Before you feel sorry for anybody in this story, meet Jared Bright. And remember your first impression, because he's eventully going to call himself a>"/>
Before you feel sorry for anybody in this story, meet Jared Bright. And remember your first impression, because he's eventully going to call himself a serf. For the moment, he's just a guy you're about to get jealous of. That's because he's 38 years old, and industry sources say he's worth about $2 million.
Between his ordinary upbringing in Ketchikan, Alaska, and the day Bright invested in his fishing boat, there was no winning lottery ticket, no trust fund. He's just a fisherman; been one for 21 years. And lucky for him, he happens to be good at it. If he can keep the bearded men in the embroidered shirts out of his game, he's going to be even better.
But before we get into the bearded men, get rid of the image of the Gorton's fisherman. Forget the fish sticks, the wooden captain's wheel, and that wholesome picture of the guy on the yellow box. Instead, put yourself on one side of the Whole Foods fish counter, a chunk of halibut in the middle—price tag: $28 a pound—and think of Bright as the guy on the other side, the guy who's going to get it to you. Think six feet two inches of lean muscle, pierced ears, and an auburn mug and sideburns, dressed in black North Face and talking like 10 cups of coffee while texting on a smartphone.
This is your fisherman. You are as likely to see him driving around West Seattle in his Smart Car as out on the open ocean. And if you thought The Deadliest Catch was wild, the game he plays to bring you this latest item in white-tablecloth seafood is even weirder.
There's no captain's wheel in this industry. Hasn't been in a while, if there ever really was. The oddball universe that is halibut fishing, a fish that two decades ago cost $3.99 a pound and came in a hideous frozen brick, is more a game of floating Monopoly.
Guys like Jared Bright vie for control of the industry's lower rungs, the only rungs that seem to be left. Simply put, they're renters. They don't own the halibut, not even when it lands in their boats. The fish are instead the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right time to get a stake.
Their ownership rights came courtesy of the federal government. At the time, it was a good idea. In ways, it still is. But it's created what amounts to a feudal system over a natural resource.
It's a system, called catch shares, that the government and environmental groups will tell you is the best thing to happen to fish since catch limits. But fishermen in the halibut and black-cod industry—the first in the country to live with the bizarre realities of these new policies—have weathered its real consequences, outcomes that fly in the face of more official, rosy portrayals. Outcomes like absentee landlords, brokers and bankers, fish quota that costs more than your house, and a new generation of people cluttering their hulls, demanding sandwiches.
It's getting hard for young fishermen like Bright to stay in this game. Those who try, though, are bettering their odds with a few comfy amenities, bait for a different kind of big fish: owners. Big-screen TVs, staterooms, hot tubs, saunas, and a super-sweet DVD collection are all things that could potentially shift their odds.
Meet America's newest sharecroppers.
Halibut is a tough business. As fishing goes, it's child's play, but it makes the typical 40 hours of desk jockeying look like a spa retreat.
Halibut is mostly caught in that great swath of frigid water east of Canada and in the Gulf of Alaska. Some halibut—the tough-to-find kind—is fished farther west in the Aleutian Islands and north on the Bering Sea, the roughest, meanest place man ever leaned over a rail and vomited.
The job of catching the foodie favorite and its companion, black cod, requires a certain kind of mind and body. Both fish are typically caught long-lining, a type of fishing that translates into baiting hundreds of hooks on 9,000-plus feet of line, then hauling in the "strings" of catch. String is a funny word for it, fishing jargon that belies the heft of the haul. At least 1,250 hooks full of fish can sit on each string, and on average each fish weighs about as much as a fifth-grader. But owing to the sheer tedium of standing 18 hours a day baiting hook after hook, fishing halibut lacks the glory to attract its own reality TV show and an ever-present film crew, now accoutrements to the crab industry.
