Spontaneous Family Time

I’m sad to say, our family hasn’t spent much time together since we bought our fishing boat last year.  That’s just the way it goes for fishing families, especially when a new operation like ours is struggling to find its feet.  Zed has been gone crabbing for a month now out on the Washington coast and the kids and I miss him terribly.  We probably won’t get in much quality family time until Zed wraps up the Dungeness crab season, but we have no idea when that will be.

our boat tied up in the Westport harbor

our boat tied up in the Westport harbor

So, until we find ourselves with an excess of time and money on our hands, we must make to most of our situation and seize every little opportunity we have to reunite, even if only for a few hours.

Zed called me last week to say the weather was too rough to fish, but he couldn’t drive home because he had some repairs to do on the boat.  Would I like to drive down that evening with the kids and visit for a day (and bring him some clean laundry)?  I mentally ran through our schedule for the next day before mentally crumpling it up and throwing it away.  Yes!  I don’t care if I have to take both kids out of school for a day, skip Atticus’s Kung Fu lesson, reschedule a playdate with friends, cancel the art class I teach, and drive for 5 hours in the pouring rain through Seattle rush hour traffic.  Our boys need to see their dad and I need to see my husband!

I stuffed some clothes in our bags, crammed our two giant dogs in the back of our station wagon, and the five of us (including the dogs) hit the road!

All loaded up and ready to go

All loaded up and ready to go

5 hours (and a few potty breaks) later we pulled into Westport, a busy fishing port on the Washington coast.  We were all exhausted but it was a wonderful reunion nonetheless.  It was 9:30 pm by the time we checked into our hotel, so we all passed out pretty quickly.  Judging by the sounds of Zed snoring, I think it was the first good sleep he’d had in a while.

This was the view of the ocean I woke up to in the morning

This was the view of the ocean I woke up to in the morning

While Zed worked on the boat the next morning I played in the hotel pool with the kids.  We all met up for lunch and then tagged along as Zed ran errands for the rest of the day.  The kids were SO excited to hang out with their dad and visit our boat in the Westport harbor!

hanging out on the deck of the Robin Blue

hanging out on the deck of the Robin Blue

And before we knew it, it was time to head back home again to get ready for school the next day.  Before getting back in the car for the long drive home we took a stroll on the beach to stretch our legs one last time.  Flat sandy beach = happy kids and dogs!

a kid and dog paradise!

a kid and dog paradise!

The moral of the story here is that, no matter how busy you are, you have to put family first.  It is too easy to get caught up in paying bills and forget that our family is the whole reason why we work so hard.  If no one in the family is happy, what is the point of working so hard?  Even in the fishing world (especially in the fishing world) parents need to take a break and spend some time connecting with their kids and spouses.

a glimpse of the sun as we left the beach

a glimpse of the sun as we left the beach

Moments like these are never regretted.  We will never look back on family time and think, “if only I had spent more time fishing and less time making memories with my kids!”  I have, on the other hand, heard too many older fishermen look back on their careers and regret all the missed moments they never shared with their children.  When those moments pass – when your kids are grown – there is no way to get them back.

Zed on the beach with his boys

Zed on the beach with his boys

Even though we spent more time driving than visiting with Zed, I would do it again in a heartbeat, just to see my three guys together again.  Money can’t buy that kind of happiness.

The Last Blackcod Fishing of 2012

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The crew with a nice looking blackcod

I Should clarify… The year’s last blackcod fishing FOR ZED!  He finished the season longlining on the Pacific Hustler and took some photos on the last trip, so I thought I’d share.  These were all taken off the Washington coast.

Now to get ready for Dungeness Crab!

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Zed’s finger after getting snagged by a hook. Yuck!

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Al and Remo at the rail

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an aerial shot of Al and Remo at the rail

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Al and Remo at the rail

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left to right: Brad, Mike, and Andrew

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the “fish stripper” stripping fish off the hooks

What Ever Happened to the Blues?

I think I’m way overdue for a Blue family update.  I’ve been writing new blog posts, but I realize that I’ve been leaving out details of our new boat/fishing/business operation.  I think I’ve just been too stressed out and depressed about the whole situation to write about it and share it with the world… until now!

