The Ringer – A True Story of the National Marine Fisheries Service Observer Program

Sept. 18, 2014

John Johnson

The Ringer A True Story of the National Marine Fisheries Service Observer Program

The National Marine Fishery Service observer program sends many recent graduates of marine biology programs out on fishing vessels to collect data for fisheries science and to observe fishing activity and how it affects the environment and wildlife. In stories about fishing you often hear of the efforts of sea captains and their brave crews and never a word about the observer who accepts and takes many of the same risks as anyone who signs on as a crew member in the world’s most dangerous job.

Anonymous and uncelebrated fisheries observers quietly work in the background as the eyes, ears, and hands of our nation’s fisheries science. In the mid-water herring industry off of New England we take them fishing often (Sometimes 80 to 100 percent of our trips). Their stay with us is always so short that they are rarely very memorable (probably by design) but there is always the exception to any rule.

Call her M. as anonymity is a requirement of this story. She came aboard like every other observer with a stack of baskets and fish measuring stuff for her work during the voyage. She was in her early twenties. In a baggy sweatshirt pulled over a slender frame with hair pulled back in a pony tail she looked like just another fresh faced college kid ready to do her part for the cause of fish science. At first she kept to herself but since we weren’t going to take any fish on board the Osprey at that time of year it isn’t a very demanding job for an observer. I think this whole story happened because she got bored.

My crewmate C.D. is a cribbage player with a long history of wins over fellow crew members and captains. We had been having a series of very competitive games and while there was no clear victor I would give him a slight advantage over me in both number of wins and quality of play. He is very proud of his game and ability to play and brags on himself a little at times but it’s all good fun. It was not unusual that we were playing a quick game one evening after a day of fishing (that I won). While putting the board away I heard a voice behind me say, “Will you teach me how to play cribbage?”

“Uhh NO,” I thought. I really didn’t want to teach anyone how to play cribbage. I felt like I was too busy and all of the things I should be doing sprang into my mind. Teaching someone to properly play the game is more of a project than a few moments instruction and I had other things going on…. Then I considered being stuck on a fishing boat with nothing to do and decided to take a little time and try to show her how to play. So I began the somewhat tedious task of explaining 15’s, runs, counts, double runs, and right jacks. By the time we got around to the subject of pegging I began to wonder if the abrupt pace of my hurried instruction was jumbling everything together and not making any sense at all.

As these things go it soon reached a point where further instruction would be pointless and the time had come to reinforce direction with play. I dealt a couple of open faced hands to show the cadence of play and the particulars. After the hands she showed an understanding of basic play and we cut to see who should deal the first hand of a real game. She won the deal and began to shuffle. I don’t want to be unkind but watching her mash the cards together like a first grader about to play a hand of go fish, I was hardly impressed. As for the game I completely demolished her pointing out many flaws in her play along the way. I didn’t see much hope for the situation but just then C.D. walked into the galley.

I asked him if he would play so that I could coach a little. He agreed and I switched sides to assist in the small decisions that can make or break any game. She was not a bad player at all and quickly racked up a pair of beginner’s luck wins. It was my turn to cook dinner and I needed to get started so I abandoned the game but as I was walking away I could here C.D. informing M. that her tenure in the winner’s circle was over. On a whim I turned around and told him that my money was on M. and a three dollar wager was placed on the outcome of the game. She skunked him and he had to pay me six.

That was the beginning of a rivalry that went way beyond amusing. M. was unstoppable. She still wanted a second opinion on some decisions but was issued new rules that prohibited anything of the kind. I was able to watch her play but couldn’t say anything. I don’t think I would have been much help anyway. She regularly got away with the most outlandish play. I watched her save a pair of sixes and a pair of fours and cut a five (a twenty point improvement to her hand) for an amazing come from behind win. She did that kind of thing regularly to C.D. leaving him in second place by two pegs in one game and edging him out in the next. She racked up an impressive number of wins over him and even though he kept coming back for more, I don’t think he was able to give her his best game.

I believe that somewhere along the way to what is probably the biggest losing streak in C.D’s card playing career, self doubt set in. He started changing his game in an effort to find something that worked against his new nemesis. I am sorry to admit that I may have played a part in that because I made fun of him, encouraged others to make fun of him, and told the story to the crew on our partner boat who took it upon themselves to do the same. Leaving my efforts aside, there was plenty of frustration to throw off the game of a serious competitor like C.D.

M. made two trips with us and played a lot of good games. She had wins against every cribbage player on the boat and when she left was just about even on games with me. C.D. had a lot of close games with her but never managed to win in a head to head game. They played a lot of close competitive games but they all ended the same way. With her winning. During their many games she never trash talked or gloated but there was one time….

C.D. was telling a story about his father and a time when the old man lost all of the family money in a card game. It was a sad time for his family as they had no money to buy food. It was not a funny story but M. started laughing. When C.D. asked her what was so funny about the story she said, “I was just wondering if the card game your dad lost the money in…….

……..was a game of cribbage.”

Article Photo
A reflection of thesylhouette of M. in the wheelhouse window of the Osprey. N.M.F.S. observers stay out of the spotlight as a rule and this is as close to an image of her that I can publish. 
Article Photo
M. at sea aboard fishing vessel Osprey. 
Article Photo
Fishing Vessel Osprey towing a net with a little ice on her.