Blake Painter, a 33-year-old fisherman from Oregon, describes halibut season as a thing he grew up loving and now hates. "I dread long-lining season, just because it's so repetitive," he says. These days he wakes up in the morning with his hands clamped closed and pain screaming up to his elbows, an ailment fishermen refer to as "the claw." He needs surgeries for carpal tunnel syndrome, and his shoulders and back have also fared poorly.
Painter grins and shrugs: occupational hazards. Like the time he pitched a hook through his hand, or filleted a finger like a hot-dog roll to escape donating an arm to a gadget known as a crucifier, an injury he contained with a paper towel, black tape, a glove, and more fishing.
But there are good days in fishing. When the water is calm, the sun is shining, and the fish are biting; when whales aren't cleaning your strings like shish kebabs—this is a good business.
"When fishing is good, you're making money quick. It's not uncommon to make $1,000 a day," says Painter. During a particularly good run two years ago, he earned $50,000 in less than 72 hours.
But there's something even he won't do to get those fish: He won't take walk-ons.
Walk-ons are fish owners who walk onto a boat while other fishermen do the fishing. They're a byproduct of the ownership rights birthed in 1995, when the business of making fish into private property was the government's—and environmental groups'—answer to a lot of things that were going wrong in halibut and black cod. Bright was in high school then, back when anybody could get in on fishing it. He got his start as a crewman at 17, fishing halibut.
"What I always liked about fishing was you could make a bunch of money and then go fuck off," says Bright.
But by the time he became a partner in his own boat in 2008, a fiberglass Delta aptly named The Obsession, those days were over. The federal program intended to make halibut and black cod more valuable, safer to fish, and spare it from inevitable extinction had taken hold. In what was blandly dubbed the Individual Fishing Quota Halibut and Sablefish Program—or IFQ for short—the feds sized up the fishery, diced it up into pieces like pie, and gave boat owners with a history of fishing it a slice. Those slices are today worth a combined $245 million, and many of the people who received them became, quite literally, instant millionaires. Their wealth is derived from a simple shift of ownership from the public trust to them, accomplished, after years of meetings, with a stack of paper and a few brisk pen strokes. It was a move that created basic inequities in a system that has yet to right itself.
Those owners, the ones who were gifted the shares at the outset of the program's launch, own that fish now—or, more specifically, they own the rights to catch a certain amount each year. The program is designed to make them eventually sell that quota as they get older and stop fishing. And it's intended to land those shares in the hands of young fishermen, as no one is supposed to be able to purchase quota unless they can prove 150 days or more of commercial fishing experience. But the sad truth is that few of those initial quota holders let go of their shares. They're too valuable an asset to sell. And for the next generation—who have to buy quota rather than receive it from the government—catch shares are expensive, an investment on par with buying real estate in a volatile market.
The result is that about half the halibut caught in 2011 was dragged out of the sea by guys who leased quota from these owners. Legally, the first generation of quota owners are allowed to hire a skipper, like Painter or Bright, and lease them the right to fish for their shares. That means whenever Painter and Bright go fishing, they not only provide the boat, pay the crew, and take the risk on the sea—they also pay rent to their fishing landlords, who sit at home and collect a check.
The rent used to be about 50 percent of the value of the fish, worth up to $7.14 a pound at the docks in 2011, to the owner. The deal has earned the owners nicknames like "slipper skippers" and "mailbox fishermen." Greedy as the practice can be, it's permissible, the government's way of making the new program look and act like the old one, in which seasoned fishermen traditionally hired skippers to helm their boats as they aged out.
Yet as the quota era of fishing has taken hold, the stealthier and more opportunistic practice of walking on has become a trend that stalks a fine line of legality. Those who bought quota after January 1995 aren't allowed to lease. They are supposed to sell as they retire instead, encouraged to do so by a "boots on deck" rule that says they have to be on the boat while their quota is fished, unless they own the boat, or at least 20 percent of it. The idea was to transition the fishery away from leasing over time. But while the goal of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council—one of eight regional councils the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses to implement fish management—was that quota owners actively participate in fishing their quota, they set no requirement that those owners actually lay their hands on fishing gear. That loophole let a leasing culture sink deep hooks into the halibut fishery.
