KP Fisherman Reflects on Salmon, Aquaculture and Climate Change

Randy Babich has been fishing Puget Sound and southeast Alaska for 54 years. A lot has changed in that time. 

Posted

Randy Babich has been a commercial fisherman for 54 years. Photo: Lisa Bryan, KP News

The Paragon is a 56-foot commercial purse seiner moored at Longbranch Marina, a seagoing workhorse that dwarfs the pleasure boats around it. 

“I was going to be a dentist,” said the owner, Randy Babich, who just turned 70. “I went through pre-med, pre-dent. My dad always said, ‘Get into a profession.’ ”

Babich spent five years at the University of Washington while supporting himself by fishing in southeast Alaska with his dad. “But the longer I fished up there, the more I thought, ‘I’m just going to fish, why would anybody not want to fish?’ I fell in love with the frontier.” 

He changed majors, earning degrees in philosophy and psychology. “And after 54 years, outside of working for my dad I’ve never worked for anybody in my life.”

Babich grew up in Gig Harbor and “got into fishing because my family was into fishing,” starting with his grandfather, who immigrated to Gig Harbor in 1910 after a grape blight on the Adriatic island of Brač. “There’s 1,300 islands on the Dalmatian coast, and most of Gig Harbor came from that place.”

He bought the Paragon in 1980, five months after it was launched. It can deploy a huge wall of netting (the seine) around a school of fish with a large skiff, a misnomer for a small boat with a 225-horsepower inboard engine. The seine has floats along the top line and a lead line along the bottom. The lead line is pulled in, “pursing” the net closed on the bottom, and the catch is hauled in.

“I’ve navigated 452,000 nautical miles, and this boat’s probably put about 41 million pounds of fish aboard, mostly salmon. But it’s a tough game; high risk, high stakes gambling,” Babich said. 

“There’s something in our DNA that is a magnet for the endeavor of fishing in a frontier — the high risk is almost like the juice,” he said. “Keep in mind that in a good season in Southeast Alaska, the most days you get to actually fish would be about 32. If we got three hours sleep a day, we thought that was fantastic.”

Babich started renting a cabin on the Key Peninsula in 1973 because “Gig Harbor was growing far too fast for me.” He built a house in Vaughn in ’77, then bought property in Longbranch for a larger house and shop in 1985. He became acquainted with a woman named Lindsey in 1980 who had lived on the KP since ’76, and they married in 1989.

“She is one tough gal,” he said. “She piled the lead line, which is 2,500 pounds, 18 hours a day, then cranks out gourmet meals. She’s the best net person and best navigator I ever had.” “There’s something in our DNA that is a magnet for the endeavor of fishing in a frontier — the high risk is almost like the juice.”

In the late 1980s, Babich began to notice changes in the market and the marine environment.

With the spread of fish farms in Pacific Northwest waters, “salmon went from being a specialty to being a commodity,” he said. “I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and it was the train, because it’s very easy to raise salmon.”

In 1990, he and Lindsey diversified into caviar. 

“I was trying to look for something that was value-added that the farms couldn’t touch, and it happened to be the eggs of a chum. The Japanese call it ‘ikura.’ ”

Chum salmon is also called dog salmon, keta salmon or silverbrite salmon. The name chum comes from the Chinook Jargon “tzum,” meaning “spotted” or “marked.”

The value of chum caviar is about 65 percent of the fish, he said. “The Russians will eat it right off their finger; the Japanese mix it with rice into ikura don. For a lot of Americans, eggs are bait.” 

Now in its 30th year, the Babiches’ company, Trader Bay Ltd., packs about 50,000 pounds of ikura each year. The rest of the fish, 1 to 2 million pounds bought from 28 other purse seiners, is filleted or chunked and sent to smokeries or canneries, or is frozen and shipped overseas. 

“It’s been a very successful adjunct to being a fisherman. Lindsey is as much responsible for the success of it as I am.” 

But fish farms, he noted, have had a negative effect on the environment as well as the market. 

“In Norway they move the pens around,” he said. “Here we have pens in place, so you have residual fecal droppings and feed devastating the ecosystem beneath the pen. One thing they could do to thwart the spread of parasites that exist in Canadian farms is to move all farms upland. I think that will be the trend for farmed fish.” 

Conversely, even while affecting the environment, fish farms are also affected by it.

“The biggest threat to commercial fishermen now — for farmers and fisherman — is climate change: It’s right in our face,” Babich said. “We absolutely, positively, unequivocally see it.” 

Changes in ocean water temperature and acidity have had an impact on all kinds of species, he said.

“The survivability of fish is really noticeable. This year we had about 40 percent of the normal run. The temperature in South Puget Sound was up to 61 degrees.” According to his Alaskan colleagues, in Bristol Bay it was 68 degrees.

“Acidity affects the longevity and the size of fish,” Babich said. “It’s a reality; you can measure it. Science is not an illusion.”

Many species, from young salmon to baleen whales, feed on zooplankton, which are affected both by lack of oxygen in warm waters and the quality of their own prey, phytoplankton. Phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide, but that process is compromised by warm water and acidification caused by an overabundance of the gas.

“You see it in these dead whales washing up (27 gray whales stranded in Puget Sound in 2019, part of the 70 that died along the U.S. west coast),” Babich said. “They were emaciated. Dead whales are not a good sign.”

Babich views himself and his colleagues as custodians of the environment.

“I am a strong environmentalist,” he said. “With fishermen, you get this, ‘Oh, you guys just go out and rape the seas.’ We do not. We’re all members of the Marine Stewardship Council; we go through a scrutiny of unbiased analysis to be a sustainable fishery.”

He was also part of the Marine Environmental Consortium that stopped about 15 fish farms from being put in Puget Sound.  “Politically, we have a lot of hurdles and I spend a lot of time in Olympia in the winter, lobbying and all that, to try to keep our head above water,” he said. In 2012, he helped pass a bill to promote public-private partnership to finance fish hatcheries.

“The state was going to close one (hatchery) down a few years ago in Hood Canal. A group I belong to, the Purse Seine Owners Association, decided to keep it afloat, so we spent about a million bucks in five years to cover the fixed capital costs. That hatchery is really important; you have about a 2.3 percent return from those fish but the spin-off is a 7-1 factor in the economy.”

In addition, brood stock from that and other hatcheries are planted by Washington tribes and others to rehabilitate salmon runs around Puget Sound.

“There are people doing good things,” Babich said. “We just need to accelerate that and of course acknowledge that this is a reality we have to adapt to. I guess the question is, will it be enough?”