The strangest thing occurred to me this evening. It was our first day back at the farm after 4 days at the beach – Orange Beach, a literal stone’s throw into Alabama from the western-most tip of the Florida panhandle, 315 miles and 6 hours from home – and we were enjoying some of the spoils of our journey for dinner. The four of us had a couple of fillets each of $85 worth of vermillion and lane snapper on our plates, $85 that was just my third of the friend price we paid for the pleasure.
Now, before we go any farther, I really ought to define the word “pleasure” as it applies to this situation: by “pleasure” I mean 3-5 foot seas driven by 15-20 knot winds, in a 22’ Mako center console, 20 miles from land.
I chucked. I admit it. I’m embarrassed, and I really can’t believe that I’m telling this story, but I definitely chucked. Twice. I was out of commission for three hours actually. The captain asked us both, my younger and very generous uncle Andrew and I, the day before our charter, if we were prone to seasickness.
“No,” we both replied. “I got seasick once, in college, when I was working on an 18’ bay boat in the Suwannee estuary, filtering plankton from seawater, working on the deck with my head hanging between my knees,” I added. That was god-awful, but come on, 18’ bay boat rocking on 5’ waves while I was trying to focus on something tedious below me. We’re fishing this time, eyes on the horizon, what could possibly go wrong?
“Just wondering,” our captain, JT, an old college friend of Andrew’s wife, chimed in, “wind’s supposed to be strong, and seas potentially heavy, according to NOAA.”
“We’ll be OK,” I tossed out quickly. And by OK I meant OK until I had battled a massive imaginary fish that actually turned out to be some structure on the sea floor, darted into by a fairly modest lesser amberjack. Problem was, I could feel the fish take the bait and run. It was strong, as jacks tend to be, and easily the biggest fish of the day. The seas were heaving, the boat was twirling, I actually had my arm wrapped around one of the T-top’s support poles to make sure I stayed IN the vessel. JT strapped a fighting belt around me, and Andrew cheered me on in my stupendous attempt to reel the boat into the salt water and down to the bottom, 110’ below, where my prize “fish” awaited.
“Damn, this thing’s killing me,” I finally admitted. The butt of my Star rod was cracking in the plastic holster of the fighting belt. Veins were no doubt popping out of my neck, and my left arm, the one holding the rod, was screaming for mercy. My muscles were trembling. I wanted to hand this fish off to the next guy, whoever he was, and rest for a minute. All the glory of fighting and landing the trophy fish of the day vanished under the weight of effort such tasks suddenly seemed to require.
“Are you sure you aren’t snagged on the bottom?” JT asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “That would be embarrassing, but the boat is moving around so much, and the seas are so insane I can’t really tell. I gain a little line and then lose it right back. Could be the bottom I guess, but I felt a fish take the bait.”
“Let me see that rod for a minute,” JT finally said to me. Oh thank god! I thought. Yes, please, take this damn thing and see what we’ve got. I handed it over without any protest whatsoever.
“Yeah, you’re on the bottom,” he said, after getting situated. He wandered around a little in the open bow and pulled the line in different directions with a gloved hand. It popped loose somehow, and he reeled it slowly to the surface, fighting something on the other end, but not exactly the Volkswagen I had been wrestling for the last 20 minutes or so. I slumped onto the padded seat in front of the console, feeling a bit silly, and really, really tired. The crushing seas were getting to me, and now I felt like I had spent a day’s worth of energy in 20 minutes of grappling with planet Earth. That’s a battle that humans will never, ever win; I know that as well as anyone. The irony of my ideology, applied to the current situation, settled heavily on my shoulders. I was beat. And Earth never even noticed. Five minutes rolled by. I had already seen the lesser amberjack landed and released, the line repaired, and rod stowed in the gunwale receiver.
I didn’t want another rod just yet, but I got one handed to me anyway. Ten minutes passed. Activity started to return to normal elsewhere on the boat, but I couldn’t move. I felt weak. I tried to drop a pair of small pinfish to the bottom, dragged by a 3 ounce sinker, mentally guiding it away from anything larger than your average bluegill. I figured no matter how tired I was I could handle your average bluegill, especially with the god dang tuna stick the skipper had just handed me, but there were no bluegills here, and we were hunting amberjack. “Reef donkeys,” he called them. Ostensibly because they pull like a stubborn jackass on the unfortunate soul connected to one of them by a length of unbreakable 80 lb test line. I wanted the line to be frail and dry rotted, not unbreakable. Actually, I’ve never wanted to NOT catch a fish so badly in all my life.
Fortunately (I thought at the time), a couple minutes later, the pinfish rig came back to the surface severely twisted. That’ll buy me a few more minutes, I thought, as I went to work untwisting the little baitfish from the egg sinker. But the focus required to untangle that mess had the same effect on me that filtering plankton in that 18’ bay boat in the Suwannee estuary had had. I tried to hold it back, tried to meditate on the horizon and think about the stability of my garden back home, but it came out anyway. The pear I brought with me from my grandfather’s tree, the water I had been drinking, whatever was in there came out. Admittedly it wasn’t much, but my stomach kept looking for things to get rid of, whether they were there or not. And it did it again about an hour later. Damn ice chips. Why would I put something so harsh in my poor stomach!?
