Sea monsters, an ocean love affair: A fisherman's memoir

01/09/2019

Out of sight of shore, the monotony of water is broken by a welcome discovery: a whale on the horizon. It’s swimming nearer, near now, and coming straight for your fishing boat. Feet away, the 60-foot sperm whale isn’t slowing down—what do you do? 

“It became vividly clear that the size of the whale had increased as the distance between us decreased. Interest had turned to amazement, amazement had turned to alarm,” Josh Churchman, one of the last remaining commercial fishermen in Bolinas, wrote in his new memoir. “Obviously one of us had to move out of the other’s way.”

Mr. Churchman’s first book, “The Whale that Lit the World,” was published in November by The Lost City Press. Describing decades of experience in the waters that surround Bolinas, the book depicts a love affair with the ocean, albeit one complicated by increasingly tight regulations and numerous knee-rattling encounters with what the author affectionately terms “sea monsters.”  

In many ways, Mr. Churchman’s perspective on the ocean is unique. 

“There’s hardly anyone in the world who has spent more time on and around Cordell Bank than Josh—the knowledge that he has built up is amazing,” said Dan Howard, superintendent of Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary, where Mr. Churchman primarily made his living before federal and state regulations started to clench in the early 2000s. 

Today, Mr. Churchman is one of just four commercial fishermen who live in Bolinas, compared to a peak in the late 1980s, when there were around a dozen fishermen making a full-time living. And he now moors his boat in Bodega Bay, which has easier access to Cordell Bank, where he holds one of just a handful of permits for hook-and-line fishermen to bring in deep-sea groundfish. He also has a permit for shallower species in state waters. He recently sold his crabbing permit to another Bolinas fisherman and hopes to do the same with the others as he phases into retirement.   

Mr. Churchman, sitting over a plate of mussels at the Coast Café last month, explained that his encounters with whales inspired him to write the book a decade ago. Whales in particular had transformed his feelings about the ocean, and taught him how little people really know about what goes on in the deep. 

“People maybe don’t know that we already share the world with such intelligent beings—we don’t need to go to outer space looking for them,” he said. 

Woven between anecdotes about whales and other life are his experiences of the drastic changes in the fishing industry over the past few decades. “I thought it was also important to share the perspective of the fishermen on the effect of these regulations,” he said, adding, however, “That’s the part of the book I’m afraid might bore people.”

Mr. Howard, who read the book cover-to-cover last month, said that what stood out to him was Mr. Churchman’s philosophical side. “He’s spent more time on the ocean thinking about stuff than most. I really enjoy reading about how he thinks about things—his philosophical bent,” he said. 

Mr. Howard worked for years with Mr. Churchman, who represented the interests of hook-and-line fishermen in a seat on the sanctuary’s founding advisory council, starting in 2001. “In his heart and soul, my perception is that Josh’s ultimate concern is with how we keep the oceans healthy,” Mr. Howard said. 

“The Whale that Lit the World” describes fishing as a kind of obsession, one that hits some people early in life, some later, either as an episode or a lifelong affliction. In the book, Mr. Churchman describes how he caught his first fish at age 2. His father, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, took young Josh and his mother out in San Francisco Bay to catch salmon, showing him the ropes.  

Toward the end of high school, his parents said that if he continued with his formal education, he could move out to the family’s cabin in Bolinas—the one-bedroom house on the Big Mesa where Mr. Churchman and his wife still live today.  

Mr. Churchman stayed at the family home while attending Berkeley, commuting a few times a week into central Marin and riding the rest of the way with his dad. After graduating with a degree in marine biology and ceramics, he taught for a few years at the Bolinas School, but eventually migrated to the ocean full-time. (He said he brought home just $75 from a full day teaching, compared to $300 from a few stolen hours fishing after work.) 

“Surfing and fishing, surfing and fishing—if the waves were good I would surf, and if the weather was fine, I would fish,” Mr. Churchman said about his early days. 

