The Catch

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

By Michael W. Robbins
March/April 2006 Mother Jones

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.

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 dangerous occupations in America.

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