$1.4 billion fishing industry stays afloat amid regulations, tragedies

SEATTLE – It’s been two months since the missing crab vessel Destination was found on the ocean floor of the Bering Sea. The Seattle-based crew went missing in February.  All six people on board died when the crab boat went down in "Deadliest Catch" waters.

You can see the memorial that still stands at Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.  It’s a grim reminder that Alaskan fishing is still coined the most dangerous job in the world, but the commercial fishing industry also has helped form the blueprint of the Pacific Northwest.

Latest numbers from the state show it brings in $1.4 billion a year to our state.  Today, it employs more than 14,000 people.

Today, the $35 million, 191-foot freezer liner Blue North glides across the Bering Sea, catching cod in a moon pool.  The fish come up inside, with the crew ready and warm.

“People joke about it being a fishing yacht. It is very comfortable. Everybody is inside and safe,” said Blue North Fisheries co-founder Michael Burns.

The Blue North vessel is not only safer but more environmentally friendly by reusing its own engine heat and using less fuel.

“The one thing that hasn’t changed is the way we catch the fish.  We still catch them one at a time on a hook just like they did 100 years ago,” Burns said.

“It’s been around for millenniums, starting with Native American people,” said Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.

The Nisqually, Lummi, Skokomish, and Tulalip are just a few of the dozens of Indian tribes who originally drew the blueprint of fishing these waterways, which were exclusively theirs until the late 1880s when European immigrants and Americans who lived out East headed for the unchartered Pacific Northwest.

“It really was a core industry here,” said Garfield.  “It really propelled us through the early 19th century.”

With an influx of non-natives building a large-scale commercial fishing industry came an influx of problems forever changing the blueprint of the business.

“Everyone who had a boat got out there and fished and it was chaotic and it actually had a depleting effect on the fish resource,” said Garfield.

In the 1850s, some Pacific Northwest Native American tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government.

“In those treaties, they were guaranteed that their usual and accustomed fishing grounds would always be theirs,” said Garfield.

After the Civil War, a first round of regulations came for everyone.

“They established how far off from a shore you could fish.  They regulated the size of the harvest.  The kind of fish you could harvest and then they created fishing seasons,” said Garfield.

Those regulations preserved the region’s fishing industry.  They also generated dollars in the Seattle area through support industries like boat building, repairs, the financial hub, and others.

But Native American tribes here in Washington were quickly cut out of that growing empire and seemingly erased from the blueprint they drew.  In protest during the late 1960s and early '70s, they staged “fish-ins.”  Even famous actor Marlon Brando got arrested, all in the name of native fishing rights.  Those rights were eventually restored under the 1974 Boldt Decision.

“Reaffirmed those original treaty rights, saying native people had the rights to manage their own fisheries that that belonged to them and that was something they had control over,” said Garfield.

At that time, the majority of commercial fishing happened in Alaskan waters while support industries thrived here in Seattle. It was around the same time Patrick Burns left New York for Alaska and soon after brought his brother Michael along.

Don’t expect to see that Blue North vessel back in Western Washington anytime soon. Its job remains in Alaska fishing cod -- "humanely harvested" -- with a new seal for the product.

“We’re hoping that you can see this soon in stores with a 'humane harvest' certification on there,” said Blue North Fisheries special projects manager Amelia Burns Stewart.

“Why couldn’t we use those principles of humane treatment of livestock, why couldn’t we transfer that to fish?” asked Patrick Burns.

“We wanted to get them out of the water and on board without being struck or hurt in any way,” said Patrick Burns.

“It is not flopping around. It doesn’t bruise. It doesn’t get full of cortisol (a steroid hormone) and other things that do degrade the quality of the flesh,” said Michael Burns.

The Burns swear you can taste the difference and they’re hoping this will be the new blueprint for the future of fishing in the Pacific Northwest while always paying homage to those who came before them.

“Can you imagine being out in a little 18-foot skiff in the middle of the Bering Sea with oars? I mean, it's incredible,” said Michael Burns.

Indian Nations don’t consider themselves to be part of the commercial fishing industry -- for them, fish is food for their families.