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On the helm of a New England fishing boat
5/13/2019

Boats that work for a living are very different animals than recreational cruisers or even tricked-out battlewagons that take anglers far offshore. On deck there is very little equipment that is not in place to earn a living, from refrigerator-size winches on draggers that haul in trawl warps to hydraulic pot haulers on lobster boats that raise traps off the bottom to be emptied. Even high-horsepower sound systems that blast out music at ear-splitting decibels are there to keep crewmen happy and moving fast.

That single purpose—making money—carries through into the pilothouse. Lots of electronic displays, levers, switches and assorted other hardware are located strategically on, above and around the dashboard. Redundant equipment is the rule—two or three radars, plotters, fishfinding sonars, VHFs and dedicated devices of all sorts. If equipment does its job, it stays—often for years. If it doesn’t, it’s gone quickly, replaced by a better option.

If you didn’t grow up in a fishing family or live in a coastal fishing community like New Bedford or Gloucester, Massachusetts, or Rockland or Stonington, Maine—it’s unlikely you’ve ever stepped aboard a working fishboat. I had the privilege over nearly two decades of going aboard all types of commercial fishing boats as editor of National Fisherman magazine, which plays to working fishermen from coast to coast. I was always impressed with the armada of electronics and the skipper’s ability to wring the best from it.

We asked veteran writer/editor Mike Crowley, who fished aboard a halibut longliner in Alaska many years ago, to describe the electronics on a few typical fishing vessels off the New England coast. We rolled out part 1 last week. Here’s the rest of the story.

Function trumps ‘pretty’
By Michael Crowley

VSAT is rare
 
A communication tool with broadband connectivity on large fishing boats in the North Pacific and Bering Sea is VSAT—Very Small Aperture Terminals. VSAT equipment gives the crew Internet access to social media, the ability to check in with the family at home and the boat’s skipper can communicate with the front office.
 
On large pleasure boats VSAT is a necessity. "In the recreational world you can’t get a crew on a megayacht unless you have that connectivity,” says Dave Frank of Chris Electronics in New Bedford, MA.  
 
But VSAT is not on New England fishing boats. "There’s nothing in New England to that level. I’ve not sold a VSAT into a commercial boat,” says Frank. Part of the reason is that West Coast and Alaska boats make longer trips than New England’s offshore fleet: three months for a pollack boat opposed to about 10 days for a scalloper. "Plus they have a huge amount of people on board, whereas a scallop boat has seven guys,” says Frank. "If they have the ability to check in every day or two then everyone’s happy.” 
 
Plus, owners of New England fishing boats "don’t want the distraction of a crewman calling home and his wife or girlfriend doesn’t answer the phone. He starts wondering where she is and his productivity drops off.”

 Catch monitors

Communications of a different order is the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS). It monitors and tracks the location and movement of certain offshore fishing vessels, including vessel identification, time, date and location. At the start of each trip, the vessel operator checks in with the National Marine Fisheries Service and gets a verification code. 

Fishing boats going after scallops, herring and bluefin also use VMS for filing an electronic trip report, which is designed to help conserve and manage fishery resources. It’s a listing of all species that are caught on each trip, including both kept and discarded fish, as well as sea turtles. 

Lobster boats: 
Plotters and sounders take center stage

When it’s time to set out pots on most Maine lobster boats, the skipper doesn’t have far to go to find his primary electronic displays—a chartplotter and a sounder. They are "right in their face,” says Peter Grant whose company Pete’s Marine Electronics in Waldoboro, ME, services fishing boats along the mid-Maine coast. 
 
The "right in your face” would be next to the controls and the hauling station, mounted on the dash and not high up where he would get a neck strain looking at them. More than likely the plotter and sounder are set behind a glass plate "so they don’t get all crapped up” when the pots are being hauled back, Grant says.  
 
The sounder helps determine where the lobsterman is going to set his traps. When the traps are dumped over the side that spot is recorded on the plotter. 
 
Of course, it’s a good idea to keep track of nearby boats, which is why the lobsterman also wants the radar close by, "but it’s secondary to the plotter and sounder,” says Grant. Lobster boats working close to shore have at least one radar, while Maine lobster boats that go out overnight usually have two radars.
 
Increasingly, the screens might be a multifunction display--MFD. "More and more are going to [MFDs], but some are old school and rather have stand-alone units. Some like everything on one screen. Some hate it. It’s Ford versus Chevy,” says Grant.  What an MFD aboard a lobster boat doesn’t have is a touchscreen. "Most prefer not to have touchscreens. Touch screens and wet gloves don’t get along very well.”
 
Both offshore and inshore lobstermen rely on plotters. "Almost all bug catchers use [them],” says Grant. Offshore, where lobstermen by law have to fish  trawls, the end buoy of each string of traps is marked on the plotter. Inshore it’s single traps and doubles that are fished. "Inshore guys fish so many traps they wouldn’t know where there are,” says Grant, "so they mark them” on the plotter.
 
So when it’s "dungeon thick ‘a fog (they) can make a straight line right to it,” says Grant. The GPS is accurate enough so that when the lobster boat is "on top of the mark on the plotter they should be able to reach over the side with the gaff and pick up the [buoy].”
 
Lobstermen favor the 200 kHz frequency on the depth sounder because it gives them "a good look at the bottom topography, a nice crisp, clear view of what the bottom looks like.”

AIS—both good and bad

While lobstermen want to know exactly where they are and where their gear is, historically they have been very shy about letting other fishermen know their location. So while both inshore and offshore lobster boats are likely to carry an AIS (Automatic Identification System), there are two ways lobstermen sometimes—should we say—protect their privacy. 
 
Boats under 65 feet, which is the inshore fleet, aren’t required to have an AIS unit. If they do, and more fishermen are installing them, it’s likely to be a black box Class B unit that’s linked to the radar and chartplotter, giving a visual illustration of where other boats are.
 
Class B AIS can be rigged with a "silent switch.” Flip that and the unit doesn’t transmit. The lobsterman knows the position of all the boats that are transmitting, but they can’t see him since he’s not transmitting. If he’s hauling traps packed with lobsters, it’s an attempt to remain electronically invisible and protect his "hot spot.”
 
Offshore boats over 65 feet are required to use AIS. If they are caught with the AIS in a silent mode "it’s a hefty fine,” says Grant. 
 
Communication electronics might not be right in the lobsterman’s face when he’s in the wheelhouse, but they are important. On boats fishing close to shore the radio is almost always a VHF. Go offshore and it’s apt to be a satellite phone. "Very rarely does anybody put a sideband on any more,” says Grant.
 
A lot of lobstermen use handheld satellite phones with a marine install kit. That provides an external antenna and is always charged. The phone can be used inside the wheelhouse or take it out of the kit and walk out on deck to use it. 
 
There’s not much of a chance for entertainment on a lobster boat, but Grant says he has put a "handful of [TV] satellite antennas” on lobster boats "that go way offshore and spend the night or a couple of days.”

About the author
Michael Crowley was the longtime boats and gear editor for National Fisherman and a regular contributor to WorkBoat magazine. He has written several articles for Marine Electronics Journal. In his early days, Mike worked aboard the famous wooden Alaska halibut schooner Attu.


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