National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
Thursday, 06 March 2014
Though crowds were thick at the Maine Fishermen's Forum last weekend, in some places they formed an extra tight knot. Chances are that within that cluster you'd find a familiar face. Keith Colburn, captain of the Wizard and star of the reality TV show "Deadliest Catch," was in town.
The story of how he came to be in Maine is interesting in itself. Colburn is an avid cyclist. After a 60-mile trek from Bangor to Port Clyde one day last summer, he was wiped out, but he accepted an invitation for a drink. Inside the bar, forum organizer and fisherman Gerry Cushman recognized Colburn despite spandex and a setting completely out of context for the Alaskan crabber. "Oh my god. I've seen everything now," were Cushman's words according to Colburn.
The recognition led to another invitation, and Colburn spent the night in Cushman's fish house — which is actually an art studio for Cushman's wife. One kindness led to another and Colburn returned to Maine (when the weather isn't quite so nice) to attend the forum in Rockland as a guest speaker. He was nice enough to stop by the National Fisherman booth for a quick interview (and dropped off the signed photo of the Wizard above).
NF: How's this year going for you?
KC: Things are going well for us this year. We're down in red crab, up in opies. There's a 25 percent reduction in opie TAC so that made things a little difficult for us. It's fishing, and it's going to be cyclical.
NF: How's your experience of being on the show?
KC: I've been on the show eight years. I get accosted when I go places. I think it's been totally positive. When the government shut down last fall [Alaska] Sen. [Mark] Begich called me and said, 'Can you guys come down and testify?' [The shutdown delayed the crab season meaning the potential loss of lucrative holiday markets].
NF: What do you think of all the tough guy reality dramas that have followed "Deadliest Catch"?
KC: When it came out it wasn't reality TV. It was a documentary on crab fishing. Crab fishing's not fixed staged or scripted. They [meaning other reality shows] don't deal with 30 foot waves, they don't deal with conditions like this [at this point Colburn shows a photo of a massive chunk of ice that was chipped off the mast — but he wasn't able to share it because the episode hasn't aired] that you can't script. The difference between Deadliest Catch and other shows, you can't make this crap up, what happens to us.
I think the shows are great, if you're documenting what guys do. They come on board and they're not after reality. They're after what's going to sell potato chips.
NF: Why did you decide to do the show in the first place?
KC: I initially wanted to do the show because I had no photographic history of myself as a fisherman. I wanted to chronicle what I did for my kids.
NF: Are you paid?
KC: Are you crazy? You think I wouldn't do it if I wasn't paid? Fishermen's egos end at the dock.
NF: How's your experience been meeting fishermen around the country?
KC: It's positive. Fishermen watch the show. They love it.
Colburn further explained that the real drama of fishing is not some petty argument between crew members, but a mechanical problem. Cameras can't convey that type of drama to a broad audience, but fishermen get it.
Tuesday, 04 March 2014
When wooden traps ruled Maine waters, their designs were all over the place. "There as many ways to build a trap as there are lobstermen, but there's only one right way — and that's mine," one Downeast fisherman told National Fisherman in an article from 1984 that's highlighted in our April issue's Back When section on page 4.
That variety was supposed to end 30 years ago when the use of manufactured wire traps quickly spread. The preference for wire is easy to understand. It fishes better. Wire traps are more likely to land upright and don't bounce around on the bottom as much as wooden ones do. Wooden lobster traps were on their way out along with the tradition of lobstermen spending their winters in their basements building oak-lath traps for next season.
You'd think that would be it for wooden traps. But on the cover of the April issue with that item from 30 years ago, there's a wooden trap. The photo of lobstermen hauling up a wooden trap on the 45-foot Persevere was taken last year off Chatham, Mass. If wire traps are clearly better, why are wooden ones still in the water?
I tried to find out more about this while I was at the Maine Fishermen's Forum this weekend. I asked the lobster trap manufacturer at the booth next to ours if he knew of anyone still using wooden traps. From his visits to lobster fisheries on the East and West coasts, he said he knew of only one place where lobstermen held onto the tradition of using wooden traps, Canada's Prince Edward Island. They're traditionalists.
There's more that goes into traps than how well they fish. I watched people come over to inspect his wire traps. Some liked the runners on them, but one woman dismissed them, saying they'd cause the traps to slide all over the place if you stacked them onboard.
