National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
Tuesday, 19 August 2014
Sometimes when I want to check out what the world is saying about commercial fishing, I'll go to Twitter and type "commercial fishing" in the search box. A sampling from today includes links to a video about commercial fishermen in Gaza struggling with Israeli restrictions and an article on how "China is using its immense commercial fishing fleet as a surrogate navy" for clashes in the contested waters in the South Asian Sea (the fleet has 695,555 vessels, making it the biggest in the world and double the size of the next largest, Japan.)
Sorry for the distraction. That's what these social media sites do — distract. Often the distractions that come up about commercial fishing will be negative. There are many users who "care about the oceans" (a favorite phrase) and use platforms like Twitter to sound off on commercial fishing. Yet, they know very little about the industry they're criticizing.
I care about the oceans too, and the health of our planet, but I don't think it's productive to constantly point fingers at commercial fishing while ignoring the growing threats of climate change, acidification and pollution. I remember learning during a pretty basic science class in high school that the pollution you can't see is often more of a threat to the environment than the visible. That's the problem that commercial fishermen have: You are a visible target.
During my time at National Fisherman I've been lucky to meet interesting, hardworking people whose idea of a typical day in the office is of course anything but. While it can be a struggle to not know what you're going to bring home each day, I think commercial fishermen also enjoy the challenge of keeping up with the fish within the parameters of time and fuel.
Those challenges make great stories. Keep telling your stories through good reporting at your local newspapers and blogs. These writers are always looking for material to write about, so if you feed them some juicy stories (with some education about fisheries to boot) you'll probably get a bite.
I believe in the power of stories, and you guys have the best ones. Providing greater understanding will hopefully allow for greater flexibility. For example, when fish move because of warming waters, will management and science acknowledge that change or blame the fishermen? Commercial fishermen need friends wherever they can find them during these changing and sometimes challenging times.
As our Senior Editor Linc Bedrosian pointed out to me when I shared this blog, commercial fishermen are both visible and invisible. You're an easy target to pick on, yet nobody really sees you because when you're off fishing, you're out of sight and out of mind to the general public.
Some are visible. If you go to Twitter and type in "commercial fishing," you'll see there's a good group of bloggers (some are also commercial fishermen) sharing those good stories. You can follow National Fisherman's Editor Jessica Hathaway @NFJes. If you want to follow me, I'm @melissafwood. Thanks!
Tuesday, 12 August 2014
Philip Halliday is a former scallop fisherman from Digby, Nova Scotia, who found himself in a bit of trouble. The story about him begins on Dec. 11, 2009. He is aboard the Destiny Empress, a 190-foot former Coast Guard vessel seemingly empty of cargo that he had been hired to sail from the Caribbean to Spain. Six days out, the ship is surrounded, shots are fired and they are boarded. It gets worse:
"Halliday was on his way back to the wheelhouse when somebody came up the stairs behind him and slammed him to the floor. Winded, he drew himself up, but his assailant kicked him in the stomach and flattened him again. He felt the man's knee pressing him into the steel floor, now strewn with broken glass.
"The man tied Halliday's hands behind his back and dragged him across the passageway, yelling at him to keep his head turned. Halliday was certain pirates had boarded the vessel. He thought, There's nothing on this ship! We're dead."
The armed men led Halliday to his cabin. Inside was a safe. When asked where the key was, Halliday said he had no idea.
Whether or not he was telling the truth is the key question of Noah Richler's story, "The Trials of Philip Halliday," in The Walrus. As you might have guessed, those pirates were police and the cargo was one and a half tons of cocaine (it was not in Halliday's cabin but in a pressurized compartment at the very bottom of the ship).
Was Halliday a naive fisherman or in on the drug deal? Read the story, which looks at Halliday's life as a commercial fisherman, his journey to the Destiny Empress and trial, and judge for yourself. You might know someone just like him.
Longreads like Richler's article are one of my favorite things on the Internet. Sites like longform.org that collect long-form articles from a wide variety of sources can suck me in for hours like a good book. Among these great reads are other pieces about commercial fishing and fishermen that I've listed below. Some are recent and some go back a few years.
What I like about them all is that they never skim the surface. It seems like so much of what we call reading online isn't reading at all. People read headlines and comment on a story without even reading it. Why bother? They've already made up their mind about the story's topic and won't be convinced otherwise. Click-hungry websites are willing participants in these quick jump-arounds.
But good writing will hook the curious reader and educate them about the topic. Not to sound too corny, but isn't greater understanding something we should all be striving for? When that topic's commercial fishing I believe longform articles can help the general public understand the industry and the people who work in it. Businessweek's story on the Gloucester fish wars, while not entirely sympathetic to the fishermen, may provide some understanding about that community's animosity toward law enforcement.