There are a few exceptions. Some walk-ons still fish alongside their skippers and crew. Others are young crewmen who buy quota as a guarantee of finding work, or bought a little but can't afford a boat. And some are fishing widows. But the remainder are visitors, industry retirees, tourists, or investors. They don't fish. They simply walk on the boat, climb below deck, and entertain themselves while others do the work.
"This last fella that I leased, he was in his 80s," says Painter. "He would come on board, read four or five books and watch movies, and that was about it. He doesn't come outside."
But the lure of catching someone else's quota hasn't been enough for Painter to stay in the walk-on business. "When I'm catching somebody's fish for, say 40 percent, and we've got a fairly good-sized, comfortable boat, good equipment, good food . . . it's hard for them to stay with me at 40," he says, because other skippers are constantly offering to catch fish at lower rates. The pressure of a declining cut caused Painter to concentrate on gray cod, only fishing his father's quota, and leaving the business of walk-ons to guys like Jared Bright.
Bright makes the bulk of his money in other fisheries—a diehard who rarely takes time off, he participates in six of them—but he fishes halibut and black cod between shorter seasons for favorites like salmon and gray cod, where fishing is still a sport, there's no landlord, and being good at it is directly tied to his earnings.
"Halibut and black-cod fishing is sharecropping," he says, explaining why it's only a sideshow in his fishing repertoire. When he does fish halibut and black cod, he fishes walk-ons.
"If you talk to enough people, you're going to run into a lot of stories about guys laying in their bunk doing absolutely nothing. And that's just, I mean, it's just the way it is. This guy owns quota, he comes out, he lays in his bunk. You're out there working, and he opens the galley door and says, 'Hey, will you come in and make me a sandwich?' " Bright says. "It is frustrating, I guess, if you let it get to you."
He did once, then quit. But it was November, at the end of the season. And by the time the next one started he was back to fishing walk-ons again, and right in time to compete with those guys in embroidered shirts.
Mostly unknown in the states outside Alaska and Oregon, the Old Believers are a sea-savvy religious sect that lives in four unique communities around Homer, Alaska. They are also an easy population to spot: colorful embroidery is a hallmark of their culture.
You can see them Sundays, beautifully adorned in garments stitched by matriarchs. The women wear long dresses. Men don't shave their beards. When those men take to the seas, though, they do it in the same no-nonsense rain gear that dominates the decks of the gulf. And lately, they've become a powerful force in the long-lining industry.
Old Believers are descendants of the religiously persecuted. Their forebears broke away from the former Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, refusing to accept reforms meant to realign it with the more modern Greek church. They fled to northern Russia and Siberia to escape punishments for resistance that included being imprisoned and burned alive. Though formally welcomed back to Russian society in 1905, many eventually fled to China during the Russian Revolution to escape military duty and food shortages. By the 1950s, communism put them on the move again. Many laid down roots in Brazil. Others later landed in secluded communities on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1960s, where their observation of some 40 holidays a year has since kept them out of regular jobs and steered them into the fishing and boat-building businesses.
That's true for Nicholas Yakunin, who has fished for 42 years. His own life has cut a path that traces the history of his people. The 57-year-old was born in China, immigrated to Brazil as an infant, then moved to Alaska's Nikolaevsk community at 14. With a lyrical Russian accent, he describes how his first forays on the ocean started a year later when he and his brother built their own boat, then learned to read nautical charts by drifting away from shore and reconciling the lines with what they found.
"At first the idea was to try to live a subsistence type of life," says Yakunin, who notes Old Believers came to Alaska for the isolation, finding their traditions were too quickly eroded in Brazil. Instead, he says, they found it difficult to raise crops, or even dairy cows. The men tried the canneries and construction for work, and a few landed in a boat-building shop in Homer. They learned the trade, and since then, Old Believers' signature boats have dominated the Homer fleet.
