Vic-Ter-Rae over the fluke
Three of the four crewmembers of the fishing trawler Vic-Ter-Rae have been fishing together for more than a decade and have become quite adept in dealing with the ups and downs of fishing. Squid is the trawler’s mainstay which fetches 62.5 cents a pound. In addition, the trawler also fishes for fluke which is limited to 1,000 pounds per trip. Sushi-grade fluke sells for $5 a pound and is shipped to Japan. However, the beginning of 1999 was not so good for the trawler as it did not catch any squid.
Fishing has its ups and downs, but the crew of this Rhode Island dragger stick together and win.
Skipper Ray Livernois listens to the chatter on the VHF radio while sitting in the wheelhouse of the Vic-Ter-Rae, a 90-foot trawler from Point Judith, R.I. Another trawl skipper is warning the fleet about sea grass on the ocean bottom that plugged his net and brought his boat to a stop.
He calls out the coordinates for the rest of the skippers to enter into their plotters. His voice is a familiar one – he has been talking most of the morning. Compared to this guy, Rush Limbaugh has taken a vow of silence.
Livernois laughs and says the guy calling out the coordinates hauled a World War I-era bomb aboard his boat the week before.
“He tried to bring it into Point Judith to make a political statement, but he got caught,” Livernois jokes. “We started busting him about the Unabomber, but he talks so much I called him the Yackabomber.”
It’s 5:30 on a Wednesday morning in late March. Livernois and the test of the draggers from Point Judith are working the continental shelf 65 to 70 miles south of Rhode Island – out for one last trip before the possession limit for fluke drops from 1,000 pounds to 400 pounds at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
The boats will fish until they meet the quota and return on Thursday to beat the deadline, Livernois explains. “It’s the last hurrah.”
Sometime in May, the trip limit for fluke will drop to 200 pounds, and sometime after that, to zero.
While the 1,000-pound trip limit seems small, the fluke, or summer flounder, can command lucrative prices. Sushi-grade fluke will be sold for $5 a pound and shipped to Japan, while the remainder will be sold domestically for an average of $2.50 a pound.
Below, the crew of three are asleep in their bunks while Livernois sits at the wheel. At just after 5 a.m., they arise to set the net. Once the gear is in the water, they watch as the two 7/8-inch main wires spin rapidly off their drums, like kite string off a spool, and call out marks so that the wires will be even and at the proper depth when the winches stop.
Livernois watches the crew work while operating the hydraulics from a console at the back of the wheelhouse. Aside from a short nap during the afternoon, Livernois spends most of his time at the wheel scanning the radar and the plotter.
When setting is complete, the guys head back to their bunks.
“You can go take a nap now if you want,” Livernois tells a reporter from National Fisherman. “It’ll be a boring three hours.”
Livernois isn’t kidding. For the next three hours, the Vic-Ter-Rae travels at 3 knots, dragging her trawl as she gathers an unpredictable combination of whiting, squid, hake, monkfish and butterfish that will go to market with the fluke.
Currently selling to the frozen market at 62.5 cents a pound – “unless it’s real garbage” – squid would normally be the main source of income for the Vic-Ter-Rae and her competitors, but this year, they’ve been scarce.
“Most of the time, squid has been our mainstay, especially during the winter, but this year, there hasn’t been any,” Livernois says. “Actually, I think we’re getting the East Coast version of El Nino.”
The logs and fish tickets Livernois keeps in the wheelhouse tell the story. In February and March of 1998, squid comprised more than half of the Vic-Ter-Rae’s catch. On March 4, 1998, Livernois harvested 49,000 pounds of squid out of a total catch of 65,000 pounds of fish. On March 11, 1999, he caught 1,100 pounds of squid out of a total catch of 17,000 pounds.
“If I was catching the usual amount of squid, we wouldn’t be worried about running back in with our 1,000 pounds of fluke,” Livernois says.
A few minutes past 8 a.m., Livernois wakes his crew to get ready to haul back. In a jiffy, the men are out of their bunks, grabbing cups of coffee and snacks from the galley before donning rubber boots and rain gear and manning their stations at the stern.
