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Pro-trawling propaganda

TJ got featured in a piece in Alaska Dispatch News. It’s a glimpse into what’s going on out there in the wild.

Harvesting flatfish in the Last Frontier
SPONSORED: Meet the fleet that powers Southwest Alaska
Author: Presented by Groundfish Forum Published January 26

Docked in Seattle a few days after Thanksgiving, the F/T Constellation is still filled with the smell of coastal Alaska waters; briny ocean and fresh fish. It wafts up from the lower levels and covers the deck. The vessel has been scrubbed and scoured, but the aroma is impossible to shake.
The 165-foot vessel spent the better part of 2016 trawling the Bering Sea. For months, it carried several dozen crewmembers, decks full of equipment and freezers full of fresh seafood. It motored in and out of Dutch Harbor, the fishing capital of the Aleutian Island chain. While it’ll spend the early winter in Seattle, the break is brief—the vessel heads north again each year when the fishing season resumes in January.

Built in Louisiana and based in Washington, the Constellation is crewed by men from all over the world. But it’s also distinctly Alaskan; part of a hardy fleet fueling local economies throughout the Southwest.

In Alaska, nobody catches more fish than the Groundfish fleet. As a whole, it harvests billions of pounds of seafood annually. A subsection of that fleet — that harvests flatfish, rockfish and cod with trawl catcher processors — is governed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Amendment 80 (A80).

Capt. TJ Durnan’s been a member of that fleet for years.
“There’s a lot of opportunity there for everybody,” said Durnan, the Constellation’s longtime skipper. “If you’re able to do the work, you can be very successful. It’s a good thing.”
Like most of the men who work on Alaska’s A80 groundfish fleet, Durnan came from somewhere else—Illinois, to be exact. He grew up on Lake Michigan, and spent a year sailing the Caribbean with his father in lieu of college. In 1991, fresh out of high school, he found himself in Dutch Harbor, working aboard a crab barge for around $5 an hour. By the age of 23, he had his first job on a trawler. By 25, he had his mate’s licence. By 26, he was working as a mate on a 225-foot pollock trawler, and in 2002, he took a job aboard the Constellation.
The catcher-processor spends the majority of each year harvesting species of sole and flounder throughout the Bering Sea. The entire Alaska A80 fleet is relatively small—represented by six companies operating 18 vessels—but its impact is profound.

By value, the Dutch Harbor port comes in second only to New Bedford, Massachusetts, according to the 2015 fisheries statistics released by the National Marine Fisheries Service. By volume, Dutch Harbor is the top port in the nation: In 2015, it landed 787 million pounds of seafood with a value of around $218 million. Those numbers have a deep effect on the local community.
“The fishing industry is our only industry here, basically, and the groundfish sector is the largest part because of the volume,” said Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty. “It’s definitely our strength, and makes Unalaska one of the stronger communities in the state.”
Taxes paid by the fleet fund nearly 50 percent of Unalaska’s annual city budget, Kelty said, and the various fishing companies that operate out of the port pay millions in annual property taxes. Money paid by the A80 fishing corporations fund Unalaska schools, the health clinic and other public services.
“The other large part of that is the amount of business (fishing companies) do in town,” the mayor said. “You have to think about the trickle-down effect.”
During port calls, vessels and their crews do business with local longshoreman, fuel companies, boat repair businesses and machinery companies, grocers and the Alaska Ship Supply store. At North Pacific Fuel, up to 90 percent of business comes from the region’s groundfish fleet. The company’s employees come from as far away as the Philippines. Like Durnan on the Constellation, many of them have worked in Dutch Harbor’s fishery for years.
Kelty himself came to town in the 1970s, and spent decades working in Alaska’s blooming seafood industry. Dutch Harbor’s had an international feel for as long as he can remember: It was once dubbed “North Seattle,” Kelty said. People still come to the fishery from all over the world—Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands and beyond—not everything has stayed the same.
“It’s a whole different community now,” Kelty said. “When I first started here, we were going through the crab boom.”
Then the local crab industry temporarily collapsed. When the first local groundfish plant came online in the mid-1980s, it more than made up for the plunge in the crab business, Kelty said. As the years went by, he watched the development of Dutch Harbor and the steady evolution of the groundfish fleet.
In 2008 A80 fishery operation and management practices were overhauled, focusing on habitat protection and bycatch reduction. Modern management eliminates the competitive race to catch the most fish, dramatically reducing the number of halibut bycatch. Additionally, modified fishing gear has helped A80 trawlers reduce contact with the ocean floor, while specially designed excluders allow halibut to escape while other flatfish species continue into the nets.