If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ve probably been thinking, “didn’t they buy a boat?”  If you are new to this blog you are probably thinking, “what the hell is she talking about?”  So first, for any new readers, I will try to summarize what our family has been working on for the last year.  One year ago, my husband (Zed) and I purchased a sixty foot commercial shrimp boat in Alabama, fixed it and converted it to a crab boat for fishing on the Washington State coast.

Our boat in shipyard in Alabama last year (and our dog, Dora)

As these types of projects seem to go, we went over schedule and way over budget.  Zed spent four straight months in Alabama working on the boat and then two months traveling, bringing the boat around through the Panama Canal, and up the Pacific coast.  By the time he arrived in Washington with the boat, the crabbing season (our main source of income) was mostly over.

We have spent the last six or seven months just doing whatever it takes to stay afloat (literally and figuratively) until next crab season.  Essentially, our boat has been docked for most of the year because it is only rigged for crabbing and we couldn’t afford to set it up for any other fisheries.  Zed used our boat to tender for crab, but he’s mostly been working as a deckhand on another boat longlining for blackcod.  I have picked up several odd jobs to help make ends meet, including some freelance writing for www.alaskajobfinder.com, babysitting kids in our neighborhood, and teaching a preschool art class (okay, this last one is more just for fun).  I even painted our neighbors fence!

Essentially, I have spent the last year raising two kids (and two dogs and a cat) on my own.  I’m not gonna lie to you – it’s been a rough year.  We have been barely scraping by, not even able to pay our bills some months, let alone pay off any of the personal debts we have recently acquired.

Captain Larkyn, you might want to turn those around

But I am happy to report, things are just starting to turn around!  We are slowly finding our way out of the woods, so to speak.  Last week we signed the final papers to refinance our boat loan and to finance some much-needed improvements to the boat.  This loan has been in the works for months now and I can hardly believe it is over and done with!  I’ve been sleeping better the last few nights knowing we are in a safer financial situation.

Between now and the start of the crab season (sometime in January) we have a lot of work to do – putting our boat in shipyard and installing a refrigeration system and a new generator (to start), getting our crab gear in order, buying new crab pots, painting buoys, cutting line, and all the other fun preparations that happen before a season.  All of this work will happen here in Bellingham, or nearby, and I look forward to having my husband home every night.

stack of crab pots last year

big pile of lines and buoys

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the same time, I don’t have any expectations that things will get any easier just because Zed is in town.  I am well aware of the never-ending duties of a boat owner.  This is a very important time of year for us – it is absolutely essential that our boat is ready to fish when the season starts or we could miss out on our most profitable fishing of the year.  In short, Zed will be burning the candle at both ends and I don’t expect to see too much of him, except maybe when I’m bringing him lunch down at the harbor!

Zed and Atticus on the boat

I think we have another rough year ahead of us – I don’t see any breaks in sight until the summer, at least – but we have hope that this coming crab season will be profitable and bring us further out of debt.  That’s what fishing is all about: working your absolute hardest and hoping for the best.  Wish us luck!

And Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!

 

 

Community Supported Fisheries: The Future of Family Fishing?

Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) is a concept that is growing and spreading across the country as a way for small-scale farmers to connect directly with consumers. Generally, the way C.S.A. works is that an individual can buy a share of the season’s harvest from the farmer before the growing season begins. The revenue from those sold shares covers operational costs for the farm, and when crops become available they are picked up by the shareholder in weekly or bi-weekly installments.

An example of a weekly CSA delivery, photo by Steven Walling

The farmer benefits from this arrangement, incurring less risk throughout the season, increasing revenue by eliminating a middleman, and decreasing the need for the farmer to compete with industrialized agribusinesses. The consumer, meanwhile, receives fresh locally grown produce and gets to participate directly with the farm and farmers that grow their food. Kind of a win-win situation that could potentially rescue our nation’s small family farms from impending extinction.

Unfortunately, our fisheries are headed in the same direction as the rest of our economy – fewer and fewer people owning and controlling larger and larger portions of the industry. In the case of the fishing industry, those with money are buying up permits and quota, boats are getting bigger and bigger, and the small-scale family fishing operations are finding it more and more difficult to compete.  Although it is difficult for small fishing operations to compete with factory fishing boats, the small-scale fisheries have an advantage in one way – the increasing desire that consumers have for a local connection to their food. People want to know where their food comes from and I believe this is a trend that is going to stick around.

