Hooked: A Fisherman's Life Story
Story by Brynne Berriman, photos by Damon Call
Jeremy Brown stands tall with a strong face and inviting sky blue eyes. His messy white-and-gold goatee hides his smile, while his black puffy Jansport jacket, waterproof pants, hiking boots and beanie keep his stocky frame warm. Twenty-seven years of commercial fishing have left sun spots on Brown's cream-colored face and crow's feet near his eyes. His proper English accent seems incredibly out of place on the docks of the Bellingham harbor.
Brown's 4-year-old boat stretches 55 feet long and glistens in the sunshine with a new coat of white and forest green paint. Brown named his boat "The Barcarole" because of his love for the Italian aria, which literally translated means "fisherman's song."
"I love opera music," Brown said. "I sing when no one's around because if anyone ever heard me they would realize I really can't sing worth a damn."
Brown is one of the 332 registered commercial fishermen in Whatcom County preparing for the upcoming season of fishing in the gulf of southeast Alaska. According to a recently published article in the Alaska Journal of Commerce, the salmon harvest of 2007 produced 212 million fish, making it the fourth largest catch on record.
"Commercial fishing in Alaska brings hundreds of thousands of dollars to the county every year," Brown says. "Alaska has the best managed fisheries in the world; it's no surprise why so many people fish there."
The commercial fisherman occupation is not one's typical day in the office, Brown says. He says he has begun preparing for his upcoming 2008 season of salmon fishing starting in May and ending in late September.
"To prepare for the fishing season and to prevent crises during the season, I have a lot of different tasks to complete," Brown says. "Whether it's physically painting over the boat, fixing the engine or replacing the gear, or the business aspect; looking at the various fish quotas, how the fisheries will be run and boat routes."
Brown says the commercial industry is highly regulated in Alaska. Regulations include obtaining the appropriate permits, life jackets, flares and the type of gear.
Although there are many different species of fish and techniques for catching them, Brown primarily commercial fishes for king salmon by a procedure called trolling.
"In trolling you put your gear in the water and you drive around slowly looking for hot spots," Brown says. "If you get a bite, you haul the fish in, stun the fish in the water, clean them and ice them right away."
Trolling resembles sport fishing with a thick fishing line, bright colored bait and hooks. Brown says the hooks he uses vary depending on the time of year and type of species a fisherman is trying to catch. Most trolling boats have six fishing lines running at the same time to strengthen the odds of a catch.
Brown fishes mostly by himself, but sometimes takes a shipmate or his dog to keep him company. He says his days typically begin at 3 a.m. with coffee cup in hand.
"I couldn't fish without coffee and chocolate," Brown says. "The two go together well, but I won't tap into the chocolate 'til 10 a.m."
Brown says he spends the entire day driving around looking for fish. He says if the boat is in the wrong area, he will pull up the gear and move somewhere else, but when it's busy, he will camp out on deck until all the fish are caught which can last several hours without a break.
After a long day of trolling, Brown either drifts or anchors for the night. Every five days Brown heads to town to unload fish and then returns to the water.
The trolling fishing technique is used to keep fish better preserved, by catching each fish by hook rather than in a large net. As a result, fish caught by trolling are sold at a higher market price for consumers.
Brown sells his fish primarily to exclusive restaurants in Bellingham Brown sells his fish primarily to exclusive restaurants in Bellingham including Nimbus, Fool's Onion, Anthony's Homeport and Hearthfire Grill.
Brown says he has seen a drastic increase of demand for salmon from private and public customers due to the use of salmon in television cooking shows.
"Salmon and Omega-3 are hot right now," Brown says. "People are finally realizing that salmon is incredibly good for you."
Pascal LeGuilly went fishing in Alaska for the first time with Brown in 2005. He says the experience was unforgettable.
"There is no one more fun and friendly to go fishing with than Brown," LeGuilly says. "He's the best. He likes an adventure, a place he has not yet explored."
In addition to salmon fishing, Brown also fishes for black cod and halibut on a different boat during the year.
Brown says this boat uses a different strategy to catch fish called long line. Long line fishing is a complex process that involves floating buoys with light anchors attached to them. The anchors stretch baited hooks across the ocean floor for up to five miles, and after an allotted amount of time, a boat will return to pick up its catch.
Brown says people often underestimate the physical and mental strength required as a commercial fisherman.
"You have to be in really good shape," Brown says. "You have to be able to keep up with the fast pace atmosphere and be able to sustain the demanding hours."
Brown says the only thing he truly dislikes about fishing besides the days with bad weather is the political nature of the resource industry.
"We're constantly being attacked by small fishing interest groups and preservation interest groups," Brown says. "It's extremely frustrating to hear lies distributed to the public about negative implications of eating fish and the fishing industry."
Because of the constant scrutiny from various interest groups, Brown has become actively involved with many different fishing organizations at a government and public level. He hopes to find a national voice for commercial fishing by promoting the positive benefits of fishing and the ideal of connecting communities through the "slow food" movement.
"What we're doing is providing the only authentic food left on the planet," Brown says. "Fishing is the only industry left that's not genetically modified, or grown. It's important that through the 'slow food' movement we keep the industry for the future by presenting the case of real food to the public."
When Brown isn't fishing or traveling to fishing conferences around the country, Brown enjoys the many outdoor activities he can participate in while living in Bellingham.
Brown says he will never grow old of the adventures, voyages and quests to Southeast Alaska. He says he will continue to fish until he retires because fishing is his life, and if he didn't have fishing he would have to find a real job.