We met Steve Eayrs at one of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Trawl to Table programs, a daylong crash course at the Portland nonprofit’s headquarters on how the seafood supply chain works. Eayrs, a research scientist at GMRI since 2007 who works in the area of fish behavior and gear technology, has designed some new spins on old gear, intended to make fishing more efficient and sustainable. His clear, no-nonsense explanation of everything from how the gear works to how data about fishing can be twisted into “doom and gloom” scenarios about the state of the world’s fisheries caught our attention. We called up the Australian native to learn more and managed to make only one cheesy reference to the land Down Under. (Sorry, make that two.)

AT THE END OF THE LINE: Before he became a scientist, Eayrs was a fisherman. And not a guy dangling a line on weekends; he was a commercial fisherman pursuing shrimp and orange roughy. That was his first job. He’d grown up in a military family, and the family moved frequently and was often overseas. After finishing high school, Eayrs set off on a hitchhiking journey around Australia. Like a walkabout? (The young, aboriginal male’s rite of passage.) Eayrs laughed. “I see where you’re going. I suppose you can call it a walkabout, in a very general sense.” It’s true that he had little idea of what to do with his life. “Fishing wasn’t on my radar, although I do recall as a young person being very interested in books on marine biology and books on colorful corals and things like that.” Then he fell in with a crew of commercial fishermen. Or were they?

CROOKED CAPTAIN: Eayrs spent a few weeks with these new friends, including someone who said he was the captain of a fishing boat called the Carlisle, enjoying some time ashore. Eayrs decided maybe he’d enter this line of work with his new friends. “I had a promise of a job.” But the “captain” was masquerading in the role, having swiped the checkbook of the boat’s true master and commander, so that promise was empty. “I had no money left. I was broke.” Eayrs landed a job ashore, processing shrimp for about six months, which was more fun than it sounds – “it wasn’t unpleasant” – until he got a gig as a deckhand. On the Carlisle, much to his surprise. (The real captain didn’t hold anything against him.)

FUTURE WIFE/LIFE: “I never felt that I would be a fisherman my entire life. I knew I had to have a backup plan. That was something my father drilled into me at an early age.” After a few years, he enrolled at the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania to study fishing technology. While he was in Tasmania he met his future wife. He finished his degree, taught for a year and then, “convinced my wife to let me go back out fishing.” Which meant a lot of time at sea, as shrimping in places like Burma was far from a day-boat kind of operation. “The style of fishing I did, being so remote, meant often being at sea for months a time.” Barges would come out to meet the fishing vessel, offload the catch and leave them with fuel, food, water and mail. “Sometimes you would go months at a time without stepping on land.” The year he got married, he said he was away for about 11 months. “I came home to a wedding already organized.” He’s not bragging; “that is not sustainable.” He went back to teaching.

PROFESSOR OF FISH BEHAVIOR: Away from fishing, he focused on what he recognized as a disconnect between gear and prey. The fisherman’s goal was always to catch more of what he or she wanted, and less in the way of bycatch or discards. But the gear didn’t always serve that goal. The tropical shrimp fishery he’d worked in, north of Australia, had a reputation for pulling up a big bycatch along with the shrimp. “A pretty bad reputation.” He wanted to incorporate what he knew of how different prey moves through the water into gear design. “If you understand the behavior, you can design and modify to exploit those differences.”

INDEPENDENT PEOPLE: As he taught and researched and dreamed up better fish traps, he was also getting two advanced degrees. First he got a master’s at the Australian Maritime College, and then, just after he was tenured there, he got the itch for an international job and a doctorate. He and his family relocated to Portland when he landed the job at GMRI, and he began chipping away at his degree from the University of New Hampshire. “I wanted to understand human behavior and decision-making,” particularly as it relates to change. Because even when he came up with good ideas, the kinds that could save fishermen money (like trawl doors shaped to allow them to burn less fuel) or make them more money (say, a trawling net that weeds out the protected cod from the groundfish the fishermen were pursuing), they didn’t necessarily embrace it. Decision-making isn’t always rational, Eayrs says, and fishermen tend to be traditional sorts. “They are set in their ways, and they are an independent people. Encouraging them to change is a perennial challenge.”

THE INSIDER’S INSIGHTS: New England’s fishing traditions stretch back farther than those in Australia, but Eayrs nonetheless often encounters a disconnect between the general public and fishermen. “People generally don’t understand what fishing is about. Fishing is a food-production system. But unless people are heavily reliant on fish for protein, they don’t understand the challenges and rigors of going to sea in all weathers. Or sometimes not making much money. Or being as heavily regulated as they are, and then coming back and not getting to rest, because in their days off there is always work to be done.” He helps educate outsiders with insights that only a former fisherman would have.

FAR FROM HOME: It’s not always easy living in a foreign country – getting a mortgage with a decent interest rate when you have no American credit, for instance. But more than a decade ago he fell hard for the atmosphere at GMRI and the work the nonprofit does to build economies and stewardship of the Gulf of Maine, “how clever and passionate and wonderful the people were.” His three children are grown and back in Australia now. Will he stick around? “I love the job.” And the place. “Portland, Maine, is just a wonderful place. If we didn’t love it so much we would have, to use the Australian vernacular, pulled up stumps long ago.”

 

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