There, they watch as the winches wind in the towing warps, until the net is visible off the stern and the two 2,500-pound trawl doors are hanging from the gallows frames. The crew unhook the ground tackle from the doors so that the trawl can be wound onto the net reel.
When all of the twine, save the cod end, is on the reel, a fish tackle lifts the bag aboard. The cod-end clip is yanked, and several hundred pounds of fish spill onto the deck.
Immediately, Livernois maneuvers the Vic-Ter-Rae to set out again. Once the net is wound off the reel and the doors are hooked up, the crew go to work on the fish. Although sorting fish can be backbreaking work, it has been made easier aboard the Vic-Ter-Rae with a conveyor belt Livernois installed after he bought the boat in 1988.
The boat is named after the three women in Livernois’ life: Victoria, his older daughter; Terry, his wife; and Raeleen, his younger daughter.
The previous owner, a lawyer who regarded fishing as a good investment, sold Livernois the boat after another of his vessels sank, taking all but one of her crew members with her.
Livernois, who had gone to work for the lawyer in 1985 as a hired skipper, previously owned his own boat, the Challenger, which he now says he purchased in a fit of stubbornness in 1980.
“It was an old eastern rig I shouldn’t have bought,” Livernois says. “I struggled with it for four years. I finally tied it up to the dock and told the bank they could have it.”
Working an eastern rig, where the. net is hauled on deck over the side, is a wicked way to earn a living, Livernois explains. Hauling and setting require much consideration of the wind, and much of the work, particularly hauling back, is done by hand.
Switching from an eastern rig to a stern trawler “was like getting caught up in the 20th century,” he says.
Sorting the haul
The first set today yields 200 pounds of fluke, 500 pounds of whiting, 200 pounds of hake, 100 pounds of monkfish and hardly any squid.
There is no telling what price whiting will command at the dock, Livernois says. “We might get 50 cents for whiting or we might get a nickel,” he says. “Someday we might have to pay the dock to take them off the boat.”
Most of the fish are sorted on the conveyor, put into separate baskets and put on ice below deck by Gary Fusaro, but the fluke get special treatment. Allen Arnold picks them off deck before they fall into the conveyor belt, pries open their gills with a knife, makes a cut and puts them into a waterfilled tub to bleed clean. Later they are stored in ice-filled totes on deck.
The crew are done in less than an hour, leaving them more than two hours to kill before the next set is completed.
“You watch movies, get a lot of sleep and gain weight,” Livernois jokes.
Arnold, who does double duty as an engineer, and Dick Moone, who doubles as cook, have stayed on the Vic-Ter-Rae for more than a decade. It’s clear that they and Fusaro – a relative newcomer after only two years – get along with each other as well as with their skipper, who rewards loyalty with annual Christmas bonuses based on the boat’s gross stock.
“He’s good to them,” said Livernois’ wife, Terry, who works in sales at Town Dock, a Point Judith processor.
In addition to an unused exercise bike in the wheelhouse, the boat has two VCRs, and the collection of videos aboard rivals that at a public library. There are more than 100 cassettes, most of them stored in cases fastened to the bulkhead above the galley table. The crew have watched them all, some more than once.
Today, they watch two movies, “Kiss the Girls,” with Morgan Freeman, and “The Negotiator,” with Samuel L. Jackson. They deem both much better than the “Severed Arm,” a horror flick that, they agree, is the worst movie they’ve ever seen.
“We could have made a better movie,” Arnold says.
“Severed Arm” tells the story of trapped miners who draw lots to decide whose arm will be cut off and fed to the others. The “winner’s” arm is cut off moments before the group is rescued.
Later, the surviving miners’ luck turns to tragedy as, one by one, they end up dead, minus an arm. Predictably, all eyes turn to the one-armed miner.
“It turns out to be the guy’s kids,” says Moone. “It was very poorly done. They should have called it “The Rubber Arm.”
While there is ample time to watch videos aboard the Vic-Ter-Rae, life at sea isn’t easy. Today’s last tow isn’t completed until after 11 p.m., and cleaning the boat takes the crew past 1 a.m.
