Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lost at Sea



I recently reread Patrick Dillon's Lost At Sea, which was written in the late 1990's. It tells the story of Anacortes, Washington fishermen who were crabbing in the Bering Sea in the early and mid 1980's.  This was a time when the US fishing industry lost between 85 and 145 men a year on dozens of boats.  This was also before the time of safety standards and Captain's licenses for vessels under 200 tons.  These stories eventually inspired cable TV's Deadliest Catch.

The later part of the book follows the 8 to 10 year effort to get safety laws through Congress. Also of great interest is a terrifying chapter where Patrick Dillon tells the tale of his own research trip as a cook/deckhand on a crabber for several weeks.

Fishing has always been one of the most dangerous occupations.  Diminishing catches forced much bigger investments and sailing into more dangerous waters.  The Olympic Quota System which causes a race for fish over a very short fixed period drives fisherman to go out in the worst weather to recoup their massive investments in equipment.  The book shows how deadly the dwindling fish stocks combined with unregulated commercialization turned out to be.

Another good book is Kim Bartlett's  The Finest Kind: The Fishermen of Gloucester.  This focuses on the Massachusetts fishing industry in the 1970's on the cusp of large scale commercialization.

Having recently passed the Captain's exam, it is astonishing that most of what I was required to know was not a requirement for "professionals" spending thousands of days in worst seas in the world until the 1990s.  While the Coast Guard exams require study, they do seem like the minimum amount of knowledge a seafarer would need for those conditions.

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