allowed to be made.”

Chef Smith, with help from adult culinary school students, had been in the background in the LBIF kitchen prepping for a demonstration on how to cook scallops, which was followed by a sample seasoned with a homemade rub and served with coconut rice and a savory sauce for all of the 100-some attendees.

Reposted from The Sandpaper