One lobsterman I talked to from Massachusetts said he only phased out the last of his wooden traps in the last couple years. He couldn't really tell me why he kept using them for so long. He just did. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a Dungeness crabber on the West Coast. He keeps using his lucky trap — even though it's old and battered and he has new ones that are supposedly better.
You can read more about traps in the April issue's profile of Eddie Heath, also known as Chesapeake Bay's crab pot king. If you work with traps you know there's always something to tinker with. Lately, Heath, who has been making crab pots for 40 years, has been experimenting with color. The most popular for the past few years have been pots in bright greens and yellows, which some crabbers believe help draw crabs toward their pots.
So what did I learn about traps? I'm thinking of looking into this further for a possible story, but I think for most fishermen, the quote from the Down East lobsterman in the 1984 article still rings true. Whatever works best for you is best.
Photo of Friendship Trap from the April 1984 issue of National FishermanAdd a comment
Tuesday, 25 February 2014
I'm not really sure how this happened, but I set out to write a blog about the possible reemergence of sail power, and ended up thinking about the extinction of our species. Thank goodness February is almost over.
I will try to explain. Today I read about a commercial fishing and gear firm from the Shetlands that was awarded a research grant for almost $11,000. The money will help the company move toward its goal of developing a sailing mast system for commercial fishing boats.
Sail Line Fish unveiled the Balpha Mast prototype in 2011. The project began five years ago when gas prices spiked. The collapsible mast is designed to be put in use when conditions are favorable for sailing and without needing extra crew.
There's no overstating the importance of fuel prices on commercial fishing. I've seen fishermen do the gas math, trying to decide whether it's worth the extra cost of steaming farther out. Even if the catch is more abundant, it may be offset by the gas it took to get there.
The Balpha Mast seems to have potential. In a 2011 feasibility study, 17 fishing trips were made covering 136 nautical miles. Of that distance, 33 percent was under sail, reducing fuel consumption by 17.6 percent (taking into account all fuel use, including setting and hauling lines).
The company, which has been funding the research with sales of its own line-caught fish, next plans to design and build a sail-assisted fishing vessel to test and trial the system. Stuart Balfour of Sail Line Fish says it has had interest from fishermen both nearer to home and all around the world, including Malaysia, Dubai, Maldives and Nova Scotia.
We've gone from sails to steam to internal combustion to diesel and now possibly back to sail again. Seeing this shift in technology is fascinating to me. I wouldn't say this is a step backward but that our definition of moving forward has changed. That's pretty monumental when you think about it.
When I'm in a certain mood, I like to read about the collapse of societies and our own inevitable end. Which is why I started thinking about the Fermi paradox. It's the idea that the universe is so vast that intelligent life MUST exist on other planets.
The paradox is why haven't they visited us yet? One theory is advanced societies tend to move in the direction of self destruction — we have the capability of destroying ourselves before we're smart enough to use it wisely.
That's all conjecture, but it's so interesting to think about. At least for now, new technology is reducing our impact on the planet. More importantly, it saves on gas. Check out a video of the Balpha Mast in action below:Add a comment
Thursday, 20 February 2014
I worry the most when times are good. That might be true for commercial fishermen too. Take pinks. If you hold a Southeast purse seiner permit, it brought in an average of $454,190 in 2011 and $313,658 in 2012. That number is going to be even higher for 2013, when Alaska fishermen harvested a record-breaking 219 million humpies.
We should all have that problem, right? That's a lot of cash, but the amount has caused a glut of product.
"We don't have any marketing going on with this canned salmon. It's a problem that the industry has at the moment," Bruce Schactler of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said at the Pacific Marine Expo in November.
What I like about Alaskans is they don't just talk about problems, they take action. Schactler said the industry has committed several million dollars to address this concern. As Schactler, also a commercial fisherman, explained, "We're very fortunate here in Alaska that we have a marketing association like that where we can actually get up and make something happen."
Marketing efforts are good news for the industry, but I hope pinks aren't elevated too high (if that's the intention). I like pink canned salmon. I like that I can throw it in an omelet or a frittata without a lot of planning or expense. I was happy to see that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning to buy $20 million of canned pink salmon for food assistance programs.
I know more pinks are being flash-frozen and sent to Asia for processing. I hope they also stay in the can. We may not be getting top dollar for pinks that go to food pantrys, but I think those efforts will put them in the minds of more people looking for a protein to feed their families who will realize it's cheaper than chicken and healthier than ground beef. That's not a bad place to be.