These are the boats now running the Blake Painters of the world out of the walk-on industry.
In the past decades, Old Believers have deftly moved into long-lining, an industry where their geography, skill, and traditions have combined to make them nearly unbeatable in competition for walk-ons and leases. Their business model, often running family-centric fishing operations that rely more on kinship than wages to attract crew, is one that for several years has allowed them to undercut the 50-50 lease rate pursued by the likes of Jared Bright. Their boat-building skills also eliminate boat mortgages, and their typically small boats consume less fuel. They also benefit from simple proximity: They are closer to the Gulf of Alaska than much of their competition.
The result? Old Believers pay rents as high as 75 percent to quota owners. They're still able to make money, sometimes inching up profits by involving sons and nephews, brothers and cousins—crew that can work for less.
"There's some degree of prejudice against them because they can pay their son less than the boat that's parked next door that is not a family operation and actually has to hire someone," says Doug Bowen, who brokers quota and permits at Alaska Boats & Permits in Homer.
Yakunin, who typically pays about 65 percent rent to quota owners, says sometimes the rates are so competitive that even he can't compete, given his smallest boat is about 18 feet longer than many. "If you provide the product for less money, people will go there," he calmly reasons.
But mention Old Believers to other skippers and crew, and they get feisty very quickly.
"Why are the Russians fishing for 25 percent? Why would you do that?" wonders Bright. In 21 years of fishing, his business was built on hard work and handshakes, on a reputation for catching fish, for coming home safe, and for never having burned anybody along the way. This race to the bottom in pricing negates that. He's bothered by the undercutting, greed, and calls to his walk-ons from other skippers, offering to do more for less. It hurts everyone, he says. He doesn't believe the argument that quota owners would catch fish for themselves if they can't find someone to catch it cheap.
As fishermen grope for an edge on the Old Believers, some sell their speed, professionalism, and safety features to keep lease rates up. Increasingly, though, they also tout luxury amenities, catering to walk-ons who simply won't fish.
The long-lining season starts in March, a time of year that typically begins with checking lines and hooks in preparation for the tedious job of baiting. But in the past few years, it's also had another opener: the brightly colored fliers that solicit quota owners to walk on, advertising big-screen TVs, massive DVD collections, quality grub, staterooms, showers, saunas, and hot tubs.
Thanks to an online list of quota-share owners, finding them isn't tough. Nearly 80 percent have addresses in Alaska, while the remainder dwell around the U.S.—a substantial chunk of those from Washington state.
Vern Crane, a 38-year-old boat owner from Yakutat, Alaska, says amenities are a lure in hooking such owners, "especially with older people that don't want to sleep in the bunks with a bunch of 21-year-old boys. I try to keep the boat as nice as I can. And that's really all I've got, because I can't beat the Russians' rate."
His 58-foot steel seiner and long-liner, Viking Spirit, has a washer and dryer, and is a member of a Sitka co-op that helps him get top pricing on fish. He lets his walk-ons lounge in the stateroom and, as an avid moose hunter, supplies them with meat they can't get elsewhere.
In Yakutat Bay, it's a business model that works. The bay is sidled up against the town of Yakutat, a former fur-trading and mining outpost inaccessible by road and surrounded by parks and preserves, including Glacier Bay National Park. Nearly a third of Yakutat's 656 current residents have commercial fishing permits. More important to walk-ons, the town also has daily jet service.
That convenience combines with the bay's supremely easy fishing to make Crane's business a high-end, boutique version of long-lining. He can take walk-ons out in a day and get their fish caught by the next.
Crane sometimes brings more than one walk-on aboard at a time, not worrying about the occasionally prickly dynamic that develops below deck.
