Ghost Fishing

In  by May 29, 2020

I'd just finished inspecting the bilge, rudder control, and the levels on our batteries when Captain Ellen Stubb’s voice rang out over the intercom. “Pam, I need you up here.”

In the Incentive’s wheelhouse, Stubb was bent forward in her blue and white flannel, ominous as Hokusai’s Great Wave. She was glaring at the Earth Crisis, a big, modified dive support vehicle maybe two kilometres off our stern bow. With remote subs, a saturation diving system, and a heavy crane, Crisis was newer and more robust than any other boat in the Bering Sea. She represented the future according to her corporate backers, capable of harvesting more abandoned fishing gear and plastic trash in a year than most boats could in three.

Unfortunately, this bright exemplar of sustainable capitalism was on our salvage grounds. Again. Everyone in the fleet knew Crisis had a bad habit of ignoring claim boundaries, and she seemed to violate ours more than most.

“These people don’t quit,” I said.

Stubb’s hand crashed down on the dash, scattering dust motes to the air.

“Claim jumpers don’t quit unless you make them quit.” Stubb pointed at the battery gauges. “Thought you fixed these.”

“Must be another short. I’ll track it down.”

“Fuel cells got enough juice for a hard run?”

I nodded. “As long as we’re running home.”

Stubb grabbed the sideband mic and thumbed down the talk switch. “Piper, get topside. Then come see me.”

The Incentive’s diver sounded annoyed and confused over the radio. “Captain? I’m working a big knot of ghost gear down here. I got nets, lines, even a crab pot. You want me to quit?”

Stubb’s eyes glinted hard as January ice. “Ghosts ain’t going anywhere.”

She slammed the mic back into its bracket and glanced at me. “Go give Santiago a hand on the deck. After everything’s secure, I want everyone up here for a meeting.”

She was still glaring at the Crisis when I left.

Over two hundred years of “ghost” gear—lost fishing nets, ropes, and other recyclable polymers—littered the Bering Sea floor. At current, post-peak-oil market prices, what had once been garbage now brought in millions. Failed towns, throttled by fishing moratoriums, were being reborn as crews raced to pull “ghosts” from the sea. I’d come north after getting my MS, bursting with righteous energy, only to find that, for most, this business wasn’t about saving the planet; it was about keeping families fed and boats running.

Two years as Incentive’s engineer had tempered my ecological idealism. Still, Crisis impressed me. She was getting the job done.

Out on the deck, Santiago was checking our manila lines for rot. “Make ready for ramming speed?” He grinned, grey beard shimmering with spray around chapped lips.

“Captain ordered Piper to quit fishing. I’ve never seen her this mad.”

As if on cue, an orange lift bag surfaced with a yellow flag attached. Piper would be up in ten minutes. Four more bags followed the first one, all stuffed with recovered nylon netting, or rope, or other treasure.

Santiago clapped his hands. “Let’s salvage what we can.”

We dragged the bags from the sea until Piper surfaced. He started talking the second he got his mask off. “Rat’s nest under us must weigh a ton. We’re talking serious money.”

Santiago pointed at the Crisis. “Captain’s got other concerns.”

We crowded into the wheelhouse. Piper scowled and rubbed the lines his mask had left on his face. Santiago was quiet.

“Captain, we’re sitting on a jackpot,” Piper said, his tone sharp.

Stubb remained unmoved. “Jumpers need to learn, Piper. They can’t keep taking what’s ours. Tape together a couple diving charges. You’re going hunting.”

Then she looked at Santiago. “You and Pam are going to move the dive boat to the deck, paint it black, and pull the radar target enhancer.”

“That’ll make it almost impossible to spot,” I said.

Stubb nodded. “Yup.”

Piper stomped off toward his quarters while we scudded back to the deck.

“What did the captain mean, ‘go hunting?’ What’s she planning?” I asked.

“You know Piper was a frogman?” Santiago said. “Diving charges can do some serious damage to a hull. Maybe worse, depending on where you put them.”

“No way,” I said. “She wouldn’t.”

Santiago finished lowering the dive boat with the crane, shrugged. “Captain says, ‘paint.’ We paint.”

“Sure, but we still have a choice, right?” I said.

“Choice? Sure.” He pointed to the paintbrush in my hand.

That night, alone in the galley, I cleaned and thought. When Stubb first hired me, she showed me the old-fashioned cork board she kept over her coffee maker. There were a dozen photos tacked up, mostly portraits with names written in black Sharpie.

“Each one of these people, here or not, lasted at least a season. That makes them more than crew. We take care of each other, everyone gets paid, and maybe the ocean gets a little cleaner. Understand?”

Remembering that conversation, I frowned. Stubb thought we needed to send a message, protect what was ours. Maybe she was right, even if it didn’t feel right.

The clock read one when Santiago woke me in my bunk. “Need you on deck.”

Piper came out suited up for a dive with a black canvas duffle slung over one shoulder.

“Sure about this?” Santiago said.

Piper nodded once, hard.

They looked at me. I opened my mouth, closed it again, and watched my silence deform into a decision.

With Incentive running under navigation lights and nothing else, the matte black dive boat vanished like a shadow into the darkness. Santiago and I stood by the port side gunwale looking at the Crisis, only a kilometre away. For the first time since I’d stepped on board, I felt nauseated.

“Guess that’s it.” Santiago pulled his halogen flashlight from his pocket. He held it over the side, and started clicking. It took me a few seconds to recognize the two-letter codes: NF, PP.

You are running into danger. Keep clear.

In the near pitch, there was zero chance the Crisis, or Stubb, would miss the signal.

“What are you doing?” I was incredulous.

Santiago shrugged. “The right thing, maybe. You keep quiet, walk away, maybe Stubb will let you stay on after.”

My nausea vanished. I had a choice, and I made it, adding my light to his.

Copyright © 2020 William Delman

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William Delman

William's work has appeared in Little Blue Marble, Daily Science Fiction, Kraxon, The Arcanist, New Orbit, The Selene Quarterly, Write Ahead/The Future Looms, and many other fine publications. He longs for the days when Pandemic was only a board game, and hopes that you and yours are well.

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