Improved monitoring and enforcement efforts, like onboard cameras, federal fishery observers and daily logs contribute to overall bycatch reduction. While unusable fish once comprised as much as 50 percent of a vessel’s catch, they now make up less than five percent. Halibut bycatch totals less than one percent.
“Twenty years ago, our fishery was very wasteful, said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, an industry trade association. But since the A80 program our fishery is much more targeted —  we keep and sell 95 percent of our catch.”
On board the Constellation, bycatch remains a constant concern. Any halibut caught in the nets must be discarded.
“Day to day, we feel like we’re under immense pressure at all times to avoid halibut,” Durnan said. “I can’t tell you how many times we leave good fishing because the halibut rate is too high.”
Avoiding halibut takes time and work, but it’s paying off: Halibut bycatch is now at its lowest level since the 1970s, when the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act successfully Americanized the U.S. fishing industry.
Second only to the state’s salmon fisheries, Alaska groundfish provide more harvesting jobs than any other fishery, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

While other fisheries provide employment for half of the year or less, the A80 season extends from January to November, with peak employment in February, March and September. More than 60 people found jobs aboard the Constellation in 2016, Durnan said.
“I think a lot of the people like the work and the freedom of it, but these guys can make a lot more money here in a short time than they could in a job on shore,” Durnan said.
People without the skills or work history to make a living in another industry can provide for their families by working for Alaska’s A80 fleet. Other people do it for the lifestyle it enables. For several consecutive months every year, when he’s not working aboard the Constellation, Durnan lives with his wife on a sailboat currently anchored somewhere in Europe.
“I get more quality time at home than anyone I know,” he said, smiling from the bridge of the Constellation. “That’s why I do this—for the freedom it affords.”

Prison with a chance of drowning?

After nearly a decade with TJ I figured it was time to go for a trip with him on the Constellation. She is a 170′ Bering Sea fishing boat.
I was excited and anxious at the same time. Mostly I was concerned about getting seasick, while he was mostly concerned about getting me on the boat in one piece. Tate the mate was supposed to get back to the boat around the same time, and TJ was hoping he would fly up with me so he could be my chaperon. Really? I asked him. Well, he said, I know you can handle yourself, but… think of it as being in Colombia, only colder. It is the wild North! In any case, if you ever need a chaperon I can recommend Tate. He’s 6’7″ and looks a bit scary when he is tired or in a bad mood. Very handy around wild Northerners.


Apparently it was either wearing sackcloth and ashes or having a chaperon. Which, thinking about it, I haven’t had since I was about 8 years old. However, I like Tate, so I was happy when he agreed to return to the boat with me and even invited me to his house a couple of days early. I was eager to escape the South Carolina heat.
We left Seattle for Anchorage on the 6.10 am flight on Tuesday, June 22. In Anchorage we had just a few minutes to catch our flight to Dutch Harbor. Luckily PenAir recently started flying bigger planes up there and not the little hoppers. Bigger as in 45 seats. Flying into Dutch was spectacular. Suddenly the plane makes a sharp turn in between two mountain ranges. We were almost on the ground when a gust hit us and we were bouncing up again. I thought to myself wow, what must it be like to fly in here in the winter?
The Constellation wasn’t expected until about 9 pm, so Tate and I went sightseeing. Despite the fact that he said it was going to take about 10 minutes we managed to kill a few hours. That was mostly because I got all excited to see eagles for the first time and he had to stop for every single one of them so I could take a picture.




Finally we found ourselves at the dock, watching the boat come in.


It was great to see TJ again after 2 months, but there’s always a lot of hustle and bustle in Dutch, so mostly I tried not to be in the way and make myself at home. We did a touch-and-go at the dock, then went to unload at the tramper.
The tramper sits there and has boats unload their fish to it until they are full. Those ships hold about 5000 tons. Once full they take their load either to Japan, China, Korea or Thailand.
We were done unloading in the morning, then pulled back to the dock to get fuel and run errands. The coolest part about the unloading are the eagles. They show up on the boat to pick pieces of fish out of the net, and there can be loads of them!