I am writing a story about pinks for the next issue of Seafood Business magazine (a sister publication of National Fisherman aimed at seafood buyers). If you have any thoughts about the future for pinks, I'd love to hear from you.
Permit holder statistics from the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Photo by Jessica HathawayAdd a comment
Thursday, 13 February 2014
There are fewer than 20 left of the 150 historic schooners built for Alaska's longline halibut fishery. These survivors will be in the “Highliners: Boats of the Century” exhibit opening at the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle on Saturday. Some will also be taking part in a parade today on South Lake Union.
I think it's amazing there are any left at all. Think about it. A boat is a piece of technology designed to hunt fish. How much other technology is still around from 100 years ago? Most people consider their iPhones useless if they're older than 6 months.
To find some of their stories, this morning I looked through National Fisherman's archives. As you'll see from the slideshow, a few of these venerable boats have floated through our pages.
In May 2002, for instance, writer William McCloskey joined the Vansee for a weeklong run targeting blackcod in the Gulf of Alaska (with a secondary take of halibut). Per Odegaard ran the 86-footer along with a loyal crew whose most recent member joined five years before and most senior had been with the boat for 17 years. Odegaard's history with the Vansee stretched even further, as he took over the boat in 1982 from his father Nils, who had purchased a part-share in 1960.
In a two-part series published in October and November, McCloskey writes about 16-hour workdays and recounts the history of the schooner. The Vansee was built in 1913 in the John Strand boatyard in Seattle. Like other classic schooners, she was run by Norwegian skippers, whose first fishing was done by a 15-man crew from six dories. In the 1920s the boats switched to the safer deck fishing and dominated the halibut fishery until the free-for-all days of derby fishing in the 1980s.
Those still around may have held onto traditions but also knew they had to change to survive. After the halibut fishery became overrun, the fleet began fishing blackcod in 1983. Odegaard told McCloskey how he came to adopt circle hooks around that same time after reading about them in National Fisherman in 1983. "I tried the circle on just 10 skates. The difference was remarkable — how many more fish came aboard than with our traditional J-hooks. Right away I phoned my dad in Seattle and said get down to the stores first thing.” He bought as many circle hooks as he could find and by 1984 the rest of the fleet had converted from J-hooks to circle.
But the hooks had been around before then, McCloskey asked, why hadn't anyone else in the fleet tried them before?
"The old way had always worked. We're a pretty conservative lot," Odegaard told McCloskey with a smile.
Experienced commercial fishermen like Odegaard understand new is not always better. The longevity of these wooden boats built between 1911 and 1929 is a testament not only to the craftsmanship of the original builders, but also to fishermen who have maintained the vessels that have served them and previous owners well over the years.
Fans of wooden boats will get to see the classics for themselves when some of those still hardworking longliners gather at the Center for Wooden Boats on South Lake Union today at 10 a.m. to celebrate the opening of the exhibit as well as the 100th anniversary of the Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association. Those expected include the Seymour, Vansee, Grant, Polaris, and Resolute, which along with the Republic, Pacific, Thor, Northern, and Tordenskjold, are the present-day schooners highlighted in the exhibit. They may be from the past, but they're not relics.
Monday, 03 February 2014
The night before I headed out on Puget Sound on the Miss Mae, I had drinks in Port Townsend with the boat's skipper, Sam Bain, and his friend and fellow fisherman Billie Delaney. Billie thought it was amusing that I was going to be writing a story about Sam's fishery (see the March 2014 issue of National Fisherman, page 24).
This is no "Deadliest Catch." There's hardly any waves, no turf wars (at least not on the water; there have been battles over catch allocation among commercial state, tribal and recreational fishermen). For me, the story was in how Sam found his niche in a small-boat, low-key fishery that allowed him to stay on the water for most of the year.
That doesn't mean there's no excitement. A day on the water is not the same as a day in the office. If I trip, I'd be a little bruised and more embarrassed than hurt. When Sam is out on the water he's usually alone. A slip could mean a splash.
One thing Sam must consider is where to put his pots. One area may be falling off, but if he moves his pots, he loses a day of crabbing. The new area may not turn to be as productive as hoped and may also be farther from the dock, which means the gas you use to get there could offset the bonus crabs.