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An example of a factory fishing boat, a factory trawler in Poland. Photo by Magnus Manske

Fishermen are beginning to catch on to the C.S.A. model now, with several C.S.F.s (community supported fisheries) now operating out of American and European fishing towns. Consumers pay for a share, or subscription, and then get weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly installments of freshly caught seafood directly from the fishermen.

Read this recent  New York Times article about how struggling fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine escaped their demise by teaming up and forming a C.S.F. in their home town.

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A 16th century Flemish fishmonger painted by Joachim Beuckelaer

For the customer the advantages are plenty:

  • The freshest seafood available
  • Exposure to new species of seafood
  • Relationship with the fishermen
  • Directly support their local economy

The only disadvantage to the customer is the payment of a lump sum up front.

For the fishermen the advantages are just as enticing:

  • Set their own prices instead of being at the whim of the market/buyer
  • Eliminate the middleman
  • Fish for what is available and plentiful
  • More stability and predictability in their earnings

For the fishermen, there might also be some disadvantages:

  • Added work load of marketing and customer relations
  • May need to process their own fish (clean, filet, and freeze)
  • Time of educating their customers on cooking methods for each species

Both C.S.A.s and C.S.F.s encourage a way of life that is not only healthier for the individual, but healthier for the environment as well – EATING IN SEASON!  This means not shipping tomatoes half way around the world to be consumed by Washingtonians in the winter, and it also means not shipping farmed shrimp from Asia to be consumed at American tables.

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A fishing boat in New Zealand, selling direct off the boat

Realistically, if Zed and I were to attempt a C.S.F. operation, the entire management of it would be my responsibility, as I suspect would be the case for many fishing families.  Historically, this was often the case as well, when “fishwives” sold fish in the market while their husbands were out at sea fishing.  Honestly, at this point in my life (with little kids) I’m not sure I could handle the extra workload.  Even though I have thought about direct marketing our seafood, I think I need to wait until both kids are in school before I seriously consider an undertaking of that magnitude.  It is an interesting possibility to consider though…

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Fishwives in Copenhagen 1932, photo from Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13007 / CC-BY-SA

Just as direct sales are the history of commercial fishing and agriculture, is it possible that direct sales could also be the future?

So, I present this question to my fishing readers – does a C.S.F. sound appealing to you?  Would you be willing to put in the extra effort in order to direct market to your customers

And to my non-fishing readers – does this appeal to you?  Would you be willing to pay up front for a season of fresh local seafood?  (Obviously this business model doesn’t work so well for those of you living inland… maybe an overnight Fed-Ex delivery?)

What if these crab showed up on your doorstep?

Fishermen Always Miss Out

A fisherman’s work schedule does not follow any calendar. Fishermen do not get weekends off. Fishermen don’t get a 40 hour work week and they sure as hell don’t get paid overtime. Most fishermen are lucky if they get one lunch break in their 20 hour work day. If you are a fisherman your work schedule goes like this: if it’s fishing season, and the weather isn’t total crap, you will be on the water catching fish (or attempting to at least). Fishing continues until the season is over, or all the quota is caught.

Now, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule. Most fishermen do not fish on Christmas day. Since Zed and I have been together he has never had to work on Christmas day. He has had to work the day before and the day after, but never the day of Christmas. Also, the birth of a baby is generally considered grounds for a short leave of absence (how short depends on the generosity of the skipper). We were lucky that the birth of our first baby happened between fishing seasons, and when our second baby was born Zed’s skipper gave him a whole month off.

But over the last eight years (that’s how long Zed and I have been together) we have spent many a birthday, holiday, and anniversary apart. This last year has been the hardest of all. Since purchasing our own fishing boat last October, Zed has spent nearly every day working. During this time period Zed has missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, our son’s 5th birthday, my (un-numbered) birthday, Valentine’s day, our anniversary, Mother’s day, and untold numbers of friend’s weddings, BBQs and other random celebrations. Add to this all those little moments, like the first lost tooth, or just a lazy summer day at the beach. And then last Friday Zed missed our son Atticus’s first day of kindergarten.

