A Commercial Fisherman's review/expose of
"The Perfect Storm"

by Sebastian Junger
published by W W Norton & Company (1997)
ISBN 0-393-049016-X

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Click here (.1k) for Junger's Response if you've already read the review. Click here or otherwise item separations will be distorted (1k)

Mr. Junger has written about a "hundred year" storm in the North Atlantic and has done a competent (even compelling) job of describing how weather patterns can combine to generate huge seas in the North Atlantic.

He falls short however when he attempts to humanize it using the offshore sword fishing fleet out of Glouscester, Massachusetts. As far as commercial fishing in particular and fishing boats in general he is nothing more than a superficially informed ignorant who brought considerable prejudice and anti-fisherman bias to the book. He did a good job of discussing storm formations and especially the physics of waves. As I wrote my son (an avid every day surfer in San Diego) "........Be well worth your while to read for that alone via your surfing interests........"

He takes innumerable slams at commercial fishing in general, emphasizing only the worst aspects, ignoring (or paying short shares to) the compensating side of it, and slanders particular fishermen (some of whom died in his storm) and their families. Not so much by telling lies, but by emphasizing short ugly episodes (i.e. drinking) in their lives and not bothering to look further, making implied patronizing moral judgements.

Furthermore he describes in brutally clinical detail how drowning occurs and affects the body. Survivor families (whom, I'm sure befriended and trusted him) will find it particularly disturbing. He repaid them poorly. I wonder if he'll share with them any of the 30 pieces of silver he's getting from being on the NYT Best Seller list.

He makes assumptions on how fishermen would react in a given situation that don't ring true to me. I've been in my share of hard weather (certainly nothing like he's describing, but hard enough) and had more than a few close calls. It's a deceptively dangerous business and few are good enough to master it. Those that aren't often have to make excuses for why they don't measure up. Mr. Junger strikes me as one of those.

Commercial fishing strikes me in a lot of ways like professional sports. There's damn few who can make it at the top. Further down the pyramid there's marginal players who only last a year or two, wannabes, weekenders, parttimers, onetimers, sailors, sportfishermen, writers, ..... Most can't admit to themselves they didn't make it because they ain't good/tough/smart/talented enough or just don't have the "Right Stuff", so they make up all kinds of rationalizations..

Yes there can be big money in offshore sword fishing, but he glosses over the "brokers" (trips when expenses aren't met) and ignores completely the probably 4 or 5 boats who tried it and failed for each one that's even marginally successful (damn damn few are "highliners", boats or captains who consistently make decent/big money. He makes it sound like they all are.).

To be fair, that's probably not his fault. Fishermen NEVER talk about brokers, especially to outsiders. It's not in their nature. As for the complete failures, invariably because it looks easy to greenhorns and "investors", they don't like to talk about it either, if he could even find them. If he did find any, they wouldn't have failed because they couldn't measure up in a fiercely competitive tough physical business in an incredibly unforgiving environment. They would have failed because "fishermen are greedy" and "there oughtta be regulations" or ....

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As for the "overfishing" aspects of it, I would just like to make two points (though I got plenty more):

  1. The average size of landed fish is coming down. Naturally it's coming down, what else would you expect? As big fish get caught, the overall average size of the "herd" has to diminish. If the average size is coming down, that is a good sign (though not for "sportsmen" trophy hunters). It also means there is healthy new recruitment to the stocks. This happens to all biological species. A population with low predation grows until it reaches "maturity" (when only enough are newborn/spawned to replace losses due to aging) and the overall population ages (while growing in average size overall). (Actually it "overgrows" until it reaches the limits of its environment (food, etc) and then stabilizes (or "matures")).

    As a population gets reduced (fishing, other predators, natural causes, ...), recruitment explodes correspondingly (Don't forget, ocean species (especially fish) spawn by the 1'000's or even 1,000,000's per animal though few survive early stages.). More new (younger) fish, average size goes down. It's important to not ignore (unless you have an agenda) that very few 70lb fish will survive to become 700lb fish (even without ANY fishing (sport or commercial). 99 (or even more) will succumb to any number of disasters (sharks, whales, bacterial infections, parasites, starvation, .....) for each one that does. Think about it, is it better to harvest 100 70lb'ers (7,000 lbs) or one 700lb'er to feed the world?

  2. Overfishing by greedy commercial fishermen is the only reason for stock reduction. It's my contention (based on a lifetime of experience) that unquestionably the major, by far reason for stock reductions and threatened populations is the absolutely astonishingly Environmental Degradation.

