Editor’s Note: This is The Pilot’s first in a series of “Who We Are” profiles, periodic special reports about the interesting people in our community and the difference they make.
Anyone who launches or moors a fishing boat at Brookings Harbor knows Trinity Sylvester - or will know her soon.
Sylvester is a “port sampler” for the Ocean Sampling Project of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), which is based in Newport.
What kind of job is a port sampler? You count fish.
Throughout the day, Sylvester greets every boat she sees in the harbor, then asks everyone aboard a series of questions:
“How many people were fishing?” Sylvester asks. “What time did you leave?” “Did you catch anything?” “Anything of color?” “Did you release any fish?”
“How deep were you fishing?” “What area were you fishing in?” “Were you fishing above or below Whaleshead?”
She also notes whether the boat is a charter or private craft.
Then, at the end of the day, Sylvester watches surveillance videos and counts the number of boats that crossed in and out of Brookings Harbor, so she can calculate the total number of boat trips.
The average number of boat trips per day this season has been 60, she said, but in years past it was more than 100. She attributed the lower numbers to lots of wind and a lower-than-expected salmon count this season.
“The lack of salmon has created more pressure on bottom fishing,” Sylvester said.
All of the information she collects is averaged to estimate the total numbers and weights of the daily catches of each species, for each region.
On a recent sunny afternoon, The Pilot followed Sylvester around to see her in action, checking out the day’s catches in a variety of buckets and ice chests.
Hers is quite a task.
“We count all of the fish they have on the boat and get some information about what they’ve turned loose, because we use that to see what the fisheries are actually doing and how well things are going,” Sylvester said.
“I have to physically put eyes on each fish, identify the type of fish and count the number of each.”
The first boat we talked with that afternoon was a charter with an assortment of very large crabs (caught at 110-foot depth), blue rockfish and deacon rockfish, but no ling cod. She didn’t need to measure the fish on that boat, because she already had measurements for every type of fish they had caught.
Several other boats early that afternoon had brought in lots of crabs, more deacons, blues and a few petrale … but still no ling cod. Some halibut fishermen had no luck, whereas a couple of others did catch two, measuring about 34 inches each.
Then, towards the end of the day, the lings started to show up. “Massive fish!” Sylvester noted. “None of them are small. These are beautiful fish.” Of the four fish on board, the largest was 38 inches long and weighed 24 pounds.
“We had a halibut come in earlier today that was 52 inches,” she said. “That made for a happy boater.”
ODFW uses the information collected to manage fisheries and keep them sustainable. For example, the counting done by Sylvester and her counterparts along the southern Oregon coast determine whether the annual halibut quota and other rockfish quotas have been met or not.
A quick check of the ODFW website shows the quota for this area still has lots of room for halibut catches. Anglers currently can keep two halibut a day.
Other data Sylvester collect, such as depths and locations, let ODFW know what areas are being fished heavily and where the various types of fish are being found.
The depth information tells the agency if there will be greater “dead loss” from barotrauma - what divers know as “the bends.” If a fish is being released because it is not allowed due to size or species, fishermen are required to use “descending devices,” which send the fish back to the bottom quickly and protect its life, she said.
In a break between arriving boats, Sylvester discussed other aspects of her job, including the recent “Slam’n Salmon Derby.” “It was a very busy weekend, especially with just two of us,” she said. “We had close to 200 boats cross the bar on Saturday, the high day.”
She said the number of salmon caught was good, relative to the rest of this year, but compared to past seasons it fell short.
“Probably around 150 fish were brought in over the weekend, somewhere in the seven- to 15-mile range. The winner was a 20-pound fish, whereas in years past it would have been 35 pounds-plus, or in earlier years past 50.
“We didn’t have a complete lack of fish, but they weren’t ‘keepable’ sizes.”
Sylvester came to her port sampler job seven years ago. “I actually went to school for this kind of thing,” she said. “Then I ran a business for a couple of years. I worked as a volunteer for a year with the agency before this job came up, applied for it and they hired me.
“I have a bachelor’s in environmental science. I was going to turn that into a marine biology degree, but life took different directions.
“People assume since I’m out here doing this, I must have an actual fisheries degree,” she said. “But most of my fisheries knowledge came from the fact I had a commercial fisherman for a father, and actually being out here on the docks with hands-on experience.”
And her handheld computer contains a great program that allows her to look up information on the fish that come in.
Sylvester’s backpack is full of tools of the trade: scales, bags for putting fish snouts in during salmon season, more bags for fish that must be confiscated if they’re not species that are allowed or not big enough, thermometers, resource books, information data sheets to hand out to boaters.
Altogether, the backpack and her fish measuring tool weigh about 20 pounds. One particular tool that’s been a problem for her is keeping a hold of her small fish scale. One of the scales fell off the end of the dock and was in the water for some three weeks. A Coast Guard member retrieved it for her while “magnet fishing.”
Two weeks later, the replacement scale slipped out of her hands while she was trying to juggle her computer and notebook, and fell into a crevice between sections of the deck. She later was able to see and retrieve it one day during low tide.
Now, the tool has its own mini-floatation device attached to it.
Most of the fishermen greet Sylvester with a smile and jovial conversation. They aren’t threatened by talking with her. “We do not issue citations,” Sylvester said. “Our main point is to collect data. In the state of Oregon, (citations are issued) by the Oregon State Police.
“We are not out here looking for problems. We’ve got to be out here every day working with these folks, and being a government agency, sometimes people just don’t want to see us. If people know my goal is not to catch them doing something wrong, that I just want to get some information real quick, they are usually going to be nicer and easier to work with,” she said.
Recreational fishermen stop her on the docks to ask what catches she has been seeing, what closures they need to worry about, about the size restrictions and catch limits, and plenty more.
According to Sylvester, these are quotas have been filled for the year: cabezon, China rockfish, quillback rockfish and copper rockfish. “Salmon season just closed,” she said.
“Yelloweye rockfish are not allowed to be kept ever. They were overfished and the ODFW is working on rebuilding the stock.”
As Sylvesters concludes her brief interview with each boat, she asks whether the fisherman plan to go out the next day. She’ll be there - and expects she’ll see them again.
Do you know of someone in this area with an interesting job or a colorful life? Send your suggested interviews to firstname.lastname@example.org.