Most of all, I'm a sucker for a good survival story, which is why I've included both the recent story of John Aldridge's fall off a lobster boat off Long Island and an excerpt about the Essex, a ship that fought a whale and lost. Survival stories always make me think about how I would have acted if I had been in those harrowing situations. Hopefully, I'll never know.
If you're a fan of articles about commercial fishing, you should also be reading National Fisherman (if you don't already). We cover news about boats and gear as well as at-sea and big-issue stories, but these are true page-turners. You must be a magazine subscriber to read them. You can learn more about us and sign up here.
If you are a subscriber, thank you for reading.
"A Speck in the Sea"
Paul Tough, The New York Times, January 2014
Looking back, John Aldridge knew it was a stupid move. When you're alone on the deck of a lobster boat in the middle of the night, 40 miles off the tip of Long Island, you don't take chances.
"The Gloucester Fish War"
Brendan Borrell, Businessweek, November 2011
The bidding starts early at the seafood auction in Gloucester, Mass. Each day about 30 tons of fish — mostly cod, haddock, and flounder — come in by boat on Cape Ann, a fist jutting into the Atlantic Ocean.
"The Frozen Ladder"
Julia Grønnevet, n+1, November 2010
Going fishing is called, in dialect, "fær på sjøen." It was something boys in Norway did when society couldn't hold them anymore. I took it for granted I should be allowed to do it too.
"The Whale and the Horror" (excerpted from "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex")
Nathaniel Philbrick, Vanity Fair, May 2000
Like a giant bird of prey, the whaleship moved lazily up the western coast of South America, zigging and zagging across a living sea of oil. For that was the Pacific Ocean in 1821, a vast field of warm-blooded oil deposits known as sperm whales.
Thursday, 07 August 2014
In 1984, Texas entrepreneur David Pottinger had a plan to build a fleet of small sailing boats that would work the fisheries in Galveston Bay. When the first of the fleet, the 26' 4" Sterling Windfish, launched, National Fisherman writer John Ira Perry came along for an assessment:
"The boat was constructed roughly, quickly — and inexpensively. Work began May 21, just 41 calendar days before the July 7 launch. Pottinger was delighted with the launch-day sailing trials, although he now considers a larger jib better for serious fishing.
"With this reporter aboard, the newly launched boat immediately proved she isn't a racing yacht, but she isn't supposed to be. She will move if there is any wind at all to fill the huge main, and the scow is reasonably responsive to the tiller."
However, her main problem was fishing.
"The first fishing involved work with an 8' roller-frame trawl net. On yet another day of light and fluky winds on the bay, the rig often proved too heavy for the Sterling Windfish to tow efficiently. Only a few shrimps and crabs were caught, although it admittedly wasn't the best season to be shrimping in this location."
Pottinger wasn't discouraged. He quickly made the decision to switch from one shrimp trawl to two smaller ones on each side of the boat to give the boat better maneuverability.
I don't know if he came anywhere close to realizing his dream of a fleet of two dozen sailboats fishing the Gulf of Mexico. It may just have been a dream, but his efforts were among the first in the shift to more energy efficient fishing that has increased recently as high fuel prices cut deep into fishermen's profits.
The price of fuel has long been a game-changer. When it was cheap, fishermen were quick to switch from sails to motor-powered boats and adopted fishing methods that used those engines to target fish as efficiently as possible.
Now that fuel's expensive, fishermen are naturally investing in technology that burns less of it. For some, that means taking another look at sail power. In my story, "Second wind," which begins on page 20 of our September issue, you'll meet a couple fishermen who are fishing from sail-assisted vessels.
Unlike the Sterling Windfish, these aren't constructed roughly. They're thoughtfully designed boats that use sail power as an alternative source of energy. Dan Patterson, in particular, is a commercial fisherman and avid sailor. In addition to the sail on his boat, he's incorporating little things he's learned on sail craft that add up to savings on the water. It makes sense. Every cent saved is money added back to his and his crew's paychecks.
For centuries, fishermen's main concern was finding the fish and hauling it in as quickly as possible. Now that fishermen are concerned about energy efficiency, it will be interesting to see how they'll burn less fuel while remaining profitable on the water. National Fisherman will continue to share their stories.
I hope you enjoy the article, and if anyone knows what happened to the Sterling Windfish and Pottinger's fleet dreams, please drop me a line at email@example.com. If I hear anything, I'll let you know.
Tuesday, 29 July 2014
When I started working for National Fisherman, I lived about an hour south, and gas prices were going where they've never gone before. That was early 2011, when the national average hit a new record of $3.51 a gallon. It rose again to $3.61 in 2012. My solution? I moved.
Not everyone can solve that problem so easily. At the same time I was watching my paycheck disappear at the pump, I was also beginning to understand how significant gas prices are for commercial fishermen.