Our son Atticus on the morning of his first day of kindergarten

Just to be clear, I do not intend this as any sort of criticism of Zed as a parent or spouse, only as a demonstration of the sacrifices that a fisherman makes in order to support his family.  I know that Zed deeply regrets his absences…  He spent most of our son Larkyn’s first year of life in the Bering Sea crabbing and I think we can all agree, it was a miserable year that we wish we could get back somehow.

Zed crabbing in the Bering Sea in 2009

As a deckhand, Zed has zero say in when the boat leaves or comes home. As the captain of his own boat, Zed will have a little more control over his schedule. What is important to remember though, is that sometimes in fishing you only get short windows of opportunity where the fish are biting, or the crabs are the right size and in the right place and at the right time. The profits from a couple of weeks of fishing might be the majority of your earnings for the entire year. So, if you miss the peak of the season because you wanted to catch a school play or a soccer game, you could miss out on tens (maybe even hundreds) of thousands of dollars in earnings. This is just the way it is in fishing.

While I understand the necessity of Zed’s odd work schedule, it is difficult to explain to 4 and 5 year-olds. I try to tell our kids often, “Dad really wants to be here right now, but he has to catch fish so that we have a house to live in and food to eat”. It’s a harsh reality for little kids, but it is our reality nonetheless and I want our kids to understand that their dad is doing what he has to do, not what he wants to do.  I want them to grow up appreciating the sacrifices that their dad is making.  So far they seem to understand.

At this very moment Zed is somewhere off the Washington coast longlining for blackcod.  He’s probably wet, cold, and covered in fish blood and slime – coming to the end of a 20 hour day on deck – maybe stumbling inside to eat dinner at midnight before crashing in his bunk for his two hours of sleep so he can wake up and do it all again.  So, to my hard-working husband I say – sorry for all the moments you miss out on, and thank you for the sacrifices you make.

15 Minutes of Fishing Fame

Last month a reporter from National Fisherman magazine contacted Zed and I because he wanted to write an article about the crazy experience we had buying and fixing up our fishing boat and driving it half-way around the world and through the Panama Canal. We thought, why not?! Even though our story so far contains more regrets than successes, we figured we could endure a little embarrassment if other potential boat-buyers out there could learn from our mistakes. (Lesson #1: Inspect boat THOROUGHLY before buying)

To make a long story short, the September issue of National Fisherman just came out with our boat, the Robin Blue, on the front cover!

The photo on the cover was taken after 4 months of shipyard work

The author of the piece, Michael Crowley, was very kind to tell our story in such a positive light. Thanks Michael!

If you want to read the full article, you will have to find yourself a copy, but Here is a link to National Fisherman if you would like to read an excerpt from the article.

A short side note… a reader of the magazine recognized the Robin Blue as his father’s first fishing boat from when his family lived in Louisiana. He searched online, found my blog and left me a nice note. His family fished for shrimp with the boat for years and then sold her in 1998. It was nice to hear that our first boat was once someone else’s first boat and that she has a long history of supporting fishing families!

Here is the Robin Blue in her previous life as the Buddy Boy (thanks for the photo Daniel)

This is what I love about blogging most of all – the connections I make with individuals from all over the world, with very different backgrounds and life stories, that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.

Here she is in Alabama after her transformation, awaiting departure

The Chance to Find Yourself

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Joseph Conrad in a photo taken in 1904

I was stumbling about the internet the other day when I came across a quote from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness (published in 1902).  Conrad’s main character in his story, Charles Marlow, is a down-on-his-luck Englishman who finds himself working as a river boat captain in Africa.  Upon Marlow’s first arrival in Africa, he finds his steamboat broken down and spends the next three months repairing it before heading upriver on a treacherous journey.

It is believed that the story is based on Conrad’s real life experience, when he served as the captain of a dilapidated steamboat on the Congo River in 1889.

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The actual river boat that Conrad captained on the Congo, photo from 1889

Conrad writes about his steamboat,

“She was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

 

I have to admit that I’ve never read Heart of Darkness in it’s entirety, only excerpts such as this one, but this quote struck me as holding quite a bit of truth.  In fact, it struck a chord that reverberated for a while as I thought about how the human condition has remained relatively unchanged, even after the more than one hundred years since Heart of Darkness was published.  I laughed at the similarities between Conrad’s story and my own story, and his affectionate and critical descriptions of the boat’s qualities.

