• by Virginia Koetzner

Commercial Fishing in NY and Alaska

When I met Captain Rich LaRocca we talked about his work, commercial fishing, and I took his card so I could call sometime in the future when I planned to do the commercial fishing article for L.I.B.W. Within hours of meeting Capt. Rich, I had an unrelated business call from Alaska. The caller was Captain Mike Uttecht, a newly retired commercial fisherman. As he and I talked, the coincidence of meeting these two fishermen in such a short time span worked its way to the storage area of my brain marked “LIBW article material.” Before we ended the call he agreed to an interview and to supply pictures. Readers of LIBW have told me they like to fish, like to eat fish and like to know where their fresh fish come from when they buy it. Speaking to Capt. Rich, he told me he has two boats, both single screw diesel, a 375 hp. Caterpillar on the 42’ and a 650 Volvo in the 45’. Both boats are Provincials made of fiberglass in Canada. They cost $8,000 to truck them to Long Island from Canada. Their downeast style and little use of wood appealed to Capt. Rich. His son, also a commercial fisherman, prefers Maine built boats and has three boats built by Beale. These are day boats – Capt. Rich is home every night. By mid-April he expects both of his boats to be back in the water in Hampton Bays at the commercial dock behind the restaurants just inside the inlet. He fishes for monkfish, skate, bluefish and striped bass – those are his main targets but, he added, “If it swims we fish for it.” They travel between ten and forty miles as far as Montauk, using gillnets with hydraulics and picking the fish out of the nets manually. He fishes April to December. The crew (one regular and one part-time) do whatever they can during the off-season. Capt. Rich started his commercial fishing career while employed as a stagehand at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic and has only fished full-time for the last twenty years, starting out lobstering, then switching to finfish. Asked about weather and water conditions, if they were worse when he starts in April and finishes the season in December, he said, “You always have to be alert and aware of what’s going on around you.” He spoke about a trip in October three years ago on a beautiful, sunny day. He left the Shinnecock Inlet early, before daybreak, in his 42’ Provincial and went six or seven miles east. They set two drift nets for striped bass. When he left the swells were about 5’ high. Within half an hour of setting his nets, the swells increased significantly and he decided to go in. They didn’t even stop to pick the fish out of the nets. Although the day was clear and sunny, the breakers when he got back to the inlet were about 17’ high and 100’ between them. The swells were coming at about 17 knots and he was trying to stay at 18 knots and not fall behind or override them. They completely obscured the mouth of the inlet and the jetties. “I got behind a huge swell and it was like being in a deep hole. I tried to follow it in. I had Martin put his life jacket on. I never looked back. My heart was beating so fast I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It is easily the scariest thing that ever happened to me. The owner of a large dragger, fishing by the sea buoy, called and said, ‘Rich – all I could see was the black smoke coming out of your exhaust,’ which is at least 15’ above my deck. I was never so glad in my 40 years of fishing to get in.” Capt. Rich has strong feelings about some of the governmental regulations that commercial fishermen have to work with. The observers, who by federal law the captains have to take along, are an example. They get in the way of the fishermen working and are a hazard on the boats. One captain recently saved an observer from going overboard in rough waters. A captain who refused to take an observer was fined $80,000. Another federal government regulation commercial fishermen have to deal with is the quota system for fluke. As related by a Newsday editorial, the unfair quota allotments that have been in place for 25 years give New York commercial fishermen 7.6% of the total Atlantic Coast catch, while New Jersey gets 16.7%, Rhode Island gets 15.7%, Virginia gets 21.3% and North Carolina gets 27.4%. As the years went by, fluke moved north and the commercial fishermen from other states with higher quotas now fish New York waters. New York commercial fishermen are buying permits from North Carolina to catch fluke in New York, which they then have to take back to North Carolina to make their trip legal. This is what gives bureaucracy a bad name. When I talked to Captain Mike Uttecht, he said he was born in Alaska. His father was a trapper and a bear guide. Capt. Mike became a fisherman early and by the time he was eight years old, was earning a partial share on a boat. When he was fourteen he earned a full share. He lives on a peninsula in the lower part of Alaska. He has owned between two and five boats during his fishing career and in the last years before he retired, he had three boats, a 114’ steel single screw, a 72’ wood single screw and a 32’ fiberglass single screw. He said the newer crab boats are all coming through as twin screw. He fished for salmon, gray cod, black cod, king crab, snow crab and halibut. They used gillnets for salmon, drag gear for cod, pots for crab and longline for halibut. The boats were docked close to a mile from home and fished mostly in the Pacific Ocean. They went to the Bering Sea for crab. When they went for crab he and four others went out. For salmon, just two could do it. When quotas were down you couldn’t just fish for something else. They have a limited entry system - to get a permit you had to be in it early. When he was unable to fish he worked construction. Capt. Mike didn’t think commercial fishing was so dangerous, he said you just have to be careful. He went on to describe one of the times he fell overboard. He realized he was right next to a buoy and held on until they brought the boat back for him. Crewmen pulled him aboard. That was not the only time he went over the side and that scared him because he can’t swim. He thinks the crab fishing is probably the most dangerous because it’s a short season in November, the late fall when the weather is generally bad and they have big storms. The men work long hours and don’t get enough sleep. Before the quotas they used to fish through the winter, only staying at the dock through bad storms. Their winter temperatures hit about 15 degrees below zero and salt water freezes at about 31 degrees. They would stay warm by going into the cabin which had a galley and electric heating, get some coffee, warm up and go out again. Capt. Mike described something which in this part of the world may be unique to Canada and Alaska – “subsistence fishing.” Alaska natives are able to take 250 fish per permit which they may keep or barter but not sell. They can get another permit and another 250 fish. It was Capt. Mike’s 250 subsistence fish that he, his daughter and his grandson smoked and then preserved (24 cases, 12 jars in a case). Cooked in a brine of salt and sugar after smoking the salmon, it is then preserved by cooking it in the pressure cooker. At one point before he had his own boats, Capt. Mike worked for a captain who bought a Florida boat and asked Capt. Mike to fly to Florida and bring it back to Alaska through the Panama Canal – a pretty interesting trip, he thought. Do the two captains eat a lot of fish – both said they really like fish and eat a lot of it. Capt. Rich’s favorite is yellow tail flounder. He prepares it by dipping the filet in flour and over a high flame he sautes it in olive oil with lemon juice. Capt. Mike eats a lot of salmon and his favorite way to cook it is on the grill. He puts the fish skin side down on a piece of foil with salt, pepper, garlic, lemon and a little beer for moisture. If you look at the kind of people who become commercial fishermen you see honesty and the old time work ethic. Fishing is not only an important source of food for all of us, it’s a rich part of American tradition. The sea is a place an entrepreneurial type person can still make a living working alone or with a partner but it must be extremely frustrating to commercial fishermen trying to follow all the rules when they see the unfair and unrealistic quotas their area has been assigned and have to work around them by spending time and money traveling, time and spending money they shouldn’t have to spend.

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