The Constellation holds 50 000 gallons, so fueling up isn’t done in a heartbeat like on the sailboat. In the late afternoon we were all done and on our merry way to the fishing grounds.


The weather had been gorgeous, sunny and warm, but out at sea I didn’t get so lucky. For about two days it blew sustained 30 knots with gusts up to 48 knots. The seas ran about 10′. Good enough to make me sick. However, I had sworn to myself that I wasn’t going to embarrass myself in front of a bunch of tough guys, and I’m happy to report I didn’t. Initially I used one of those behind the ear patches, but I got sick anyways, so I took some Dramamine. I was pretty groggy due to that, and TJ tried to send me to bed a few times, but I didn’t want to wake up Tate. The captain and the mate share a room, and Tate was sleeping at the time. When finally I could barely keep upright in the chair I caved and snuck into the room. Tate didn’t wake up and didn’t acknowledge my presence until it was time for him to get up and he accidentally sat on me.

On that note, the human interaction on the Constellation was nothing like I envisioned. If you have ever watched Deadliest Catch it seems like those guys are rough, they are very harsh with each other, there’s always lots of screaming and no kindness whatsoever. I encountered none of that. The tone was always polite and I even discovered that these guys have a soft side!


I asked TJ if those bath sponges belonged to the observers and he laughed and said no, those belong to the crew. I’m not even getting into the discussions about lotion and exfoliating…

I had some trouble adjusting to my spectator role (even though on the official crew list TJ labeled me ‘photo journalist’). I would point out to him that there was traffic, or gear in the water. He would smile and point at the 18 monitors he was sitting behind. (Note: after being on this boat I would even more strongly recommend having an AIS that receives AND transmits – most boats are transmitting up there and the ones who don’t are basically a hazard to navigation!). I gave up on that after two days or so.

Finally it went flat calm out. The Bering Sea was like a lake. I didn’t think it was capable of that, but I enjoyed it. I made it a sport to trick the seagulls into holding still just long enough for me to take pictures.




This one seemed almost embarrassed!



We fished for two days, then Jerzy, the chief engineer, discovered that there was a problem with one of the main engines. He couldn’t find the problem, so TJ turned the boat around and back to Dutch we went. Luckily the CAT mechanic came down right away and got the problem under control and finally fixed while the crew did a partial offload. It turned out to be an electrical problem between the control computer and one cylinder.
We spent about a half day in Dutch. Again the weather was beautiful. It was foggy when we came in that morning. Visibility was reduced to about 200′, and watching TJ maneuver that huge 170′ boat in basically no visibility on one engine was impressive. When the fog finally started to clear it was spectacular. I spent some time wandering around and taking pictures.








While we waited for the mechanic to finish up we saw a sailboat pull in. That’s a rare sight up there, so TJ and I decided to go and say hello. It was an Italian boat which had just arrived from Japan. We invited them over so they could use the Constellation’s internet to check their email. Since we are sailors we can appreciate how nice it is to get back to land and be able to have access to modern technology. TJ gave them a brief tour of the boat and they were duly impressed and uuuh’ed and aah’ed a lot. One of the guys was Japanese and he excused himself, saying he had to make an urgent phone call. Apparently Japan is trying to put together a team for the America’s Cup and he was supposed to be on it. Way cool!


We left again in the late afternoon. The weather was kind to me this time, and I started feeling a bit more comfortable around the boat and the crew. According to my inside sources guys aren’t as relaxed and behave differently when there are girls around (especially the captain’s wife). I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I mostly stuck to myself with a few exceptions. Joe the factory foreman flew up to Dutch with us, and he is super easy going and really nice so I had one friend already. Carl the cook was nice enough to make sure I always had something paleo to eat and was happy enough to chat, which was always fun. He did, however, put out such a spread that I secretly suspect he tried to make me gain 5 pounds.




