Sustainable seafood from an all-women fishing crew
Conventional commercial fishing is well-known to be riddled with problems. Many boats use nets that catch and or harm species not in their desired catch list, including vulnerable turtle and shark populations. The industry is also tied to the approximately 17 to 39 million tons of bycatch, or caught fish and animals that are considered “worthless” and are discarded. As such, fishing can cause great harm to the world’s oceans. But Heather Sears, skipper of the Princess fishing boat and founder of Princess Seafood, is a proponent of a new wave of sustainable and humane fishing. She also happens to have a mostly female crew.
Heather Sears started trolling, or fishing by dragging long lines with hooks behind the boat, with her father at eight years old. It’s considered a more sustainable method of fishing because bycatch is minimal and quickly released.
At 19, Sears began crewing on fishing boats. “I had a few great mentors that didn’t see just some young chick; they saw an aspiring commercial fisherman,” she says.
Those mentors encouraged Sears to buy her own boat, which she did at 21 from money she had saved by working her way from the bottom up.
From there, Sears got better and better at fishing. “It’s been a wild ride. Challenging, yes. Uncomfortable? Often. Terrifying and mind-numbingly boring all in the same 20-hour day,” she says. “Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the ocean will present you with something so spectacular, you forget completely that the last six days have been hell.”
One of those spectacular things, it might be argued, was the day in 2008 when Sears discovered the Princess in Canada. The boat was larger and more comfortable than any of her three previous boats, and it had an increased fuel capacity that would allow Sears to stay out longer before refueling. “I found her in Nanimo, Canada, in 2008, patiently waiting for me, with that name,” says Sears.
The Princess could carry eight tons of fish in the hold and 1,800 pounds in a blast freezer, which would allow Sears to carry and sell her high-quality fish directly to the consumer. So she ponied up her savings, took out a credit union loan, and purchased the Princess, the fourth boat she’s owned, “with the dream of fishing less and marketing my own catch.” The Princess, a 42-foot Seamaster, now docks out of Fort Bragg, CA.
While gaining experience as a fishing-boat owner, Sears says she had “a few awkward experiences with men I hired when I was first getting started.” To give other women fishers a better workplace, Sears has been hiring an all-woman crew on her sustainable fishing boats since 2003, except for her father and her boyfriend.
“We feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment going to sea, facing the challenges of boats and the ocean, and returning with a hold full of the healthiest, last truly wild food on the planet,” says Sears.
Sears and her crew take several steps to ensure that their operation is as sustainable as possible. While use of diesel engines in work boats is common, the Princess’s diesel engine is special. According to Sears, most freezer boats have two engines running. Her boat only has one.
The engine simultaneously runs the boat at about 5.5 knots, which is slower than many other fishing boats, and powers the freezer where Sears and her crew member, Rebecca “The Beast” Riesbick, store their catch. Having only one engine helps Sears conserve fuel, save money, and pollute less than dual-engine fishing boats.
While a majority of conventional commercial fishing boats use nets, which encourage what she calls a “catch as much as you can attitude”, Sears stays true to her roots: “I grew up trolling, dragging hooks instead of nets, so I was raised with a ‘one fish at a time’ mentality.”
The Princess crew hauls in the trolling lines by hand. Sears says trolling is “totally inefficient”: Boats that drag huge nets along the sea floor can catch in just a few hauls what the Princess crew catches in their six-month-long trolling season. But this inefficiency is what makes the Princess a sustainable fishing operation.
“We can target exactly what species we want to catch by adjusting lures, speed, gear depth, and location,” she says. “We can release fish that are too small or the wrong kind and watch them swim away.”
Princess Seafood fish is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as sustainably caught.
Sears also believes wholeheartedly that trolling is the most humane method of fishing. Fish float behind the boat instead of being dumped and left to suffocate on deck, which is what occurs in conventional commercial fishing.
The Princess crew takes care to troll only in fisheries that are carefully managed to protect threatened stocks. If the people managing the stocks feel that certain areas are too low in fish or the fish are in danger, they will permanently close that area to protect the fish, she says. Careful regulation and government oversight—along with fishing operations that run trolling lines geared towards exactly what species is in season—keeps fish stocks healthy.
The Princess crew also catches fish with an eye to customer health. While all fish have some mercury in them, Sears says that many of the types her crew catches also have high levels of selenium. Selenium binds to mercury, counteracting toxic effects. Also, she says, “In our West Coast albacore fishery, we catch the fish very early in their life cycle before they can accumulate significant levels of mercury.”
Sears sells her catch off the boat, at select grocery stores and restaurants in the Bay area, at the Mendocino County Farmer’s Market, and from her website.
When the Princess crew finish their season each September, they can mail their catch, both fresh and canned, anywhere in the country.
Sears also recommends buying American fish direct from fishers, which she says gives the public higher-quality fish at a better value, caught under “some of the best science-based fish management in the world”. It also helps fishers like Sears and Riesbeck make a living doing what they love while continuing to pioneer their sustainable and humane style of fishing.