And all the while that dragonfly cruised along beside us. I wanted to say something to that dragonfly, maybe ask him if there was anything he could do about the motion of the ocean, but I don’t speak dragonfly. I put my feet up on the cooler and half dozed in misery for the next two hours while the sea beat the stuffing out of our little boat, and the emerging sun scorched my belly and the white parts of my thighs that don’t usually see the light of day. I half remember JT and Andrew wondering aloud if maybe we shouldn’t cash it in, as a favor to me, but I didn’t want to, and I said so through the fog, giving the big thumbs up. No, no, I’m OK. It takes a lot of gas to get 20 miles out to sea in a small boat under those conditions, and I’ll be damned if I was going to be the reason it was wasted. Wretched or not.
The emerging sun carried some promise with it, though, and the winds started to ease up. As the winds died down the seas also mellowed out. I awoke to the fellas cranking on snapper at a new spot. At first I didn’t care. I still felt miserable, and those snapper were too small to get excited about. But as number 3, and then number 4, went into the ice, I started feeling like I should marshal my will back toward the task at hand. We had come to catch fish, and I meant to do just that before we called it a trip. The idea that this might be my last run off-shore was settling in. While JT was helping Andrew with a tangle I asked if he minded me taking his heavy Penn spinning outfit for a minute.
“Of course not, but let me put you back on the spot first,” he replied.
He steered back along his GPS route, back to the up-current end of the structure they were working. I steadied myself against the port edge of the captain’s bench and got my baits straightened out to drop when he gave the word. Finally they were sinking straight down into 113’ of blue water.
That dragonfly caught my eye again, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been flitting alongside the boat the whole time I had been out, quietly doing his part to stabilize my perspective.
BAM!! The bite took almost no time, and a minute or two later I was putting the biggest vermillion snapper of the day into the ice chest. I was back. Senses recovering, we added several more snapper and porgies, or “reef candy” as JT called them because they are so delicious and carry no size or bag limit restrictions, to the cooler, fishing steadily until the now-unwelcome “last drift” call came from the helm. Three “trash fish” released; time to go.
Now that you more fully understand the “pleasure” I spoke of earlier, and how small a fraction of the real cost that even that $85 I paid for 6 tiny snapper fillets was, we can return to the strange occurrence at the dinner table tonight. My toddling son, Oliver, hated it. Put a piece of that delicate treasure in his mouth, and promptly spit it right back out, making an ugly face. I ate his share of course; I can think of precious few things that compare to the delight of flaky white saltwater fish like snapper, and there was zero chance I was going to let that $14 fillet go to waste.
“He’s not my son,” I muttered. But then I remembered that this was going to be my last trip off-shore. There would probably be no more snapper on our table. There was no reason to coax the boy into liking it. Fine, more for me. I love it. I know what it took to acquire those little fillets. I understand this delicacy that only easy access to abundant cheap liquid energy can grant. And I understand that access to that abundant cheap liquid energy is fading quickly these days, which made the snapper even more valuable to my mind.
The amount of energy we spent acquiring that tiny bit of protein was obscene. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t take it back, even with the chucking, but the EROI was just stupid low. Blue water fishing has never been a common man’s game, even in the halcyon days of peak economy. I feel fortunate to have good friends who have at times felt inclined to take me off-shore with them. But I think this is it for me. I don’t want to be seasick again. I don’t want to be 20 miles off-shore in a 22’ boat again, with thunderstorms converging all around us. And if we had been in a big enough boat to make that ocean comfortable, we would have spent a lot more energy than we did to get that fish. It was already too much.
We farming humans have spent several thousand years turning our EROI upside down – and we’ve been doing so much faster since the dawn of industrial agriculture. Today, petroleum-based food production methods input upwards of 5 calories of energy into every calorie that reaches the American table. Off-shore fishing hovers around the upper end of the EROI absurdity, without a doubt, costing far more than 5 calories for every one delivered. WAY more. Without a GPS and depth-finder, it’s all just blue ocean with a lot of nondescript bottom. Without advanced weather tracking satellites, and cell phones that are just as advanced to receive that data, more people braving the seas we eventually bested that day would be toast. Without gas-burning engines, and relatively cheap gas to burn in them, day trips to fishing grounds off-shore would be impossible. All of these things, and myriad other unmentioned details, cost a bloody fortune in terms of energy. And in an energy descent context, this game will have fewer players every year from here on out. Good for the snapper; bad for the folks who make their living putting people on these beautiful fish.
So I sit here and enjoy my last bites of vermillion and lane snapper, and delicious little porgies from 113’ below a featureless seascape, impressed by the technology that made it possible, happy to have had the experience, and willing to add it to a growing list of things that just won’t work in a lower energy future. Thank you, Andrew and JT, for showing me one last good time engaged in an activity that has no hope of remaining viable in our energy descent world. As fun as it may be!
Oliver, never mind the snapper. See that cricket hopping through the mulch under the okra over there? Grab it and let’s see if we can catch us a tasty bluegill for dinner!