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A Hard Day’s Night: 48 Hours in a Commercial Fisherman’s Shoes

Editor’s Note: We were all extremely saddened to learn of crew member Rodney Hoverson’s death and Guido (Darren) Carlton’s injuries following a car accident just days after this trip on September 1, 2015. John Bullard documented their impressive work ethic and skill in dozens of photos taken during his trip. He was amazed at their willingness to share their knowledge with some newcomers even while doing one of the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the world. Our hearts and prayers go out to their families, and we wish Guido a speedy recovery.

At 4 a.m. on August 26, John Bullard, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator for the Greater Atlantic, hung a “Gone Fishing” sign on his door and headed off with Maine Captain Terry Alexander on the F/V Jocka for a 48-hour fishing trip. Accompanying the Captain and crew were also John Quinn, vice chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, and Steve Liss, a photographer working on a documentary about New England fisheries. Although an avid sailor and former Mayor of New Bedford, one of the country’s most active fishing ports, this was Bullard’s first time on a commercial fishing trip.

From left to right: John Bullard, Guido Carleton, Terry Alexander, Rodney Hoverson, and John Quinn.
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“The first thing I learned is how hard commercial fishermen work, how skilled they are, how much they rely on each other…and how little they sleep,” says Bullard. With five hours between hauls, and half that time used to sort, clean, gut, and ice the fish—backbreaking work, as Bullard describes it—sleep didn’t happen. In his 48 hours on the boat, he thinks Captain Terry slept about 3 hours.

The crew, Rodney Hoverson and Guido Carlton, never got more than two and a half hours of sleep at once.

“When the net comes up, there’s maybe a thousand pounds of mixed fish on the deck,” says Bullard.

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After the net was reset for the next haul, Rodney and Guido used picks—wooden handles with 4-inch nails in them—to flick the fish (mostly dabs, flounder, and some redfish) into one of eight laundry-sized plastic baskets, depending on its species and size, or into a wooden trough if it was a roundfish like cod and haddock. The roundfish get gutted, the flatfish get cleaned, and then all are put on ice.

 “From the bottom of the sea to cleaned, rinsed, and iced takes about two and a half hours. That’s how fresh they are,” says Bullard.

As he watched the crew deftly sort and clean the fish, the Captain and crew haul, unload, repair, and reset nets, and crew members bring each other sodas and cigarettes, Bullard was struck by the incredible coordination and teamwork.
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“These two guys, when you watch them, it’s like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They know exactly what each other’s doing,” recalls Bullard.

“It’s the same with Terry, he knows exactly what these guys are doing, knows when to stop a winch so no one loses a hand.” Even though there weren’t many words exchanged, they were communicating perfectly, and everyone knew what the others were doing and what was next.

As he watched them, Bullard was reminded that these guys did this same work in February gales, a very different proposal from the flat-calm, full moon trip he was experiencing at the end of August.

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“Terry also wanted to show me that there are cod out there. He did his first tow in 45 minutes and put 1,000 pounds of cod on my shoes,” says Bullard. The whole net was filled with cod. Just cod. Big cod.

In 45 minutes, Alexander caught more than his entire year’s allocation—and it cost him more to lease the cod for this tow than he would actually make on their sale. It was an expensive way for Alexander to make the point that fishermen know where the cod are, a point that fishermen often say scientists and regulators don’t pay enough attention to.

“Fishermen like Terry have a great body of experience and knowledge. They also have a wheelhouse full of computers with information on weather, depths, temperatures, bottom types, bait, past trips, catches, hangs, and so on.

For that tow and all the others, Terry predicted very accurately what we would catch and where the fish were. Every time he pulled up the net, there were fish in it,” says Bullard.

After 48 hours, the Captain and crew dropped Bullard off at the dock, and went back out to sea for two more days of fishing.
 
Although the mandate to manage fisheries based on scientific information and legal frameworks remains unchanged, this trip left Bullard with a greater appreciation and understanding of what it takes to be a commercial fisherman.

“I had a huge amount of respect for fishermen before I went on this trip, and my home is a fishing port, so my motivation was always strong,” says Bullard. “But this made it more real, so much more vivid, and much more personal.”
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Photos by John Bullard/NOAA