"I have a few that have bought quota just because they have money, and they are absolutely not fishermen. These guys don't even know how to tie a bowline," says Crane. "I've had a guy tell me, 'Look, I've got a tee time on Wednesday, and I don't want to miss it at the country club, so we need to hurry up and get these fish caught so I can get on the jet and get down there because my golf game starts.' It's really hard to go catch fish and be back exactly when the guy says, with no leeway. It can be tough. And the guys that don't fish for a living are especially a pain about that."
Alexus Kwachka calls these the "downstream effects of baron lordships." His cynicism is hard-earned. A commercial fisherman from Kodiak, Kwachka serves on the advisory panel for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and has watched lease rates climb steadily in a similar program for crab, where the vast majority of wealth has shifted to absentee owners.
"The real story is that you see the inheritors of a public resource that are extracting the rents from the resource. It's unbelievable," he says. While the ownership programs were supposed to make the fishery better, and have in some ways, "What we've done is we've created these barons that are just sitting back, getting these returns on something that they were given," he adds.
Many people still make a business of fishing halibut, says Kwachka, who adds that the push for catch shares, mostly driven by a need to preserve declining fish stocks, isn't all bad. But he thinks policymakers have forgotten to take stock of their negative social impacts, instead touting success stories before hurrying on to remake the next fishery. Egged on by NOAA, which made implementing catch shares a national policy in 2010, and by environmental groups focused primarily on the impacts to fish health, catch shares already control about half of the value of federal fisheries. Another six are being considered nationally, while dozens more fisheries are considered either overfished or have a notably low population, making them ripe for catch-share consideration. Catch shares are also being adopted in state-managed fisheries.
The Environmental Defense Fund, which declined to comment for this story, is the nation's largest supporter of catch shares, pumping millions into research, lobbying, a catch share design center, and an interactive game meant to teach people about the failures of the fishery management tools of old. Other environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy, have since joined that effort, ultimately building a language around catch shares that makes ownership rights synonymous with good stewardship.
Reasoning that fishermen with an ownership stake would logically invest in the health of the fish, they promote ownership rights as naturally leading to healthier conditions, and a stable supply of fish worth more money. The claim that catch shares produce better outcomes for fish has proven true more often than not, and they do lead to a steady, fresh supply of fish. But catch shares benefit one class of fishermen, not all of them. And absentee ownership, high lease rates, and ballooning costs of entry are among the problems that have emerged.
Ecotrust, a nonprofit foundation in Oregon that marries environmental goals with social equity and economic well-being, is among a few agencies urging more attention to the social fallout that follows catch-share programs. "Catch shares have some serious issues that are hard to deal with, but are important to deal with," says Ed Backus, the organization's vice president of fisheries.
In 2010, Ecotrust convened a national expert panel to draft recommendations for how communities could benefit from implementing catch-share systems. A year later, after reviewing every catch share in the nation, the panel's primary recommendation was that NOAA spell out how it would be accountable to fishing communities and revise catch shares if they eroded the tie between those places and their fishing cultures, or led to negative economic effects—something they thought national law required. Ecotrust has also launched its own nonprofit trust to help communities fund quota acquisitions by locally based groups. But speaking about the social inequities of such programs has had its drawbacks in an environmental community that mostly promotes them, especially when the latest head of NOAA is a catch-share proponent and a former board director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Backus says he's been branded a catch-share opponent for urging reforms. Seth Macinko, a former commercial fisherman and now a researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, has studied catch shares for 20 years. He has been similarly criticized for suggesting a rather obvious but unpopular solution: that the government lease fishing rights in federal fisheries, not give them away. "I'm very disappointed that the American environmental movement is either supporting, or just ignoring, the privatization of public resources. I don't think you'd be seeing this if we were talking about privatizing the public parks." The fact that the federal fisheries are supposed to belong to Americans has been lost in catch-share designs, says Kwachka, who adds: "Why the hell did we do this?"
Eighteen years ago, there were several good reasons.
Norm Pillen, a 51-year-old Washingtonian who started fishing halibut in a skiff in 1974, remembers too well when the sea was so jammed with boats and fishermen that the government only opened the halibut season for a day to control the carnage each year.