In Conrad’s story, Marlow spent three months working on his ship before steaming up the Congo.  When we bought our fishing boat last year Zed spent four months repairing her before setting off through the Gulf of Mexico, the Panama Canal, and the Pacific Coast.

Our boat, the Robin Blue, under construction

I’m going to take a chance and make a claim here, that probably most boat owners (and quite a few deckhands as well) can relate to this quote.  The work itself is horrible, but it pushes a person to their limits, and then past those limits, to a point that the person didn’t previously realize they were capable of reaching.  This is what is so unique about commercial fishing – there is something about being on the water that challenges a person and strips them down to their human core.  The ocean is cruel, uncaring, and unsympathetic to your pains, and can kill you in an instant if given the chance.  Yet somehow the stress, and the long days of work with little sleep, and the closeness to death, manage to make a person feel more alive.

My husband Zed, cleaning out the boat’s fuel tank on a scorching hot day

Of course, none of this is coming from personal experience – I’m a landlubber- my opinion on the matter comes from the observation of my hard working husband and our community of commercial fishing friends.  Commercial fishermen are the hardest working bunch of people I know.

I would be interested to hear from some commercial fishermen and boat captains on this topic… does this quote strike a chord in other people as well?

Trying to Find Balance

I just realized I’m way over due for an update on our family fishing situation.  Somehow the last month has flown by in a blur, but I suppose that’s what happens when you are frantically trying to keep your head above water!  So far we have succeeded, but I’m not going to lie to you – it’s been pretty anxious around here – barely making ends meet while Zed works his tail off running our new boat.

Zed wrapped up dungeness crabbing on the Washington coast for the time being, and moved on to tendering dungeness crab in Puget Sound.  For those readers not familiar with tendering, it means that Zed is not actually fishing for crab himself, but taking deliveries of crab from smaller fishing boats, which he then delivers to the crab buyers at the end of the day.

small fishing boat tied up to the Robin Blue, delivering crab

Zed took the photo above during an eight-day crab opener for the Tulalip Indian Tribe.

Traditional Tulalip canoe rowing past the modern fishing boats

Offloading crab from the smaller boat

sorting through the crab to weed out short or soft crab

dumping ice on the crab before delivery to pacify them and make them less aggressive.

At the end of this opener, we realized Zed had a few days before the start of the next opener.  It so rarely happens that Zed has any time off, so we decided we needed to take advantage of it and get in some quality family time.  Time to go camping!  We loaded up the car with tents and sleeping bags and left the rainy cold Northwestern part of the state, crossing over the Cascade Mountains into Eastern Washington, which has a dry and warm climate.  A three-hour drive took us from Bellingham, Washington (rainy and 54 degrees) to Winthrop, Washington (sunny and 74 degrees).  We found a quiet campground by a river, threw some rocks in the water, started a campfire, cooked some hotdogs, roasted marshmallows, and fell asleep under the stars to the sounds of crickets chirping and rushing water (and the kids giggling in their own tent).

an action shot of the rock throwing marathon

The next day we took a hike along a river through a field of wild flowers and a forest that had recently burned in a forest fire.

wild flowers along the river

Larkyn and I, stomping along

crossing a creek on a log

We had a great weekend together, and it reminded us how important it is to take time away from the boat and work and just enjoy each other.  The kids are growing up so fast and it would be a tragedy if their only memories of childhood are of their tired overworked parents.  I want their childhood memories to be of throwing rocks in the river and waking up to deer in our campsite.

As we have been warned by other boat owners, and are discovering for ourselves, work on a boat is never done.  There is always something that needs fixing, or fluids to change, or rust to grind and something to paint.  It really does take over your life, but hopefully we will be able to find that balance, where we can work hard but still make time to have adventures.

The Kindness of Others

It would be an understatement to say that the last few months have been trying. In fact, it would be an understatement to say the last few months have been an hellish mash of ulcer-inducing failures and sleepless nights. As it turns out, starting a fishing operation is not for the uncertain or faint of heart.