In the book he references a popular legend that Bolinas was thought of by the Coast Miwok as a place to visit but not live in. Mr. Churchman’s interpretation is that perhaps the Miwok thought it wasn’t good for people to live such an easy life. “I feel lucky to have lived here and fished for a living—blessed,” he said. 

Over the course of his career, his favorite spot has been Cordell Bank, where a 1,286-square-mile marine preserve protects what was once a mountain range and is now a rich hotbed of sea life. 

But over the past 20 years, tightened regulations along the West Coast have made earning a living on a small boat more complicated. In response to greatly depleted fish stocks, management agencies like the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the ’90s began crafting new regulations along the West Coast. Mr. Churchman participated in various stakeholder groups involved in drafting the rules.

“I failed,” he said of his involvement. “I was called a stakeholder, but that implies that I was part of the decision-making. Every spot that I showed them that was critical to my livelihood ended up being protected. There was no support for the small-time fisherman who feeds his local community.” 

A dense web of state and federal restrictions now governs Cordell Bank, one of three contiguous marine sanctuaries in central California. No fishing above 600 feet in depth is allowed, and Mr. Churchman is one of the only hook-and-line fishermen who won a permit for the deeper waters, based on his qualifications. 

Though Mr. Churchman has some access, it hasn’t been without a cost. For the last 17 years, the law has required him to carry a satellite tracking system on his boat around the clock. He is also required to take a federal observer on his boat for two months out of the year. 

“It usually takes them half the day to start to relax,” he wrote about the experience of hosting these federal officials on his boat. “By the time we start putting fish on the boat, they have found a spot to sit out of the way and they are busing keeping records of how many hooks I use, what color the lines are that attach the hooks to the main line, what bait I use, where exactly I set the lines, and how many fish we get. Data collecting is hard work.” 

It’s not until the ride home, that a smile returns to the observer’s face. “If the swell is big, and the wind is light, I can make that 20-mile trip in under an hour. We surf home.”

A decade ago, Mr. Churchman was fined $35,780—more than the worth of his boat—for unwittingly crossing a quarter-mile into a newly restricted zone in the Cordell Bank sanctuary. After fighting the ticket for six years—he had been to that spot many times before and had an observer on the boat at the time of the trespass—he paid $21,000.   

Despite all of this, Mr. Churchman’s perspective on regulation is not necessarily unfavorable. He personally saw the depletion caused by huge trawl boats in Cordell Bank, and he says the regulations have been effective. “Why isn’t that story being told?” he asks. 

Mr. Churchman believes there is a way to ease the burdens on fishermen without depleting the ocean. But he says that idea doesn’t always jive with conservation science, and he notes the money behind strict preservation. 

In his book, he also expressed concern that existing fishing permits are slowly being consolidated, bought up by both large-scale fishermen and groups like the Nature Conservancy. 

Perhaps the most important wisdom Mr. Churchman hopes to offer his readers are his raw experiences of the wild ocean. 

Among white sharks, blue whales and octopuses, Mr. Churchman makes clear that the most influential of the encounters—and the triggers for much contemplation—were those involving sperm whales. (Explaining the book’s title, the oil from the blubber of sperm whales was prized as an illuminant for its bright, odorless flame until it was supplanted in the late 19th century by less expensive alternatives such as kerosene.)

Over the years, a handful of sperm whales made themselves known to Mr. Churchman, veering off course to investigate his boat, a 25-foot-long, low-lying skiff he built himself as an art project in college. “Most whales pay little attention to boats. They just swim on by, doing what they do. A dolphin, on the other hand, will come right up to any boat and check it out, often in a mood to play. A ten-foot-long playful sea creature is one thing, and a sixty footer is something else entirely. Sperm whales are not known for their playfulness or their affection for little boats,” he writes. 

Mr. Churchman leaves the reader with some big questions about the ethics of fishing, whether its effects can ever be set right, and whether today’s strict regulations unnecessarily choke the relationship between the ocean and the fishermen who steward it. 

 

“The Whale that Lit the World” is available at Stinson Beach Books and Point Reyes Books, as well as on Amazon.