I managed to win over Jerzy when I told him that Poland was playing in the Euro 2016 (and sadly lost to Portugal). I had my final breakthrough with the guys on the last day, but more about that later.
It was very interesting to see the actual fishing. I hear about it at home, of course, and yes, I have watched Deadliest Catch, but in reality it is always different. From the outside it looked like long, monotonous days, broken up about every 4 hours when the net was hauled. But since I know my dear husband so well I could watch the wheels turn heavily in his head in the in between time. As the days went by and I asked millions of questions I started getting a better idea of what went on, why it was better to catch one species than the other, why some species should be avoided as much as possible etc. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.















Unfortunately we had three guys leave the boat when we went in with the engine problem. That meant we were really short on crew, and it was too short notice for the office to fly anyone in. That meant a longer trip, which I didn’t mind because I liked being on the boat a lot, but on the other hand we were itching to get Rocket Science out of South Carolina. The Atlantic hurricane season had started fairly active, and it’s not a good feeling to have your boat sit in a rather unprotected spot all by itself when you are planning to sail about 3000 miles this summer.
However, I wasn’t stressing about it. For the simple reason that stressing is pointless. I was just hoping we could use up some karma points and things would stay calm in the Atlantic.

This trip lasted 9 days. We got back to Dutch on July 6th. Robbie the other captain was there to welcome us. There was a lot of talking and people coming and going, so I decided to have my lunch down in the galley. I got myself a plate and sat down t a table by myself. One by one the guys trickled in, doing the same. Somehow they all seemed to not want to sit by me. I mean, I understand in a way. I’m kind of scary, I wouldn’t want to meet myself in a dark alley! Finally Zedrick decided to not be shy like the rest of them. He sat by me and yelled at the rest of them: “Hey, guys, are you afraid to sit by Jenny or what? I’m gonna sit here and talk to her!” Embarrassed they all brought their plates over and hopefully found out that I’m not so bad after all.
Here are some pictures of the offload.




After Robbie and TJ did the handover we went to the Grand Aleutian hotel. I was VERY excited about sleeping in a real bed after spending two weeks sleeping on an air mattress on the floor in TJ’s room. To be fair, he offered to let me sleep in his bunk, but since he had to be fit and alert to work I declined. I did take him up on the offer only twice, because my neck and back were so bad I was hardly sleeping at all. But being back in a real bed was priceless!
I was sad leaving the boat. I truly started to believe I was born the wrong gender and should have been a fisherman. Maybe in my next life. I definitely didn’t agree with the ‘prison with a chance of drowning’ sentiment.
I would do this again in a heartbeat, after all this sailing in civilized places this felt like a real adventure again!






















DSC_0463 (2)


















The autumn of the patriarch

Yes, I know I ripped off Marquez, but it’s such a fitting title for our little king.


We shipped Baxter off to Europe a few days ago with Jenny’s friend, Natascha. He will spend the winter and spring with Grandma. Jenny will go to Europe on Tuesday, and when she comes back, it will be without the mutt. We don’t feel like we should subject our old man to an Atlantic crossing, and we don’t want to fly him 3 times across the pond in 6 months.

So, Jenny’s mom will spoil him rotten while he awaits our arrival on the boat. Our only fear is that he’s not going to want anything to do with us after a 6 month luxury treat spa vacation…

It’s a bummer to see our little guy slowing down like he is, though. We get the sense that his days are getting numbered, maybe a few more years and we’ll lose him. Best rescue dog in history, despite his many issues. I remember reading an ode to a dog in ‘Outside’ magazine, mostly about a guy and dealing with his dog’s many freakouts. He closed with ‘You know, I’d take a bullet for this dog…. And someday I probably will.’

My sentiments exactly.


See you soon, buddy.

The million dollar wave

So, there we were, riding along on our way out from Dutch Harbor for our second trip of the year.

The weather was a little heavy out of the NE, nothing much for the winter season, maybe 40 knots with some gusts pushing 55. The sea was running about 15 feet, again nothing especially noteworthy. I had been reducing speed through the morning. The Constellation has a lot of power and a pretty fine entry, so we have to be a little bit careful not to drive the bow under when it’s nasty out. We were making 4 or 5 knots on the average, riding easy.

At about 1000, Robbie was in the main chair, and I was over on the port side doing some computer work. We were having a little chat, and I was in mid-sentence when something rather unusual happened.

