For tradition-rich halibut fisherman, the future looks prosperous
Some of Seattle's halibut crews still use century-old schooners to fish in Alaskan waters. And thanks to far-reaching reforms put in place 15 years ago, the fishery is far safer and more lucrative than ever.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In 1911, the Tordenskjold, a 75-foot schooner hewed from old-growth fir, left the Ballard docks for a first season of halibut fishing off Alaska.
Back then, sails supplemented the power of a feeble two-cylinder gas engine, and crew fished from small dories that launched over the side into the perilous North Pacific waters.
Today, the Tordenskjold runs on diesel, and the dories are long gone. But this boat still heads north each spring to join in a halibut harvest that over the past century has helped establish Ballard as a hub of the North American fishing industry.
Early Wednesday, as the Tordenskjold prepared for a 99th season, the boat mustered in formation with six other fishing schooners for a rare fleet parade through Lake Union, the Ballard Locks and out into Puget Sound. The occasion was a video documentary commissioned by the Fishing Vessel Owners Association and a fishermen's union that will chronicle the history of the fleet.
"I don't think I have ever seen all the boats together like this," said Marvin Gjerde, the 61-year-old skipper of the Tordenskjold. "We usually head off to Alaska one or two at a time, and once we leave town everyone is on their own."
These schooners — despite their age — are some of the top-grossing boats in the North Pacific commercial halibut harvest. This year's U.S. catch will likely be worth about $160 million, with Washington fishermen, largely based in Puget Sound, expected to claim nearly 30 percent of the fish.
The value of the halibut catch is more than triple that of a few decades ago and reflects halibut's transformation from a blue-collar staple to a pricey seafood that retails for more — often far more — than $10 a pound. The harvests also have undergone a radical transformation from a pressure-packed derby to a system of individual catch shares that some see as a 21st-century blueprint for reforming other troubled U.S. fisheries.
"From Florida to Alaska, catch-share programs help fishing communities provide good jobs while rebuilding and sustaining healthy fisheries," said Jane Lubchenco, a U.S. Commerce Department undersecretary.
Gjerde claims his shares with the help of a five-man crew. In a grinding season that stretches from April through early September, Gjerde and each of his crew often make more than $100,000.
"Sometime around January I always start going a little crazy waiting for the season to start and come down and look at the boat," said Pat Galligan, a stout 56-year-old fisherman from Aberdeen who has fished aboard the vessel for more than two decades. "I come down and look at the boat, then come home, and then go look at boat again. I don't know — it's a sickness. But I can't imagine doing anything else."
They fish for halibut, as well as black cod, with long-line boats that dangle thousands of baited hooks anchored along the sea bottom. Today, hydraulics provide the power to pull in the anchor or lift a 900-foot line off the bottom.
But the crews still use plenty of muscle as they bring in halibut that occasionally top 200 pounds. The crews gaff the fish, hoist them aboard, subdue them with clubs and gut the carcasses.
When the Tordenskjold was first used to fish halibut, booming Ballard was full of Scandinavian immigrants who found work in shingle mills and shipyards or on fishing fleets that explored the rich waters off Alaska.
Gjerde's father, Bernt, came from Norway in 1924. He fished for herring and helped pioneer the early king-crab harvests in the Gulf of Alaska. As a teenager, Marvin Gjerde sampled salmon fishing and crabbing on his father's boat, The Foremost. When the boat burned and sank in 1969, Gjerde then opted to try halibut fishing.
He eventually earned enough money to buy his own vessel. Rather than buy a pricey new steel-hulled boat, he purchased the Tordenskjold in 1979.
The Tordenskjold and other schooners have slender hulls that help them cut through the waves. But the vessels also are notorious for rolling in the seas. "They definitely lean a bit, but they always come back up," said Gjerde, who in the past occasionally hoisted a sail to increase stability in bad weather.
When Gjerde bought the Tordenskjold, the harvest was still open to anyone who bought a commercial-fishing license. He would fish hard and fast until the entire fleet reached an overall harvest total set by an international commission.
The harvest cap was set low enough to prevent the halibut resource from being depleted. But a healthy resource did not always yield a healthy fishery.
By the early 1990s, the Alaska halibut harvest was in disarray as thousands of vessels — large and small — rushed to grab a share of the catch. Openings that once stretched for weeks or months had dwindled down to chaotic 24-hour dashes for the fish.
And boats — often overloaded with fish — sank in rough seas. Between 1991 and 1994, 15 fishermen lost their lives in these brief openings.
In 1995, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal group with appointees drawn largely from the industry, imposed radical reforms. For the first time, vessel owners would receive quota shares for halibut and black cod that could be fished each year or sold for what the market would bear.
Crew members were not awarded shares.
Critics decried the quota system as an inequitable privatizing of a public resource. They said it would shut newcomers out of the fishery, or take away dollars the government might have earned by leasing out rather than giving away fishing rights.
Others said the quota shares were a just reward for years spent fishing for halibut and would give the remaining vessel owners the opportunity to fish in a safer, more leisurely fashion and produce a higher-quality product.
A federal study showed that fishery safety improved greatly under the new system. Fish quality also improved as crews took more time to clean, dress and then quickly ice the catch. Prices rose as fish moved onto the market over a period of months rather than swamping buyers after a short season.
Gjerde and other schooner skippers were big winners. Today, most schooner skippers hold shares of black cod and halibut worth $2 million to $6 million, according to industry officials.
But there is a limited market for these shares. Most shares can only be sold to other qualified fishermen. These rules were crafted to keep the shares out of the hands of investors with no connection to the fishery.
Even heirs of fishermen can't hold onto the shares unless they, too, venture out to sea. That means that Gjerde's two children, a daughter who works as a paralegal and another daughter now raising children, couldn't keep the shares without a big change in lifestyle.
Sooner or later, Gjerde expects to quit the Tordenskjold.
"I think about it quite a bit. But I don't know just what I would do," Gjerde said. "I've been doing this for so many years. The idea of retirement is kind of a tough one."
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org