Two decades ago a pound of halibut sold in frozen bricks for less than $4. Then the government privatized the industry, putting in place a first-in-the-nation system called catch shares that stabilized the fishery and sent prices soaring. But it was a move that created basic inequities in a system that has yet to right itself.
Guys like Jared Bright vie for control of the industry's lower rungs, the only rungs that seem to be left. Simply put, they're renters. They don't own the halibut, not even when it lands in their boats. The fish are instead the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right time to get a stake.
Their ownership rights came courtesy of the federal government. At the time, it was a good idea. In ways, it still is. But it's created what amounts to a feudal system over a natural resource.
It's a system, called catch shares, that the government and environmental groups will tell you is the best thing to happen to fish since catch limits. But fishermen in the halibut and black-cod industry—the first in the country to live with the bizarre realities of these new policies—have weathered its real consequences, outcomes that fly in the face of more official, rosy portrayals. Outcomes like absentee landlords, brokers and bankers, fish quota that costs more than your house, and a new generation of people cluttering their hulls, demanding sandwiches.
It's getting hard for young fishermen like Bright to stay in this game. Those who try, though, are bettering their odds with a few comfy amenities, bait for a different kind of big fish: owners. Big-screen TVs, staterooms, hot tubs, saunas, and a super-sweet DVD collection are all things that could potentially shift their odds.
Meet America's newest sharecroppers.
Read "Sharecroppers of the Sea."