Abbie Donaldson, 28, recently captured the women's world record in free-diving spearfishing when she caught a 62.5-pound cobia near Port Fourchon. The fish later was sold to the French Quarter seafood restaurant GW Fins. An aesthetician by trade, Donaldson grew up spearfishing and routinely sells fish to seafood distributors and restaurants in New Orleans. Many spearfishers sell to local restaurants, but Donaldson is the only female free-diving competitive spearfisher in Louisiana. Donaldson spoke with Gambit about spearfishing.
How did you get into the dangerous sport of spearfishing?
Donaldson: I feel like I've been doing this my whole life. I grew up in Baton Rouge, but we had a camp in Grand Isle, so we'd go down every year and it would be just the four of us — my brother, my parents and me — we all fish.
When I was 7, I started going offshore and watching (my parents). By the time I was 12, I started scuba diving, and they would let me catch little fish. I started competing after that, and the last three years I've only been free diving. It's a lot more challenging, but also thrilling, which I love. I think everyone who spearfishes is a little bit of an adrenaline junkie.
It is really dangerous. Because you're in the water with the fish, there's the threat of getting tangled up and drowning. That and shallow water blackout, which is what happens whenever the brain has been starved of oxygen for too long and you faint (and drown). We've had a few friends in Louisiana die from that.
I've been in the water with a lot of sharks; they're all over. I've seen black tips and little silky (sharks) and every now and then I'll see a bull shark. Usually, if I see a bull shark I'm getting out of the water. But I'm more afraid of jellyfish than I am of sharks, really.
How does one get started spearfishing commercially?
D: Anyone can do it, really. You basically just go on the (Louisiana) Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website and pay the $65 fee for a commercial selling license. It only covers certain fish, including cobia, sheepshead and a few other non-reef fish. For instance, if I wanted to sell red snapper, I'd need to get a reef permit, and those go for thousands of dollars.
(After catching the fish) you can then sell them to local fish houses and restaurants that are covered within an applicable license. We need to make sure that we're selling within our limits. You're only allowed two (cobia) per day, per person.
We normally go about 30 to 40 miles offshore but can go as far as 100-plus miles. The bigger fish usually like deeper waters, and (closer to shore) it's just too murky, so we go to water we can see in. It's amazing: All of a sudden it's like a theater, and you're surrounded by fish.
We usually dive between 30 and 60 feet (deep) — it all depends on how deep the fish are. They're fast, but the good thing about cobia is that they're very, very curious creatures. You'll see (them) swimming on your friends' fins, just kind of following you to see what you are up to.
Are there a lot of fish on New Orleans menus caught by local spearfishers?
D: I'd guess that about 10 to 15 percent of the cobia sold at New Orleans restaurants comes from local spearfishers — and maybe some sheepshead, but it's hard to say. Usually when I sell it, that's the last I think of it. It's a lot easier for us to shoot them than it is to wait for them to bite your hook.
To make it worth it, cobia is really our thing. Sheepshead is sold at 89 cents a pound and cobia is $3.75 a pound. Most of the (cobia) we shoot are around 30 pounds, so that ends up being more than $100 per fish, which is nice. At least it pays for our trip.
(Cobia) are more expensive because they taste really, really good. They've got great, firm white meat that's easy to cook and tastes great.