FISH FLOUR and the Cobb Midwater Trawl

 

The Cobb midwater trawl, FWS drawing

The Cobb midwater trawl

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz    Bob’s Posting 29                   Mar. 9, 2015

Fish Flour brings back a lot of memories and the Ballad of the Hake enforces them. Reading them leaves one feeling that the hake project and fish flour were a failure. I who worked on it as a researcher have another opinion. I feel it was one of the more successful missions that the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base (EFGRB) accomplished. A lot of people were involved in this project and one part of the group which I haven’t mentioned much in my past postings is the gear group. It played a major part and Dick McNeely was the head of this division.

Large catch of Pacific hake, FWS Photo

Large catch of Pacific hake, FWS Photo

In the early 60’s there was interest in a midwater trawl to sample the off -bottom traces seen on the echo sounders, which were believed to be fish. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had contracted the FWS EFGRB to sample the bottom and midwater fish off the Oregon and Washington coasts which might have been affected by the outflow of the Columbia River fresh water that had passed by or through the AEC Hanford plant.

Europeans were experimenting with a small high speed trawl they felt would catch fish by speed, but were having trouble with the instrumentation to fish the net at the desirable depth of the target in midwater. Lee Alverson, the new director of the EFGRB, and Dick McNeely decided to experiment with a large slow-speed trawl and develop a system to control the depth where it fished (1).

Dick fabricated new hydrofoil aluminum trawl doors like airplane wings which, when

Simrad Depth Sounder with Midwater trace, FWS Picture

Simrad Depth Sounder with Midwater trace, FWS Picture

towed through the water were held up in a horizontal position. Water flowing over the airfoils helped pull or shear a door to the side of the vessel and when two doors opposite one another would spread or open the net. He purchased cable with electronic wires running through the center which replaced the conventional trawl cable and developed a method of diverting the electric current through the trawl winch so that the electrical current from the trawl cable could get to the pilot house. He then set up a way to pass the current from the trawl cable to a depth sensing instrument. This wasn’t a simple matter because of the stress of the trawl doors pulling on the cable. If any saltwater got into the electrical system it would short out. I remember the O rings and

Hydrofoil Trawl door, FWS Picture

Hydrofoil Trawl door, FWS Picture

the epoxy that he used to make the connection. He changed the smaller trawl blocks that the cable passed over to larger ones so the electrical wires in the cable wouldn’t be crushed (2). It worked, and the EFGRB finally had a workable midwater sampling gear, the Cobb Midwater Trawl.

When I was hired in July, 1960 I was shown around the unit to get acquainted with the group and one of the first I met was Dick. He was enthusiastic about the gear group and I remember going out on the Cobb for a few days when they were experimenting with the new midwater trawl. They were using scuba gear to observe it underwater. The crew and the biologist who volunteered to be a scuba driver were approved and trained by the government so that they could be used in this type of work. Scuba gear was very popular at this time because of Jacques Cousteau, the person who introduced it to the world during WWII on his own TV show, showing his experiences in diving from his vessel the R/V Calypso.

Trawl cable with electric wires in the center, FWS drawing

Trawl cable with electric wires in the center, FWS drawing

Pilot House Readout, FWD Photo

Pilot House Readout, FWD Photo

I watched as the divers got ready to go overboard as the net was being towed just below the surface waters outside Port Angeles in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. While he was employed in Miami, Florida before coming to Seattle, Dick had developed a sled-like a two-man bobsled that was towed behind the vessel. It had a stick which was connected to fins on each side and worked like ailerons on a plane’s wing. Moving the stick forward would make the sled go down and pulled back would

Pressure sensor at the end of Trawl Cable, FWS Drawing

Pressure sensor at the end of Trawl Cable, FWS Photo

bring it up, and when the stick was moved to the sides the sled would go side to side. Divers had air tanks to supply them while submerged. The first diver sat in the front seat of the sled as pilot and the second one got in behind him and was the

observer. The rope was let out, the sled would go down and they were able to get close to the net and trawl doors by manipulating the control stick. When they returned to the ship they would be debriefed and decisions about improving the conformation of the net would be made from their observations.

Sensor and pressure meter, FWS Drawing

Sensor and pressure meter, FWS Drawing

I made a decision that day that I would not volunteer for scuba diving, even though I was a good swimmer and used to love to swim underwater with fins and a face mask like my heroes, frogmen of the Navy demolition teams during WW II. I decided that there was a lot of information to be obtained on the surface after the net was returned to the vessel from the deep and that would be my role.

By Pass through Trawl Winch, FWS Drawing

By Pass through Trawl Winch, FWS Drawing

So in early 1960 the net became a sampling tool and by the mid-60s it became a commercial net where hake were taken in large quantities. While they were considered an industrial fish, since they were not suitable for human consumption, they could still be converted to fish flour and exploratory trips determined that there was a huge midwater resource of hake off the Washington and Oregon coasts during the spring and summer months. Commercial fishing vessels using the midwater trawl with the specialized trawl cable could catch

Enlarged Trawl Block, FWS Drawing

Enlarged Trawl Block, FWS Photo

quantities of hake which could be delivered to a shore facility and, based on this information, the U.S. Government built the first fish-protein concentrate plant in Aberdeen, Washington.

But in 1966 the huge Russian fishing fleet suddenly arrived off our coast. They targeted POP and Pacific hake, which they captured and processed in waters just outside our three mile limit, and they took the finished product home to feed their population. Our commercial vessels were not able to compete with the large powerful Russian trawlers. The Russians had read American newspapers and scientific reports about the huge hake resource and had exploratory vessels working the Washington and Oregon coasts in 1965, and prepared to come when they did.

Sensor and pressure meter, FWS Drawing

Sensor and pressure meter, FWS Drawing

The arrival of the Russian fleet in 1966 was one reason the fish flour plant failed and was the main reason why the 200 mile limit became law in 1976 with the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act. With time hake were renamed Pacific Whiting and, along with the Alaskan Pollock, would become one of the major American fisheries with American factory trawlers processing the fish on the high seas.

Trace of 40,000 pounds of Pacific hake, FWS Photo

Trace of 40,000 pounds of Pacific hake, FWS Photo

I was involved with the early exploratory hake cruises when I was aboard the Cobb, and hope to have the opportunity to post about my experiences during that time with this fascinating resource.

  • Alverson, Dayton L., (2008), Race to the Sea, The Autobiography of a Marine Biologist, iUniverse Inc., New York, Bloomington, 553p, (pp. 344-345 & 347)
  • McNeely, Richard L., L. J. Johnson, and C. D. Gill; (1965), Construction and Operation of the “Cobb” Pelagic Trawl (1964), Commercial Fisheries Review, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Dept. of Interior, Vol. 27, No 10, (Oct. 1965) pp. 10-17 (Also Separate No. 743)
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About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in Carmel Finley, Cold War, Dayton Lee Alverson, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, Fisheries policy, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb, Rosefish, Sebastes rockfish, Soviet environmental history, Soviet fishing, World History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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