A Warmer World

Climate change forces third-generation fisherman to rethink this year

Caleigh Wells Jun 25, 2024
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Scott Hawkins photographs his crew, including his sons, Wyatt (left, blue helmet) and Colton (front, red jacket), with dozens of albacore tuna they caught in minutes. Courtesy Scott Hawkins
A Warmer World

Climate change forces third-generation fisherman to rethink this year

Caleigh Wells Jun 25, 2024
Heard on:
Scott Hawkins photographs his crew, including his sons, Wyatt (left, blue helmet) and Colton (front, red jacket), with dozens of albacore tuna they caught in minutes. Courtesy Scott Hawkins
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Every June, fisherman Scott Hawkins and his small crew set sail from a marina in San Diego and travel hundreds of miles, scouring the water for a good catch of albacore tuna. It can take hours or days to stumble upon a school of them.

But when they do, everyone springs into action at once.

The men grab fishing poles taller than they are, stand in a row on the edge of the boat and cast their lines into the water. Every few seconds, one of them pulls up a fat, two-foot-long albacore tuna and hoists it over his shoulder onto the pile. Every thud is another one landing atop the dozens already flapping on deck. 

They do this 17 hours per day for five months. “It’s the exact same that my grandfather did in the ’50s,” Hawkins said.

But this June, the boat isn’t leaving the marina.

A woman leans back on a large white boat called the Jody H.
Hawkins named his boat after his wife, who is posing in the photo. He and his crew spend roughly five months on it every year, hundreds of miles from shore. (Courtesy Scott Hawkins)

Just like air temperatures on land, average ocean temperatures have been ticking upward, too. That’s already reshaping ocean ecosystems and changing how fish behave. The routes of the migratory albacore tuna have changed, which makes life more difficult for people like Hawkins, who catch them for a living.

“The temperature affects us huge,” Hawkins said. “You get a thermal warming on the surface, the fish don’t like to come up and bite in that; it makes the fish lazy. We’ll see huge schools of fish, but they’re down 20, 30, 40 fathoms, and they don’t come up and bite.”

Last year, the majority of his fish went to Wild Planet, one of the major canned tuna brands at the grocery store. He manned one of roughly 300 vessels on the West Coast that went out in search of albacore tuna, according to the American Albacore Fishing Association. 

The year before, there were 400. Before the pandemic, there were more than 500. 

One of the main problems: He’s having a harder time finding fish. Last year was a really bad catch.
It was also warmest year worldwide on record.

Three cans of tuna in red white and blue. They read "Hawk and Sons" tuna and displays an illustration of the Jody H. boat they fish from.
Hawkins cans some of his tuna with his personal label. Much of it gets sold to larger canning companies and put on grocery store shelves. (Courtesy Scott Hawkins)

Tuna are migratory, and the changing oceans make them more difficult to find and catch. Hawkins has adapted by locating colder water. He tracks ocean surface temperature using data from Mark Hess’ company, Ocean Imaging — and that data has been sending fishermen farther north.

“The catch was mainly centered off of California [and] Oregon, back in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Hess. “Now, all the boats are really fishing from Oregon, all the way up to Canada. So in that time, the fishery has moved north for sure.”

Hawkins added that the colder water is frequently farther out to sea. So, instead of fishing 60 to 200 miles offshore, he’ll travel 400 to 1,500 miles. 

That trip can take a week each way. “A lot of your profits go out the exhaust,” he said.

Now, the Western Fishboat Owners Association is trying to get disaster relief for fishermen after last year’s bad catch. Its executive director, Clayton Wraith, is worried that some of them who didn’t fish last year might never come back.

“They need to pay their mortgage. They need to find opportunities to pay their banknote for their boat, or pay their crew,” Wraith says.

Hawkins is earning extra money as the captain of a dredge boat. That’s what he’ll be doing this month instead of heading out to sea.

Two teenagers, Wyatt and Colton, stand in fisherman's gear and smile and pose with albacore tuna.
Both Wyatt, 17 (left), and Colton, 15 (right), were full members of their father’s crew by the time they were 13 years old. (Courtesy Scott Hawkins)

“Normally, I leave around June 10, June 20. And this year, I’m going to be dredging all the way till mid-July,” Hawkins said. 

It’s changed his life and the lives of his two sons, who started fishing with him as young as 10 years old. Wyatt, 21, is an engineer on a tugboat, hoping in a few years he’ll captain his own boat like his dad. His younger brother, Colton, 19, is in lineman school, learning how to repair and install power lines, setting himself up for a career on land.

“They both love the fish. They would love to have taken over the family business, but I think it’s going to end with me,” he says.

And as it becomes more difficult for Hawkins to turn a profit, it might end with him sooner than he planned.

“For the first time ever in 44 years, I’m contemplating not even untying my boat.”

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