Russian Ships Offer Fisherman New Option

WRNI – Over the winter, Narragansett Bay has had three guests from Russia. Fish processing ships anchored near the Jamestown Bridge to buy herring and mackerel from local fishermen. While the noise and odors of the ships bothered some Jamestown residents, fishermen and state officials say the ships helped economically.

Just one of the ships remains on the bay now. WRNI’s Suzannah Gonzales went aboard the vessel “Captain Gorbachev” before it moved to waters off Nantucket.

While there’s little market for herring and mackerel in this country, they are popular in Russia. Both species are plentiful here.

“We’re dealing with something we hardly ever deal with, which is a fishery resource in abundant supply. We have gotten so used to always being challenged by the fact that, due to many years of pressure and over-harvest, there aren’t enough fish,” explains Bob Ballou of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, “ In contrast to all that, here’s a situation where we have abundant resources, and we very rarely find ourselves in that kind of situation.”

Dead fish fall in small bunches, from tanks holding tons of them to a conveyer belt in the middle of the ship. A visitor is immediately struck by the smell, but those aboard don’t seem to notice at all.

The belt carries the fish around the dim floor, to a circling metal tube, where they’re separated into equal portions and washed with water.

The belt continues to move the fish to the next stop -- a scale, where they’re weighed into portions of about 22 pounds. Russian workers place each portion into a metal bin. It takes about two hours for the fish to be frozen inside the bin.

The conveyer belt delivers frozen rectangular blocks of fish to a table, where a worker slides each through a short tunnel while another worker puts the block into a plastic bag. Three bags fit into each cardboard box. The box is thrown into a refrigerated hole below.
Another ship will take the boxes to Russia.

This is one case where fishermen don’t have to worry about fishing restrictions. State environmental officials say herring and mackerel are under-utilized species. There’s a surplus of them -- about one hundred fifty thousand metric tons, or more than three hundred million pounds of each per year.

“If you saw what was off your coast line, you would just, you wouldn’t be able to believe it. You would not believe the amount of fish some days. The group of us that fish for herring will be spread out in different areas,” says Dave Rhinegart, Captain of Thunder Bay from Point Judith, “And everybody will be reporting just tens and tens and maybe hundreds of millions of pounds of fish, all at the same time. It’s just, it’s unfathomable.”

Rhinegart expected to struggle last winter. But catching herring and mackerel paid off. Though Rhinegart would not say how much he has made selling fish to the Russian ships, he says it has put him and his crew ahead financially for the next few months.

Rhinegart is surprised more local fishermen have not done what he did this winter. His boat was just one of nine east coast boats that sold fish to the Russian ships. Few local fishermen catch herring and mackerel. But some who have caught herring and mackerel in the past -- like Liz Rowell of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association -- say they would consider switching fisheries if the market for herring and mackerel was more permanent.

“The number of people who would switch their fisheries from what their doing now would all depend on how much of a capital expenditure it would be to do so and the price that you would be getting,” said Rowell.

The gear for this type of fishing is expensive. fishermen would have to spend up to $9,000 in equipment for just four to five months of work with no guarantee that the ships will be back next year.

Having the Russian ships here has been so successful that two fish freezing and packing facilities focusing on herring and mackerel are now on the horizon at Quonset Davisville.
They would be the first herring and mackerel processing plants in southern New England. A handful of companies have previously proposed similar kinds of facilities for herring and mackerel in Rhode Island. But those proposals never got off the ground.

State officials say the plants could be ready by next winter. They would either compete with or take the place of the Russian ships.