THE SOUND AND THE FURY

Photography by Corey Arnold
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Fisherman and photographer Corey Arnold heads northward in search of the elusive Arctic Cod

 

Corey Arnold has seen his fair share of excitement on the high seas.  Spending up to a third of the year fishing for crab off the coast of Alaska—a job considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world (fatality rates are at a hundred times the international employment average)—his daily toil gives revised definition to the idea of hard work. During a rare moment of downtime, Arnold takes time to chat about the trials of a working fisherman, catch quotas, whale hunting and living the life aquatic.

What made you go into commercial fishing? Was it easy to get into? How did you end up on the boat that you currently work on?

My father’s addiction to sport fishing was my biggest influence to living the life I live now. Like him, I developed an addiction to the sea that eventually led me to fishing commercially in Alaska. I had always heard about the opportunities there, so, after my first year of college, I decided to skip town and find a summertime salmon fishing gig. The only way to connect with a job is to walk the docks and ask guys for work. I quickly found someone to hire me to fish salmon in Bristol Bay. After five seasons of that, I walked the docks in Seattle in search of a more high-stakes fishing career. It was as simple as me posting a job-wanted ad on a bulletin board down by the fisherman’s terminal in Seattle. Within one week, I was being flown out to the Bering Sea by a creative skipper in search of some new young blood on the deck of his crab boat. I figured that I’d try crab fishing for a year or two, save some money, and at the same time make a photo project out of the experience. I was lucky to have a captain with a greater sense of the world. He understood where I was going with the pictures, so he allowed me to take a few minutes off from time to time to photograph the guys while we worked.

I’ve spent six years on the F/V Rollo fishing king and snow crab. There is a crew of five on board. It’s a family-run boat owned by Captain Eric Nyhammer’s father. We’re all basically family. I’ve spent nearly a third of every year with these guys, 24 hours a day.

 When you go out to sea, how long are you usually away from land? What’s an average day like?

We shove off not knowing exactly when we’ll be back. It could take as little as five days of fishing to fill the boat with crab or, if the weather is bad, as long as 18 days. On an average day, we wake up around 6 a.m.. Brian cooks us a fatty egg breakfast with lots of bacon and sausage. We go out on deck by 6:30 and start hauling pots. The job is basically a grind. We haul pots, stack some of them on deck, sort the legal-size crab from the small ones and females, then find fresh grounds to set more pots on… It’s a repetitive cycle, day after day. In a season, we all fly through a wide gamut of emotions on deck. From despair (no crab) to celebration (hundreds of crab per pot) to extreme exhaustion (bad weather and little sleep) to hysterical laughter (flounder fights). Like the water, everything is in flux and the job is predictably unpredictable. Dinner happens around 11 p.m., and we hit the bunks around midnight.

Conservationists have pointed to a terminal decline in cod stocks over the past years. Have you noted anything to this effect? What do some of the older fishermen think? Are quotas effective?

If you’re talking about Atlantic cod stocks, yeah, there certainly are problems. I’m not an expert on what’s happening in the North Atlantic cod fisheries, but there is still a problem with Russian and other poachers on the high seas. The near complete annihilation of codfish off eastern North America years ago was a lesson in sustainable fishing. Although Norwegian stocks are at a low point in history, I’m not sure that the situation is dire. Like the weather, fishing is cyclical, and it’s hard to judge whether or not a decline is a combination of natural cycles and overfishing or flat-out overfishing. Alaska fisheries’ management is a model for sustainability worldwide. Many of Alaska’s fish and crab stocks have been overfished at one point in history. We’ve learned from those mistakes and are much more conservative with our quotas these days. In the past decade, cod quotas were higher than ever, and there is no sign of a Pacific cod decline.

Quotas are definitely a good idea. I miss the old derby days when there were fleet quotas rather than individual, but the reality of overfishing makes quotas essential in controlling the greed of business. Older fishermen have felt the impact of overfishing in the past. Most of us, young and old, are aware that fish are a complicated and delicate resource to manage, and the need for tough regulation is the only way for this lifestyle to survive future generations.

A recent report claimed that quotas on cod fishing have shown a slight rebuilding of numbers in certain areas. You mentioned that illegal Russian fishing is perhaps destroying this progress. How big a problem is illegal fishing? Have you encountered it?

I haven’t personally encountered any shady fishermen as U.S. waters are very highly monitored. The Russians, on the other hand, are notorious for cheating. They have almost completely annihilated their own king and snow crab stocks on their side of the Bering Sea. Just three months ago, a man in Seattle who is connected to the Russian mafia was accused of importing poached crab, amounting to twice the total crab quotas in Russia. In international waters, fish can be traded from boat to boat and processed on board, and it’s very difficult to track quotas and place of origin. In order to fix the problem, there needs to be more international information-sharing and a standardized system for policing the fish trade. But since I’m working in the fish-rich state of Alaska, I won’t pretend to be an expert on what’s going on abroad.

Do you ever jump ship, so to speak, and fish for species other than crab? If so, what is your favourite type of expedition? Are certain types of fishing more interesting than others?

I’m first and foremost a crab fisherman. From time to time, I’ll jump on another boat for a halibut trip or a cod trip. The Rollo is exclusively a crabber, but we do get cod in our pots along with the crab. For reasons I can’t explain, Pacific cod isn’t valued as highly as its Atlantic twin, but they are so plentiful that we use them for crab bait.

Every type of fishing has something fascinating and unique about it. Last year I went longlining for halibut. We hauled up some amazing sea creatures, including giant sleeper sharks that may have weighed 500 pounds, huge skates, a variety of nearly fluorescent red sculpins and some six-foot-long octopuses. Two years ago, I spent three weeks on a whaling boat in Norway. We had an awful stroke of bad luck (or good luck, depending on your opinion of whaling) and due to poor weather conditions didn’t harpoon a single whale. Nevertheless, I could see the draw that makes whalers whalers. It’s the thrill of the hunt, searching the horizon for days and then engaging in a chase that could last for hours.

Are you a photographer-slash-fisherman, or a fisherman-slash-photographer?

I’m not really sure myself. I started as a fisherman, and the photography project came later. Now, photography is taking up most of my year and even much of my time while I’m in Alaska fishing. It’s a challenge for me to concentrate on both careers at the same time. This is why I take trips to other places such as northern Norway, so that I can focus on making pictures of other fishermen. Crabbing is too dangerous a job to not be fully engaged at all times!

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