What initially seemed like a great investment soon turned into a nightmare as one problem after another reared its ugly head. Electrical problems, hydraulic problems, bearings, generators, and the list went on and on. Days turned into weeks which turned into months and it seemed like the repairs would never end.

Zed trying to stay positive after a day of grinding rust

The problem was, we had already purchased the boat and started putting money into improvements when we realized how much work the boat would need. By that time it was too late to back out. The boat was in Alabama and we knew we wouldn’t be able to sell it there “as is.” We had already received and spent two generous loans from a family member and a friend for boat improvements, so walking away from the project wasn’t an option. Our only option was to press forward and try to get the boat in working order and back to the West Coast, where it could start fishing and making us money. After refinancing all our vehicles, maxing out all our credit cards, then getting new credit cards, we were running out of funds. Our home hadn’t gone up in value since we bought it, so refinancing or selling weren’t possibilities. Banks aren’t giving out “start up” loans to new businesses. We started to feel hopeless about the situation.

But every time we started thinking our goose was cooked, someone would step in and help us out. Multiple friends and family members stepped in and loaned us whatever they could afford. Total strangers heard Zed’s story and gave him amazing deals on parts. The owner of the shipyard, Joe, realized the situation we were in and vowed to help us in any way he could. He provided his own time and labor, traded with Zed for parts and supplies, and gave Zed use of his tools.

The Shipyard Crew: Joe Gazzier, Zed, Victor, Kevin, Wayne, Kelly, and Jimmy

Two friends, Rick and Justice, flew down to Alabama from Alaska to help drive the boat around to the west coast. When more and more problems delayed their departure, they stuck around and helped Zed. When Rick and Justice realized the boat wouldn’t be ready to depart anytime soon, they could have dropped it and flown back to Alaska, but they stayed for two and a half more months. Day after day of waking up at dawn and working in the shipyard till night, these guys stuck it out, knowing we couldn’t afford to pay them. They gave over two months of labor and advice and moral support, just because they wanted to help and didn’t want to see us fail.

When the boat was finally ready to depart, we realized that Zed would need to fly home to make some more money. Rick and Justice offered to take the boat as far as they could and they flew in another friend, Mark, to help them make the journey. The three of them drove the boat from Alabama to Panama, through miserable weather, and through the stress and chaos (and near collisions) of the Panama Canal.

Mark and Dora the dog with the deck load of groceries, preparing for departure. Yes, those are giant Mardi Gras beads in the foreground (when in New Orleans... )

After safely reaching the Pacific Ocean, Rick and Mark were out of time and needed to fly back to Alaska, but Justice decided to stay on for the last leg of the trip. Zed flew down to Panama City to meet the boat as it came through the canal, and our dear friend Remo cut his vacation in Switzerland short to fly all the way across the world and lend a hand.

Remo and Justice, Zed's crew, in Panama City

Zed, Justice, and Remo just departed Panama City today on the F/V Robin Blue. They head North, for what will hopefully be an uneventful and “quick” jaunt to Washington State.

This is where she's been anchored for the last week, right next to the shipping lane at the base of the Panama Canal.

The point I want to make with this post is that we have had so many individuals help us out in so many ways throughout this whole process. Some were close friends and family, and some were total strangers, but everyone was cheering us on. I think that one of the reasons for this widespread support is because, essentially, we are trying to realize the “American Dream.” Tired of working for other people and barely paying our bills, we made the decision to take a risk with the hope that if we work hard enough we can better ourselves and become more self-reliant. I think that this struggle resonates with most people in some way or another: some share the dream, while others have been in our shoes and already succeeded in realizing their dreams.

Whatever their motivation for supporting us, I just want to give a great big THANK YOU to everyone who has assisted us in the last few months, whether it be financially, morally, or otherwise. We NEVER would have made it this far without everyone’s assistance. Unfortunately, we still have a long ways to go before we are “out of the woods.” I can’t yet say how this venture will turn out, but no matter the outcome I can walk away from this all with a renewed faith in humanity.

(as Zed, Remo, and Justice spend the next few weeks making their way up the coast of Central America and North America, please wish them safe travels and good weather!)