And Livernois insists on a clean boat. Aside from a few patches of rust where the doors ride when the boat is underway, the Vic-Ter-Rae is immaculate. In the engine room, the decks and bulkheads are clean enough to eat off.
And this trip is a relatively short one, Livernois explains. If it weren’t for the fluke deadline, they’d be staying at sea much longer.
After this trip, the crew will change nets and then steam to Georges Bank for several days, including Easter, groundfishing.
“We work ’round the clock most of the time,” Livernois says. “We’ll stop when it’s time to stop.”
Excitement on a trawler usually means something has happened to the net, like the time a few years back when the trawl got caught on something – no one knows what – and ripped the net reel off its bearings and onto the stern ramp with an impressive bang.
“It was big and it was nasty,” Arnold says, ruefully. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t moving off the bottom.”
Losing the trawl was aggravating, but getting it back on the next trip out, after the reel was repaired, was a real chore. In the process of recovering their net, the crew of the Vic-Ter-Rae recovered a trawl belonging to another Point Judith vessel.
“We came to grapple our net off and ended up getting theirs, too,” Arnold says. “What a mess.”
Between tows, Arnold acknowledges that in the 16 years he’s been fishing, the tows have been getting longer and the bags smaller.
“I’m still making more money than I would on the beach, because I don’t do anything else,” Arnold says. “I’m sure it’s going to get to the point where it won’t be worth it anymore.”
Arnold’s not the only one thinking about his future in the fishery. Up in the wheelhouse, Livernois examines his options.
“I’m 45 years old. What else can 1 do for a living and be my own boss?” he asks, without a trace of self-pity.
“I don’t have a high school education. I don’t have a college education. I can do stuff with my hands. You know how it is.
“What am I going to do – build houses? I don’t think so. There are a lot better carpenters out there.”
Still, he won’t be encouraging Raeleen, 14, to follow in his bootsteps. “There’s got to be a better way to make a living.”
This day, however, isn’t too bad. The Vic-Ter-Rae completes five uneventful trawls, each lasting three hours and yielding a total of 1,000 pounds of fluke, about 1,200 pounds of whiting, a mix monkfish, butterfish, hake and, as Livernois predicted, hardly any squid.
In addition to the fish, the Vic-Ter-Rae lands a wide array of artifacts from the ocean floor, including a wine jug made of green glass, two crushed lobster traps, a long, green, plastic tube of unknown origin and a stretch monofilament from a longliner. Pretty tame stuff compared to the stinking, dead whale that came up a few years back or the coffee mug with a swastika on it. Livernois thinks that was from a German submarine destroyed in World War II.
“It’s at home on my mantle,” he says. “It was in great shape.”
TRAWLING FOR FLUKE: THE FACTS
* Number of participants: 946 commercial permit holders in 1998
* Size of participating boats: Commercial vessels average 64 feet in length, 93 gross registered tons. In Point Judith, the typical dragger is 90 feet or longer.
* Typical fishing area: Federal and state waters from Cape Cod to North Carolina. Fluke are typically found in the waters nears the continental shelf.
* Gear: Mainly otter trawls, although some fluke are taken with scallop dredge gear and hook and line in the recreational fishery. Minimum mesh for trawl gear is 5 1/2 inches.
* Capital investment: Ranges from $500,000 to $1 million for a 90-foot dragger. A typical trawl costs $15,000.
* General regulations: The annual quota is divided between the commercial fleet, which gets 60 percent of the catch, and the recreational fleet, which gets 40 percent. The commercial quota is allocated by state based on historic landings. Overages from one year are deducted from the next year’s allocation.
* Permits: There is a moratorium on permits to catch fluke.
* Fishery managers: The federal-waters fishery is managed by the Mid-Atlantic and New England Fishery Management Councils.
* Annual landings: In 1997, fishermen landed a total of 4.1 million pounds of fluke, yielding just over $8 million.
* Ex-vessel prices: Vary, according to size and quality. Large, high-grade fluke can sell for $5 a pound, while lesser quality sells for $2.50 a pound.
* Markets: Large, sushi-grade fluke are sold to Japan; the remainder are sold locally.