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Once Prone To Danger On The High Seas, New System Protects Alaska Fishermen


For a long time, Alaska's commercial fishing industry was the deadliest in the country. This year, though, the Coastguard says there has not been a single on-the-job fishing fatality. Jess Jiang from the Planet Money podcast explains how fishing got safer.

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: It used to be if you were a halibut fishermen in Homer, Ak., there were just a few days a year you could go do it. The government said you just had these 24 hour periods. It was called the derby.

CLEM TILLION: Young men loved the action, the excitement.

JIANG: Clem Tillion is 90 now. He was a fisherman for decades. He says on derby days, no matter what the weather was like, you fished - same if you were sick or if your boat wasn't in great shape.

TILLION: You went roaring out of these storms, and you caught all you could catch. And the guys that took the most risks got lots of money.

JIANG: Thousands of boats were going out, sometimes during storms. And you can imagine what happened. Kirk Van Doren is a commercial fisherman. He's thin, got crazy hair, goes by the name Carcass. He tells me about one derby day. He was working as a deckhand on someone else's boat, and the fishing had been good. But a storm was coming, and the waves were getting big.

CARCASS: All of a sudden we took one, and we're not coming back up, water's all over the deck. The next wave hit us, and we just leaned right over.

JIANG: The boat was sinking. Carcass dug out the life raft. He and the other crew members waited for the government to come rescue them.

CARCASS: I'll tell you the most beautiful sound in the world is a C-130 (imitating sound of airplane). It's the Coast Guard airplane, and that's when you really think you're going to survive, you know?

JIANG: Everyone made it home. Clem Tillion, the 90-year-old, says Carcass's story isn't unique. The derby the government created led fishermen to take very more risks.

TILLION: It was a very stupid system. It was murder by government, you might say. And a few of us were looking at other ways of doing it.

JIANG: Clem was on the fishery's council at the time. He heard about an idea - a new, more leisurely system that protected the fish but didn't put fishermen at risk. Instead of having fishermen race in these 24-hour sprints, they would be guaranteed a certain amount of fish at the beginning of the year. And with the guarantees, the fishermen didn't have to rush. They could wait for sunny weather or until they weren't sick. Clem knew these guarantees would be worth a fortune.

TILLION: Some people became millionaires overnight.

JIANG: Everyone from the ship captain down to the deckhand wanted them. The question was, who would get them? Clem thought the catch should be shared among the boat owners and captains. They invested a lot of money in gear and boats. But when deckhands, guys like Carcass, heard about this plan, they were not happy.

TILLION: There were mass demonstrations in some towns. My niece had her tires slashed, and my kids got beat up on the playground. I mean, it was violent.

JIANG: Clem and the owners won out. In 1995, each boat owner got a share of the total catch. And with that, the derby was gone. Now 20 years later, 2 out of every 3 boats stopped fishing halibut. That was by design. Clem wanted the best boats to buy up the shares from the less efficient ones. Some deckhands, like Carcass, kept at it, but whole crews were laid off. And today, for those who are left, the job is better.

So this is the boat.

CRISTY FRY: This is us. This is our little boat.

JIANG: Cristy Fry and her husband David take me out on their boat, the Realist. David drives out of the harbor, and Cristy puts on an orange slicker. The Frys get to pick when they go out. If, say, a storm is coming, they stay at home, watch Netflix. Today, the water is calm. Fishing used to be crowded, but we don't see another commercial fishing boat the whole day, just a few whales and otters.

C. FRY: Fish, fish, fish - keeper.

JIANG: He's a fighter.

DAVID FRY: (Laughter).

JIANG: Christy puts a knife through the gills and removes the guts. She says during the derby days, she didn't have time to take care of the fish like this. She used to have to throw fish after fish on ice and hope everything stayed fresh. Now she can take more time with the fish, and that makes the quality better. On this trip, Cristy and David catch just six fish, but the good news for them and the others who still have shares - they can just go out another day. Jess Jiang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jess Jiang is the producer for NPR's international podcast, Rough Translation. Previously, Jess was a producer for Planet Money. In 2014, she won an Emmy for the team's T-shirt project. She followed the start of the t-shirt's journey, from cotton farms in Mississippi to factories in Indonesia. But her biggest prize has been getting to drive a forklift, back hoe, and a 35-ton digger for a story. Jess got her start in public radio at Studio 360—though, if you search hard enough, you can uncover a podcast she made back in college.