The Prices We Pay for Protein

Seafood catches a lot of scrutiny from the media and environmental groups about sustainability, over fishing, and mercury content. Shoppers turn away from the seafood section of their grocery stores because they are confused and overwhelmed by all the contradictory information they have been bombarded with. Pretty much everyone is in agreement that fish is an important part of a healthy diet, but many people are worried about eating the “wrong” fish and unknowingly consume mercury or contributing to the over-fishing of a species.

And while all these concerns are valid, I don’t see the same degree of scrutiny being turned on other forms of protein, namely beef, pork and chicken. The Beef/Pork/Chicken “holy trinity of meats” has been a staple of American cuisine and culture since… well since there has been American cuisine and culture. But animal production and farming has come a long way (just not in the right direction) since the farming days of our ancestors.

At this point in my blog post I am going to make an assumption that all my readers are aware of the horrifying nature of factory farms, and that I don’t need to describe in detail the cruel treatment of animals. If you need an example (and you have a strong stomach), watch this video below, which shows the production of pork in some of the largest hog farms in the country.

It is not just pork being produced in this manner. It is a similar story for poultry and beef. Animals are crammed together in spaces so tight, their teeth, beaks and claws have to be removed so the animals don’t kill each other in reaction to the stress. Not only are these animals living in fear and pain for their entire lives, they are also pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, treated with pesticides, and fed low quality feed. At the ends of their lives they are often too weak and sick to even walk themselves to slaughter and the dying creatures have to be bulldozed to their death.

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cows in a "confined animal feeding operation"

The goal is to produce as much meat for the least amount of money. Does this method of farming produce a high quality meat?  Absolutely not. But this is how most of the meat in the united states is produced.  When I say most, I mean almost all of it.

Before I bore my readers with too many depressing facts, I think it important to add that factory farming also has a detrimental impact on the environment. Enormous amounts of fresh water are used in the production of meat, starting with the irrigation water required to grow the grain to feed the animals. The waste from these “farms” creates methane gasses and toxic run-off that leaches into groundwater and pollutes rivers, lakes, and eventually oceans. Citizens who are unfortunate enough to live next to factory farms face higher than normal rates of illness and cancers.

Oftentimes the same consumers that are worrying about whether they are eating the right fish, or if they might be getting too much mercury, or if certain fishing methods are damaging the oceans, are turning around and grabbing a Styrofoam tray of chicken breasts, not realizing the horror story that was that chicken’s life, the drugs it contains, and the impact it had on the environment.

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chickens being raised for meat

And I don’t mean to sound like I’m writing from some morally superior high-ground, because I am often guilty of this very crime.  I admit that I have been more concerned about the origins of seafood than the origins of the other animal I eat, probably because of my family’s involvement in the fishing industry.  I don’t hesitate to ask a restaurant or grocery store where their seafood comes from, but I rarely ever ask about the source of their meats.  If I can ask about the salmon on the menu, why wouldn’t I ask about the steak?  Sure, I try to only buy “free range” chicken or “natural” beef, but in the research I’ve been doing lately I’m discovering that these terms mean very little.  I have been so shocked by the information I have gathered about factory farms that when I went grocery shopping today, I passed the meat section feeling literally queasy.

As a result, I think I have changed my views on seafood a little.  I think any wild fish is improvement over factory raised meats.  A wild fish lives out its entire life as nature intended. It swims free, grows strong, eats the same things fish have been eating for millions of years, and is subject to the law of “survival of the fittest.”  Some fish may accumulate very small quantities of contaminants like mercury in their systems, but compared to the antibiotic/hormone/pesticide cocktails that are pumped into most meats, well… I just can’t say I’m too concerned about the minuscule levels of contaminants in fish.    I still won’t touch a farmed fish, or a fish from another country, but the fisheries in the United States are so carefully managed (sometimes overly managed) that any wild fish caught in US waters is a pretty safe bet.

In short, when it comes to eating protein, I CHOOSE FISH!!!

wild salmon in Alaska, photo by Lauren Godfrey

No, I’m not going completely pescetarian, but from now on, if I eat meat it is going to be from a small local farm.  I don’t want to eat any more mystery meats.  If you would like more information and advice for avoiding factory meats and dairy products, read this article from The Huffington Post.