There's also price. Dungeness is prized by Asian markets, which can mean a lot of fluctuations. Some crabbers will put their catch back in the water at the dock to wait for a better price, but that's a strategy that can backfire: I heard about one crabber who lost $10,000 this way.
It's interesting to watch fishermen work these equations, but no matter how much you crunch the numbers, there's always going to be uncertainty. This to me is the most exciting part of fishing (when the waters are calm). Even though my paycheck isn't tied to what's inside, I always feel a thrill when I watch the pulleys turn and ropes slide up as they retrieve the net or pot below. What's inside can either prove or disprove a fisherman's logic — or just be luck. Wild animals hidden under dark waves will never be completely predictable.
I took a short (under 2-minute) video on the trip of Sam hauling up a pot. It may not leave you on the edge of your seat but watching it and hearing the hum of the engine and the cries of the seagulls was a nice mental break from a dreary February day in the office.
That hum in the video reminded me of some other excitement. As you'll find out in the story, a problem with the hauler almost canceled the day. As a fisherman said to me on a previous trip, "That's fishing."Add a comment
Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Someone asked me last night why fishermen are so angry. I live in Maine. When fishermen are in the news it’s over a contentious issue, like an area closure or reduced quota. In televised meetings fishermen speak their minds and tempers can flare. My answer was that often fishermen don’t feel like anyone’s listening.
These televised glimpses don't paint an accurate picture of fishermen in general, but the rules and quotas handed down affect their livelihoods. It's good to speak up. Sometimes if you yell loud enough and long enough, someone hears you.
That seems to be happening in the battle to protect Alaska's Bristol Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency released its final draft report on the potential harm to the area from large-scale mining operations and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) came out against the project last week. A rally held in Seattle on Friday (shown below) drew more than 200 fishermen and supporters.
That fight goes on. While the EPA report advises against the mine because of its threat to the valuable salmon watershed, the agency needs to issue a 404(c) to actually prohibit development. Brett Veerhusen of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay says a final decision could come in a couple months.
But I think it's good to go beyond battle-mode. The advocates for Bristol Bay have done this by using the Pebble Mine issue as a platform to spread the word about the value of their fishery. As Begich said in his release, the region "produces half the world’s red salmon and supports thousands of fishing jobs and way of life for thousands of Alaskans.”
More people need to understand that value. Yesterday, I talked to Laine Welch. She’s been the voice for commercial fishing on Alaska public radio since 1988. She wants more people to understand that the fishing industry provides more jobs than oil, gas, timber and tourism combined.
I like the example she's giving people: In her home of Kodiak there are about 700 boats in two harbors. She’s trying to make people see that each one of those boats is an individual storefront. They're small businesses. Each one supports one or more more families.
This example applies to every coast. If you value something you need to not only show it, but help other people understand why it's worth something too. If not, you stand to lose it all.Add a comment
Wednesday, 22 January 2014
At the beginning of the 2013 Maine elver season, Chad Jordan was hoping for another boom year.
“The spike in the eel market the last couple years has really changed my life,” he says on the TV series "Cold River Cash." With his earnings from the previous season he had put a down payment on a new boat.
But when the season starts slow, he’s working double shifts. At night he’s on the riverbank with a dipnet trying to catch glass eels then knee-deep in mud flats digging for clams during the day.
The reality television show, which debuted earlier this month on Animal Planet, was shot last spring in Southern Maine. 2013 was the third year of high prices for glass eels, or elvers.
The 10-week fishery has become a gold rush recently because Maine is one of the only places that can meet Asian demand for these tiny elvers. It takes 1,800 elvers to make a pound, but when prices go past $2,000 per pound, each one counts.
I was especially interested in the show because I wrote about the fishery in the September issue of National Fisherman after a trip Down East last spring. On the riverbanks I heard stories of nets being cut and attempts at elver robbery. Of course, those things happen when no-one's watching.
In the episode I watched the season had just opened to cold weather that was keeping catches low for the three teams, the Grinders, Eelinators, and Maineacs. The teams (not a normal part of elver fishing) are not only trying to catch as many elvers as they can but also competing against each other. I don’t know if there’s a prize beyond the price of elvers for getting the most but they heckle each other with words, fireworks and water balloons.
This comes across as silly. The show appears to be part of the trend of reality shows where the main premise is to marvel and laugh at blue-collar Americans with funny accents and pickup trucks.
These are New England fishermen. There’s plenty of real drama in the fishing industry around here. It doesn't need to be manufactured.