    Mr. Junger, unwittingly most eloquently makes my case for me (and probably wouldn't have had he realized it, given his obvious prejuduce and willful ignorance toward commercial fishing) on page 121 (where he discusses possible reasons for the overall increase in the size of waves in the last few decades) when he mentions "the dramatic decline of plankton in the North Atlantic".

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Mr. Junger does a yeoman job of describing Herculean rescue attempts by the Coast Guard and National Guard (the real (and deserved) heroes of his story). The book is worth reading for that alone.

Mr. Junger does a decent job of describing the confluence of weather patterns that make up great storms. The book is worth reading for that alone.

Mr. Junger does a decent job of describing wave generation and their making. The book is worth reading for that alone.

Mr. Junger wrapped the above around a compelling story. The book is worth reading for that alone.

Mr. Junger, as for your commercial fishing depictions, and your characterizations of commercial fishermen, I will say to you, as most any self respecting fisherman would anywhere (if he didn't smack you first), you are an unscrupulous exploitive cad and should be ashamed of yourself, but I know you won't. So I will say to you, as a fisherman would much more succinctly - "FUCK YOU. You ain't worth powder to blow over the rail."
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(Note, When I finished the review, I printed a copy and sent it to Mr. Junger. I got an immediate response. It follows.)

Sebastian Junger
88 East Third #7
New York, NY 10003
212-539-1321 phone\fax

February 14, 1998

Dear Mr. Lovgren -

I am not on the Intemet, so I would appreciate it if you could post this response on your website.

First of all, I generally don't dignify with a response letters that end in "Fuck you," particularly from a stranger. As a piece of advice to the author, I would advise him, that that kind of language generally weakens, rather than strengthens, a person's point.

The author, who apparently was not confident enough in his assertions to even provide a name, says that I did the fishing industry a disservice by emphasizing the "uglier" aspects of the lifestyle, such as drinking. My response is short and simple: I'm a journalist, not a novelist, and I write what I see, without any particular moral evaluation attached to it. Like it or not, alcoholism is a huge problem in Gloucester, and a personal tragedy for many, many families. At one time the town also had the highest heroin overdose rate in the country, and as a result, the HIV infection rate is now soaring. That is the reality in Gloucester, and they are problems that desperately need to be faced and dealt with. To gloss them over and paint a pretty little picture does a huge disservice to the town, and the industry. Plenty of writers have already romanticized both, to little good effect.

Furthermore, I arn not a fisherman, so absolutely everything that I know about the industry comes from interviews I did with fishermen themselves. Every. What you are reading in my book isn't my view of them, it's their own view of themselves. The may well have a distorted view, but I'm in no position to correct them. Likewise, everything I know about the men who died on the Andrea Gail, I got from their friends and family. So if the author is so concerned about the feelings of the good citizens of Gloucester, I suggest he simply call them and ask what they think of the book. Call the harbor master. Call Ethel Shatford at the Crow's Nest. Call the St. Peter's Club (which hosted a reading I gave.) Call the mayor. Call the selectmen. Call anyone I quote by name in the book. The people of Gloucester thought that the book was an exceptionally accurate and unjudgmental portrayal of their town. That they feel that way is much more important to me than any sales figure or bestseller list; in a way, the goodwill of people you have written about is the greatest honor a journalist can receive. Apparently, my book is being passed around dragger crews while they're fishing off Georges Bank. So, no, I'm sorry to have to tell the author that - so far anyway - no fisherman has smacked me, or even been vaguely critical. But my name and address are listed above if he'd like to be the first to come and try.


Sebastian Junger

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My Response

Mr. Junger,

First off, the author was me, not someone hiding in a bush somewhere. As for your advice about my language, I use written words carefully (as opposed to spoken words) with full knowledge of their import. If they weaken my argument, sobeit. I've had enough, and no longer follow, advice from do-gooders like yourself thank you. You may be interested in two of the comments this review prompted:

  1. Perfect Storm ,JustOkay
    Comments-,I use foul language quite often myself, but it doesn't belong in your text. It makes you look bad instead of Mr. Junger.

  2. Perfect Storm ,Excellent
    Comments-,Right on old friend.

Contrary to the impression you give of my "confidence", I sent you the review that appears on my AOU site ( http://www.exit109.com/~gosta ) so nobody is hiding from you. I even sent you my home address.

First of all, I have been accused of "overreacting", even cynicism when I read criticism of my industry. That may be true. But I am sick (to the very core of my heart) and tired of the lies and gross distortions. I am sick and tired of being called nothing more than a greedy resource rapist, of being manipulated, of being lied about, of seeing my once proud industry reduced to fishermen having to apologize for being fishermen, of having my kids ashamed of what I did, and all this from the very people who are profiting most from fishing (such as yourself).

