Meet – Captain Heather Sears Fisherwoman
What are the different types of fish that you catch? How deep in the ocean do you go and how often?
We fish for salmon (king and coho) from May through August. We go wherever the stocks are the healthiest. Some years that takes us all the way to Alaska, which is a 2 week boat ride from California. We fish salmon pretty close to shore between 1 to 20 miles out. Then we fish albacore tuna offshore in the fall. Usually we are between 60 and 150 miles offshore for tuna. If the weather is bad it can take 30 hours to run back in to hide from the weather. Our trips last between 5 and 15 days. When we are salmon fishing, we anchor up at night to sleep in protected bays. When we are tuna fishing, we just drift around all night to sleep. Sometimes the current will carry us 10 miles in one night! In the winter and early spring we fish for blackcod at home. We catch the cod in 300 fathoms (600 yards) with big fish traps. We come in at night and tie up in our slip in Fort Bragg up Noyo river.
Is there a season for fish? Do you fish all year round?
We fish many different species using many different methods year round. The government manages each fishing season differently. Some fish management like salmon is super complicated because healthy stocks mix with stocks that are struggling. Each state has different rules like when and where you can fish, how many hooks you can use and how many fish you can keep and what size they can be. The scientists study the fish stocks and determine how many we can safely catch without harming the species as a whole. Every single salmon that we catch is counted by scientists and a percentage is tested so the scientists know which river they came from.
Can you describe a typical day on the boat?
A typical day in Alaska starts at 3:30am with lots of coffee. I go out and pull the anchor and motor out to the fishing grounds. At that time, it’s already getting light out. Once I find a spot that looks good, it takes about 20 minutes to set out my 60 hooks. I eat breakfast and chat about where the fish might be with my partner boats until I see the first bite. Then I wake the crew up and we get to work pulling, cleaning and putting fish down in the hold all day. We won’t take any breaks if the fish are biting. If they are, it feels like you just can’t move fast enough. If they are not biting it’s pretty boring. A good day coho fishing is about 200 fish. At around 8pm we quit, pull and stack the gear and clean the whole back deck. Then we eat dinner and anchor up and try to get a few hours sleep.
What happens to the fish after a catch?
Our process is complex because we are making a product that is safe to eat raw. For salmon, after a fish bites our hook we hand pull it in and bonk it on the head with a short club to kill it quickly while still in the water so the fish doesn’t suffer on deck. Then after we land it, we cut the head off, remove the guts and use a very small hose we put in one of the main veins to flush all the blood out of the carcass. After it’s perfectly clean we hand it down into the fish hold where it gets put on a tray and frozen to minus 40 degrees.
Once we have a few hundred frozen we put on our thick freezer suits and glaze them all. We put a big tub of seawater down in the hold and dip each fish twice so it won’t get freezer burn. Then we stack them all very tightly in bins. Once we are full we head to town to unload. This can be a 24 hour trip back. We hold 12,000 lbs of salmon, about 1,200 fish. In town, we unload the fish one at a time into a big bucket that is lifted with a crane up to dock where the workers pack them into 1,000 lb boxes. These go by freezer barge to Seattle and go into cold storage until a customer buys them. Afterwards, they get shipped by freezer truck to San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Do you have a favorite fish recipe?
I have many! I love fried king salmon bellies with lemon juice salt, pepper and flour. King salmon bellies are really fatty like bacon except they are very healthy.
Who do you sell the fish to? How many fish do you sell a year?
Most fishermen sell their catch to one of just a few big fish buyers. We cut out the middle man and sell our catch ourselves. Some of our fish go to sushi restaurants, grocery stores and fish markets, and some we sell directly to customers at the farmers market, and right off the boat even. Last year we caught and sold 32,000 lbs of salmon.
How do you take care of the fish and the environment?
We think it’s really cool to be a part of the food chain and we really care about the fish we catch. Without them we have nothing! My dad taught me how to respect the fish and never let them suffer on deck. Being a troller means we only catch one fish at a time with hooks, not nets, and take care to kill it swiftly and humanely. We respect the limits the scientists put on us to keep the resource healthy and never break those rules. We also never ever throw plastic in the water. It will never go away!
What are the different types of people you coordinate with?
I have a group of between 3 to 10 boats I work with every season. This is what’s called a code group. We have a special radio we all talk on together that has a scrambler in it so know one else can hear us. We help each other find fish and share stories and trade parts if one of us breaks down. My group has even floated me food when I ran out! When I’m in trouble, they are who I count on.
What part of your work brings you the most joy?
I live for the days when the ocean is gentle, the fish are biting and there is wildlife all around; whales and birds and us all catching fish.
What is the funniest moment you remember while working on the boat?
One time my little dog pulled a whole fish inside the cabin and “buried” it in my bunk.
What advice would you give to kids about how to choose sustainably caught fish?
I think the easiest rule to follow if you want to eat sustainably caught fish is to try to only eat fish caught in the United States. We have some of the best science-based regulations in the world to keep our stocks healthy. Many other countries are overfishing their fish or fish farming in ways that destroy the environment. Some really good choices for people who care about the environment are salmon, albacore, blackcod, halibut, lingcod, Dungeness crab and farmed oysters (and make sure they are all wild caught in the United States). There are lots more but those are my favorites.