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(cover picture) Bendavid-Val, Oren
2006 Last Season: Portrait of a Trawler. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, color, 28 minutes
Reviewed 2 Jan 2012 by:
Thomas Stevenson <>
Ohio University
Medium: Film/Video
Trawlers (Vessels) - Atlantic Ocean - Georges Bank Trawlers (Vessels) - Atlantic Ocean - Nantucket Shoals Groundfishes

ABSTRACT:    Last Season is a portrait of the ground fish trawler Isabel S. from New Bedford, MA and its five-man crew. The boat is revealed as a social microcosm. Captain Jeff, the son of an esteemed local captain, is at the top of the order, and Lo, who arrived in the U.S. after a harrowing escape from a Viet Cong jail, is at the bottom. We accompany them to the once-ample fishing areas of Georges Bank and the Nantucket Shoals, where they haul in nets, and do the backbreaking and bloody work of hand-cutting thousands of pounds of cod and other fish on a pitching trawl deck. Fishing is a complicated and sometimes deadly business. Detailed knowledge of the ocean floor and the habits of fish is crucial to success. But, as Captain Jeff acknowledges as the Isabel S. returns with its catch, "Sometimes a lot of it is a little luck."

Reality television programs like “Deadliest Catch” have introduced many Americans to commercial fishing. But to earn ratings the producers present this physically dangerous and financially precarious occupation as akin to a sport in which boats compete for the biggest prize. The reality, as Linda Greenlaw (2007) describes in The Hungry Ocean, is a much more prosaic occupation requiring the crew to operate together under very stressful circumstances.

Bendavid-Val’s film introduces to the tribulations of modern industrial fishing on Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals. There, as in fisheries around the world, overfishing has depleted fish stocks. Unlike Canada’s Grand Banks fishery which was closed in the 1990s, the U.S. fishery is still active but nearing closure. Fish stocks have been so depleted that the number of days in a season has been reduced from 230 to 45 days.

Fishing vessels can only be financially successful by finding, catching and processing a large volume of fish in a shrinking hunting window. This requires high technology to pinpoint fish but also a captain’s experience to select the areas in which to deploy this equipment. Despite concerns with species survival, the only change seems to be in the days at sea; the volume of the catch doesn’t seem to be seriously reduced.

The trawler Isabel S., home ported in New Bedford, Massachusetts, is a main character in the film. She is challenged by weather and mechanical issues. She is also the stage on which the other actors work. The captain occupies the wheelhouse and operates the weather and underwater scanners. The deck area is the danger zone with trawls dumping thousands of pounds of fish on deck where they must be sorted, gutted, and prepared for storage. Tossing and slicing up fish on the slippery, rolling deck is tough physical labor.

The vessel has a captain and crew of five, of whom three appear. Captain Jeff is the son of a respected former captain. He is from New Bedford, choosing to stay when his father and brother moved to the Pacific. Jeff’s life has been at sea; he grew up working for his father. He talks about quitting, but like some of his crew, he has become addicted to the financial rewards.

The rewards of captaincy, such as the largest share of the earnings, are paired with the jobs stresses. The captain needs to find fish, to manage his crew, and try to minimize the mistakes that end careers and lives. These have taken a toll on Jeff who has hypertension and hypercholesterolemia. He would rather live on his 400 acres of Maine woods, a reward of his high risk occupation.

The other crewmen presented also experience the stresses of life at sea. Brian is a native New Englander and nearly 20 year crew member. He serves as the ship’s cook a job it appears most do not want. As a younger man, he and his contemporaries spent time at sea or in bars. Savings were few and potential addictions were plenty. This pattern, Brian suggests, is due to long time away from home. Brian eventually quit drinking and has a resumed a family life with his brothers.

Lo, the deckhand, is a former Vietnamese refugee. He, too, has had a long history at sea, having fished when he was in Vietnam. His journey to the US began with his escape from a Viet Cong prison. Although he is well adjusted to life aboard, this took time. He began as a quiet, dependable worker who gradually grew more relaxed and open. Eventually he became somewhat of the crew’s joker. His antic poses with fish are a highlight of the film

As the lowest ranked work, Lo was always the ‘verbal whipping boy’ when there were problems. Eventually the captain revealed that this was how his father used to treat him when he was a boy and he began treating Lo in the same way.

Lo also finds life away from family hard. He complains he did not see his children grow up. True, each seems to have benefitted from Lo’s earnings and he is proud of them, but he also seems not to have close relationships. In response to life at sea, Lo reverted to Buddhism, meditates daily, and prepares his own vegetarian meals.

These bits from the lives of a trawler crew would be useful in a course on the anthropology of work. Moreover, there are many questions that go unasked and unanswered. Why are half the crew members not presented? Do all crews enjoy such good relations with each other? What is the market for fish once off the boat? How are the shares distributed? Who owns the boat and what is the owner’s share? Do all crew enjoy such good relations with each other?

The lack of action may not appeal to undergraduates, although Bendavid-Val’s filming aboard the Isabel S. would be make for a good discussion in an anthropology of film course.


Greenlaw, Linda 2007 The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain's Journey. New York: Hyperion.