Mosquito Fleet

The message was plain. "Help Save the Little Boats." It was written on a banner and hung in the rigging of a moldy, aged fishing vessel named the Stampede.I had just crawled out of my bunk, smelling of crab bait, socks moist on my feet, eyes red and itchy, and there it was. A call to rally, regroup, take stock of our collective situation -- the first reassurance that small boat fisherman won't fade away in hopeless apathy. Not only did the skipper of the Stampede feel the same as me, he was doing something besides shaking his head and reaching for another beer."The big boats are trying to beat us out of the boat fishery," the skipper tells me, warming up his sense of indignation amid a load of iced tuna fish. "Here we are, trying to make a living. We fish with hooks and lines. We don't destroy the resources. The big boats come along and drag the bottom. They have these nets. Special ones, called roller nets. They drag along the ocean bottom, tearing up the reefs, trashing the breeding grounds. And whose quota gets cut? Ours, the little boat's. I'm about the only one who's lobbying, speaking out."The future of the small boats is not a pretty picture. They are under fire from problems that have roots in an unattractive past. Everything about fishing is messy: the work, the prices, the politics. Commercial fishing has never had a clear sense of right and wrong, a fair way of managing the scramble for resources, or a way of keeping fishermen from hurting themselves and each other. "Take three fisherman, and no two of them will stay together," Jim Allen the fishing vessel Marrae likes to say. "They all end up cutting each other's throats.""May the best man win" is an idea deeply ingrained in the fishing mind, and the spirit of the old rivermen is alive today. It comes out as crab fever during the fast-paced, exhausting and dangerous winter crab season and the five-day black cod opener in August. It is an incredibly lucrative time, and fisherman approach it prepared to work around the clock. "You'll get plenty of sleep when you're dead," was how John Wagner on the Jo Marie put it. It is an aggressive spirit like John's that drives these "highliners" to wealth.More money means bigger boats that can fish tougher weather, stay at sea for long periods of time and land most of the fish. This translates to capital reserves and political clout. When they have a boom season, they cash in for incredible returns, and one or two poor seasons doesn't devastate them. Meanwhile, no one from the mosquito fleet has enough money to pay attention as they struggle from one season to the next. On political levels far above them, in rooms full of big players, legislation is pushed through, and it hardly ever works to the advantage of smaller boats. New safety regulations, required equipment, reduced quotas and closed seasons hit them the hardest. All the big boats have to do is wait.Recently, small crab fisherman have accused the big boats of orchestrating environmental finger-pointing. Many say that the big players are behind a recent drive to shut down the summer season. Summer crabbers grumble that a pretext -- high crab mortality rates -- is being used to put them out of business. Traditionally, small crabbing has been a small boat fishery, because the large boats have no way of profiting from the limited summer markets. The small boat operators defend their turf with angry words, pointing out that the claims of high mortality rates have not been substantiated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. They say it is a direct attempt to eliminate competition and that the large boat operators are the ones responsible for killing crabs and decimating breeding grounds with their drag nets.Cannibalization by large, well-heeled boats is only one problem facing the mosquito fleet. Walked along the docks of most harbors and you'll see empty stalls on all sides. A few boats pulled listlessly against their mooring ropes. Empty cabins. For Sale signs. Not many years ago, the harbors swarmed with trolling boats. The few that remain must contend with a new enemy, one which has come on the scene in only the past few years: salmon farms. These highly efficient enterprises have undercut the fisherman's market. Even thought farmed salmon is poor in flavor when compared to the wild fish, it can be harvested anytime and the cheap reliability makes it attractive to retailers. Troll-caught fish has become devalued to the point where it is no longer worth the fatigue, diesel, boat payments or the abuse from the hard weather. So the salmon fishermen tie the boat up.The biggest enemy of all is despair. There is a very real feeling of helplessness among the men and women of the mosquito fleet. They are isolated from the political process that hands down the sentences of reduced quotas, shortened seasons and closed seasons. They are powerless in the market that ties their hands. If they are to survive, they must keep fishing, no matter how ridiculously low the price at the fish plants.Which is why I am glad to see that banner on the Stampede. I'd hate to stand by and watch the mosquito fleet die off. Their boats are small. They have the least technology and are closest to the weather, the breakers and everything that makes fishing the dirty, depressing, exhilarating way of life that it is. I would be disappointed to see it become an industry limited to fish farms and a few giant boats sweeping the sea like high-tech vacuum cleaners. Let me elaborate. I wouldn't just be disappointed. I would be in despair. And I'd have a lot of company.Bret Yager is a commercial fisherman and free-lance writer and photographer living on the central Oregon Coast.

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