A huge wave broke right over the bow, shattering one of our strengthened pilothouse windows. It sounded like a bomb went off. It came in with so much force that our ceiling looks like somebody hit it with a shotgun. We have a chair up there, and had anybody been sitting there, it would have been seriously bad. Suddenly, we were knee deep in some very electrified water, sparks flying off all kinds of things. A bunch of the electrical stuff started smoking and looking like it was contemplating catching on fire, so we basically had to pull out every power cord and shut off every switch we could get to while standing in seawater. I don’t know how many times I got zapped, but it was way too many. Probably the worst part was going up to switch the steering to manual, because I had no choice but to do it, and all of the sparks around it made it pretty clear that it was going to be unpleasant. Robbie made the mistake of grabbing the metal throttles and paid pretty dearly for that. He wound up using his shoe to get the engines slowed down.

So, there we were, 50 miles offshore in force 9 or so, with a big hole in the front of the wheelhouse, only hand steering, and a single GPS still working. A couple of the deckhands set about getting as much water out of the wheelhouse as they could, and we broke out a paper chart and managed to get back to Dutch under our own power. We had a tug meet us once we got close to town in case we lost steering completely, which was certainly a possibility. I was surprised it was still functioning.

Once there, we started to take stock, and realized that every single piece of electronic gear needed to be replaced. We also figured that all of the outlets and breakers would need to be new. Basically, we needed to gut the wheelhouse and build her again from scratch. In Dutch. During the fishing season. Shit.

So, we flew the crew home pretty much right away, and had a representative of the insurance company pay us a visit within a couple of days. Since I really didn’t have anywhere to go, with Rocket Science buried in the snow or maybe in a paint shop in RI, and Jenny all the way in Europe, I decided to stick around and oversee the project. Computers and the like are a little more in my comfort zone than Robbie’s, anyway. (Robbie is the senior captain on the boat, I am first mate on the trips when we’re here at the same time, in case anybody’s wondering).

Everybody we talked to told us it would take a month to get the boat going. We didn’t buy that. We finally elected to go with Lunde electronics and the Pacific Fishermen’s shipyard, with some other help from various vendors. They seemed to be the most willing to drop everything and focus on us. We began airfreighting dozens of pieces of extremely expensive equipment from all over the world (much of our gear comes from Europe), and also flew in 4 people to be dedicated to the project. Over the next 2 weeks, we ripped out miles of wire and created one of the more valuable dumpster loads in history. We also built a new console, and managed to get all of our new gear installed.

In case anybody’s curious about just how much stuff we have up here in a modern trawler’s suite of electronics, the tally goes something like this:

2 radars

1 satellite compass

1 gyrocompass

1 bottom mapping program

2 plotters

1 vessel monitoring system


1 trawl system

1 sonar unit

1 trawl sensor system

2 fishfinding sounders, 4 frequencies

2 administrative computers

2 Inmarsat satellite communication systems

3 gps units

2 SSB radios

2 2 meter radios

5 vhf’s

2 autopilots

Steering system

1 hydraulic control system

16 monitors

And last but not least, the XM radio…

I’m writing this tonight, underway again on Valentine’s day. The boat is better than she’s ever been. Every wire run is brand new, labeled, and clean. We used to have quite a hodgepodge of gear stacked here and there, and all is now arranged in quite a sophisticated command center. All in all, I couldn’t be happier to have come out of this thing in such good shape, and in record time. It’s been 20 years since I was last on a boat that this happened to, so I’m really hoping that I’ve paid my dues on the window front and won’t have to see another one of these episodes.

Sorry about the poor picture quality, the camera got wet too.







All hail to Baxter!

Ok, Baxter may now officially be called a salty dog!

We don’t count miles all that much, but I was thinking about the mutt
the other day while he was cocooned in a beach towel on the downhill
side of the cockpit, his normal position when he’s standing watch with
me, and I got to wondering just how many miles this little guy has now
traveled with us.

I took a little look at the plotter, and the answer? Over 10,000! He
reached that number somewhere here on the east coast. Our dog has quite
the sailing resume by now, and we’re accepting applications if any
syndicate needs a tactician. He always votes for warm and flat calm- who
could disagree with that?

Pretty cool.