"It got so crazy," he recalls. "There were so many people doing it and so much gear in the water and so much wastage and so much lost gear. And top of the issue was lost lives. I have many friends that didn't survive those openings over the years. Mostly because when you have a 24-hour opening, you're obligated to go if you wanted to pay for your investment, and guys took a lot of risk."
Dubbed the derby days, a tsunami could have hit the water and fishermen would have still rushed to sea. Pillen remembers his own boat rolling in a derby, the weight of the catch shifting to the side of the boat on rough water, and waves reaching over the bow, smashing windows as crewmen scrambled to move the fish and right the vessel.
The outcome of such a season was similarly hellish. Millions of pounds of fish would land on the dock all at once, piling in totes while processors worked furiously to keep up. The condition of such fish was mostly unappetizing, many poorly preserved by boats that hadn't carried ice, opting to maximize space for catch instead.
"It ended up putting a lot of pretty poor quality product on the market," says Pillen. Halibut hit the stores in frozen and annual spurts, a bottom-barrel fish compared to today's juicy halibut steaks. Fishermen, for their risk, were paid up to 80 cents a pound for it.
Since 1995, the season has been lengthened to more than eight months, allowing fishermen to only go fishing when it's safe. They have time to take better care of the product, boosting the entire industry's value from $150 million in 1995 to $245 million in 2008, the last time anybody checked.
Jared Bright says he doesn't mind being a renter in an economy this robust. He says he has no hard feelings about quota owners, and he means it. Though his cut of every $28 pound of halibut is only 62 cents, his income from halibut and black cod still makes up what most urban land-dwellers would think of as a solid wage.
But Bright is unusual in that he aggressively invested in a boat and gear to capitalize on the most profitable fisheries. His combined income lets him afford a house in Petersburg, Alaska, and a condo in Seattle. He's also an investor in a shipyard—Piston and Rudder Service, Inc., in Petersburg—and in Silver Bay Seafoods, a fishermen-owned seafood processor with facilities in three Alaskan ports. He'll likely inherit quota in the next rationalized fishery: He has an extensive fishing history in gray cod, which is all it will take to earn quota if catch shares ever take hold. And maybe when he's older, he says, he'll live in Arizona and become a walk-on.
Jessie Gharrett is the data manager of the Restricted Access Management program at the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA. RAM manages the halibut and black-cod programs for the federal agency under the oversight of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC).
Among other things, RAM supplies an endless stream of data about the performance of fisheries in the North Pacific. Positive outcomes have included better safety for fishermen, a stabilized market, and rising value of the fish. The economic and social challenges weren't all foreseen, however. In addition to creating the problem with walk-ons, the system has caused some other unintended consequences. Most notably, many rural tribal areas have seen their fishing histories evaporate as quota shares migrate to larger, more affluent fishing towns. Not understanding the challenges of buying them back, tribal members sold quota in lean times and have since been unable to reacquire it. The hired-skipper provision has also been abused by quota owners who fudge their ownership in boats to avoid fishing.
"The reason the council insisted on that is they didn't want landlord tenants, a feudal system," says Gharrett. "They wanted the people who had the quota to materially participate in the fishery. That was the basic intent. They either want the individuals on board, or they want the companies to maintain some kind of capital investment and risk."
The NPFMC has drafted a new rule that requires boat owners to show ownership of at least 20 percent of a boat for 12 months before they're eligible to hire a skipper. It is also pursuing a rule that would disallow hired skippers for any quota acquired after Feb. 12, 2010, taming a trend by initial owners to roll profits into new quota purchases rather than pay capital gains. Councilmember Dan Hull sees this as an even more pressing issue than walk-ons.
"We've had letters and testimony from people who are not only no longer active fishermen, but they have decided that they would use the IFQ program as an investment vehicle for all their other funds," says Hull. "And this person wanted to be able to continue to invest other funds and use the hired-skipper privileges. It