As for my view of the "ugly" aspects of fishing that you emphasized. It falls in two areas:

  1. You no doubt spent a lot of time in Gloucester and with the fishermen there. And I don't doubt that you heard everything you printed. But I'll bet you heard a hellava lot more but you chose to emphasize the ugliness, or portray it as ugly.

    You are a writer and know full well the power of words and how they will be perceived. You chose the low road. I have no doubt the fishermen of Gloucester befriended you. I can even see you bellying up to the bar, buying drinks and being one of the boys. All the time thinking what wonderful rich material this is going to make and how awesome and courageous you are going to appear among your politically correct and eco-nazi crowd. Living among the great unwashed. A fucking Quisling sir, that's what you were.

    Much easier it is to impose draconian regulation and control on a drugged drunken population. "No sense listening to them. You see what they are. Look at what Junger said."

  2. You unquestionably parrot fisheries propaganda from government sources (no doubt) clearly designed to further restrict fishing further without even rudimentarily understanding what you are talking about.

    If you were a real man and truly cared about fishermen and the ocean, you would apply whatever talent you may have to investigating the true full causes of stock reduction (start with the astonishing amount of ocean pollution there is every year and how that affects reproduction rates). Investigate the REAL motivations behind stifling fisheries regulation in the US (Import fees going directly into the coffers of NMFS and universities. Fees that probably run higher than the total value of commercial landings in the US every year and rising as your types force landings down).

Judging by the almost hysterical character of your response ("Call the harbor master. Call Ethel Shatford. Call .. Call .. Call ..") I would say I hit a nerve and am not far off the truth. If you are feeling pangs of guilt then I would also say that is to your credit. I had you pegged as just another amoral self serving journalist.

As for any face to face meeting, I'm not hard to find. Just ask around the docks in Point Pleasant Beach and ask for "that Fucking Swede". You'll run across someone who knows me quick enough.

Oh and one other thing. I'm going to send a copy of this Internet page to the Crow's Nest in Gloucester. If they disagree with me, I'll print their response as well.

Gösta H. Lovgren

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As a point of interest, a week or two after the above communication on February 24, 1998, the New York Times had "The Perfect Storm" as on example of modern writing they called "factional", a mix of fact and fiction. It was on the front page of the ARTS section. Junger, among others, was pointed out for blurring the lines, even inventing, to create a better story.

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(The following was clipped from Amazon.Com reader reviews (where it got generally very good ratings probably averaging 8+ on a scale of 1-10, mostly from people who aren't fishermen. I gave it a 7.)

Kent Leonard kent@world.std.com , 07/22/97, rating=2:
One sided view of the evacuation of the sailboat Satori

I am the son of Ray Leonard, the captain and owner of Satori. The Coast Guard "rescue" of the crew and captain of Satori, as described in part of this book, is based on one crew member's account and doesn't give an accurate impression.

The captain never wanted a rescue attempt. He knew that the small, solid boat could withstand the conditions it was in. The crew, in contrast, were very frightened and apparently issued the mayday call. When the Coast Guard came to the boat they ordered everyone off.

Even after she was abandoned, Satori continued through the storm with no damage, eventually being recovered from a Maryland beach. Another sailboat, the Stafka I, also sailed safely through the same part of the storm.

The author never contacted Ray Leonard, even though he devotes many pages to the "rescue" from Satori.

(Note there was a picture of Ray Leonard aboard the undamaged Satori in the Times article. He didn't look like a coward to me.)

A Full Account of the Satori adventure can be found here. Myself I believe it rather than Junger's account. Damn shame Junger was so lazy reportingly. It could have enhanced his book rather than cheapen it. But that's the point, he was out to sensationalize, not give an accurate portrayal.

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A Boston Phoenix interview with Junger. I guess I'm in the minority.

From a surfer - "The entire Columbia University Journal Review review of Junger's crap is at http://cjr.org/html/98-07-08-errors.html. The page addresses "Reporting Standards" (of which Junger appears to have none) and also errors in other reports and publications." Maybe I'm not in the minority after all.

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Here is a picture of the Andrea Gail. {Note - Check out the other pictures on this site as well.} Just be sure to remmber to come back here and let me know what your thoughts are at the review section below. {grin}

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1/8/2006 - Junger's in the news again with more

-"truthiness" -

End Perfect Storm "review"/expose

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