It was also hard to root for any of the teams. I’m sure the guys in Cold Water Cash are good guys, but on TV they’re presented as composites. The family man. The joker. The bickering father and son.
We get a small sense of their lives but it’s only a glimpse. I would have enjoyed a more in-depth look at a fisherman like Jordan, and how he’s managing to hold on to a way of life that’s quickly disappearing along these same shorelines. He says at the beginning of the episode that he makes as much money all year clamming as he does in the 10-week elver fishery. It'd be interesting to see what other fisheries he participates in and learn more about his life on and off the water.
I think that’s why I couldn’t get into the show. I would have liked it better if it focused on what it means to be a fisherman in a place where your kind is facing extinction. That would be more interesting than how many tiny glass eels are in the bottom of a dipnet and might also help the public understand what’s at stake.
Thursday, 16 January 2014
Certainly no high school guidance counselor could have predicted Sam Bain's path. The 34-year-old from North Carolina began commercial fishing 11 years ago in Alaska. During his first season he gillnetted for sockeye out of Dillingham, and for the last 10 years he's been traveling to Bristol Bay each summer to setnet salmon.
He wanted fishing to be more than a summer job, but he didn't see much of a future beyond crewing in Alaska, where the cost of boats and permits can be prohibitive. That's why he began running his own 25-footer to pot for Dungeness crab in Puget Sound's small fishery three years ago.
I just finished writing about the day I spent with him for National Fisherman's March issue. What struck me as most compelling about his story was his dedication to building a future for himself on the water near his home of Port Townsend, Wash.
As a writer, I didn't have a career path laid out for me to follow either. But I know what's important to me, and so does Sam. He values his work as a fisherman as well as sustaining the resource and environment that surrounds and supports him.
This is no gold-rush fishery like the ones you see on TV. The waters are calm and though there's a short peak after the Oct. 1 opening, the price falls as the season progresses (mostly because of other areas opening and fluctuating overseas markets).
But the resource is sustainable, and Sam's overhead doesn't usually exceed the cost of filling up his 100-gallon fuel tank every third day and $150 a day in bait. Even with the slowdown, he can keep going until the season closes on April 15.
That's the point. This isn't a quick get-rich gig. It's a job. It's a home. It's a life.
You can read more about Sam's life on the water in the March issue of National Fisherman, which will be out in the beginning of February.
Tuesday, 07 January 2014
It's so cold even Florida is under a wind-chill warning. That's because of the polar vortex dipping down from the North Pole that's bringing sub-zero temperatures with it. My own polar vortex experience hasn't been too bad: I lost water yesterday when a pipe burst in my building's basement, but it's fixed now and I'm warm and can take showers again.
That's a common story. Cold weather can cause a lot of damage, and not just to buildings. If you're in Florida or other places in the South not used to frigid temperatures, you should probably turn to page 30 when you receive your February issue of National Fisherman. In the article, "Save room for vroom," Brian Robbins writes about how to prevent freeze-ups before your pack up after a long winter's workday.
Before you go home for the night, Robbins recommends shutting off your boat's raw-water intake then adding antifreeze and rolling the engine over a few times to pump it through the system. He cautions to make sure to do the reverse before you head out again the next day.
Even if you're not experiencing the polar vortex, I'd recommend checking out Robbins' article. As a former offshore lobsterman and longtime contributor to National Fisherman, he offers common-sense tips for making engine maintenance easier that should come in handy all year.
I realize that these sub-zero temperatures aren't a novelty for our readers in Alaska, but being used to them means that you're also better prepared. Do you have any cold-weather tips you can share with our commercial fishermen readers in the South? And yes, I realize we're all in the south compared to you...
Photo of ice breaking on Maine's Kennebec River by Lauren Downs/USCGAdd a comment
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National Fisherman Live for March 11, 2014
Governor Terry McAuliffe announced today the appointment of John M.R. Bull as Commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. John Bull has been with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission since June 2007 and has been serving as Acting Commissioner since January 2014.
PORTSMOUTH, NH - The New Hampshire Fish and Lobster Festival, known locally as Fishtival, invites the community to Portsmouth's Prescott Park each September to honor, celebrate and rediscover the proud tradition of small-scale, local commercial groundfishing in New Hampshire and its valuable contribution to our local food system, local economy and local culture. Now, the mission continues with the announcement of small grants available from the proceeds of the 2013 event.