The cost of gas is not just a concern for fishermen. It also factors into fishing's sustainability. To find out how much, two researchers, Robert Parker, a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, and Peter Tyedmers, an ecological consultant at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, looked into which fisheries use the most gas and why.
In their article, "Fuel consumption of global fishing fleets: current understanding and knowledge gaps," published in Fish and Fisheries, Parker and Tydemers looked at more than 1,600 records of fuel use by fleets worldwide and then ranked fisheries by the average amount of fuel it takes to land a metric ton (about 2,200 pounds).
Some have it worse than others. You might be surprised to see that shrimp and lobster hold the No. 1 spot as the most fuel-heavy fisheries. But keep in mind the study looks at averages for fisheries worldwide. While Maine lobster requires an average of 206 gallons* of fuel per metric ton, there are fishermen in Norway who need almost 4,500 gallons of gas to catch a metric ton of lobster in the North Sea.
Similarly, fishermen in Australia require 1,850 gallons to catch a metric ton of Asian tiger prawns. As Science Magazine writer Erik Stokstad points out, both of these species are small, scarce and widely scattered, greatly upping the cost it takes to bring in a boatful.
Not surprisingly, fishing methods and gear also factor into fuel costs. Some of the most fuel-intensive fisheries are scallops and flatfish, because they require heavy engine-wearing dredges. Their fuel costs are, respectively, 140 gallons and 750 gallons per metric ton.
The Prius of fisheries isn't surprising either. Parker and Tyedmers found that fisheries closer to shore with abundant catches use the least amount of gas. That is the case for Peruvian anchovies. Fishermen who catch them use the least amount of gas — about 2 gallons of gas per ton — of the fisheries studied.
Check out Stokstand's article if you'd like to find out more about the study. I was glad to see he also provides some perspective about fuel use in fisheries: Though those costs are a big deal for fishermen, in the larger earth-destroying sense they're actually not bad. While the average environmental impact of catching fish is similar to other proteins, beef's carbon footprint is five times higher. Scientists have been pointing to that industry as a significant driver in climate change.
I've seen the cost of fuel dictate where you fish, where you dock your boat and even what kind of car you drive to get to and from the dock. All over, commercial fishermen are adjusting how they fish and investing in new technologies to reduce their fuel costs. Fuel prices will continue to be a challenge, but I'm sure commercial fishermen will continue to find ways to make it less of a drag.
*I've converted the study's liters to gallons for this post.
Tuesday, 22 July 2014
A week ago today, it wasn’t a good morning for lobsterman Richard Bickford and his sternman William Deane Jr. Around 4:45 a.m. on July 15, their boat, the Kendra and Maysie, allegedly struck a ledge and began taking on water.
According to the Maine Marine Patrol, the two men deployed a life raft and escaped the sinking boat, but with no radio they were left exposed to cold and rain for the next 9 hours. Even though they were close to a group of islands off Maine’s Vinalhaven Island, pea-soup fog hid them from passing boaters, who also couldn’t hear the two stranded men calling out for help.
With visibility less than 200 feet, the life raft remained hidden until around 1:30 in the afternoon. That’s when a passing sailboat finally heard their cries for help.
“We heard someone screaming for help,” Matt Shannon told the Maine Marine Patrol. Shannon, who is from Rockland, was sailing with two crew members from Vinalhaven to Rockland on his 23-foot sailboat Kanosera. “At first I thought it was people messing with us.”
But the cries were for real. Out of the fog appeared the life raft with Bickford and Deane, who were brought on board and given food, water and dry clothes. “They were both in jeans and t-shirts, and the sternman was cold and shivering, so we put him in a sleeping bag to warm him up,” said Shannon.
Marine Patrol picked up the rescued men and brought them to Rockland, where they were met by fire and rescue personnel at the dock. Though exposed to the elements for 9 hours, neither man went to the hospital. The Coast Guard is investigating the sinking.
The story’s happy ending was thanks to good work by both Shannon and crew and the Marine Patrol. It’s also thanks to the lack of a motor on the sailboat. The Kanosera had been blasting an air horn to signal its location, but the quiet between blasts allowed the crew to hear the men’s cries. “If we had a motor, we would not have heard them,” Shannon said.
His statement reminded me of the feature I just wrapped up about sail power for our next issue. Justin Porter, who trolls from a sail-assisted boat in the Pacific albacore fishery, is a longtime commercial fisherman but also a huge fan of sail power, deploying them whenever he can. He told me sails save on fuel, provide stability and can be safer because if your motor dies you won’t be left stranded.
You can add sail’s quiet power to that list of benefits. It’s nice to be able to hear when you can’t see.
I’ll be sharing more about the story here, and you can read it in our September issue, which is going to press today.
Thank you to the Maine Marine Patrol for sharing this story.
Thursday, 17 July 2014
Can farmed fish save their wild counterparts? It’s an argument I’ve heard a couple times in favor of farming certain species that are under pressure in the wild.
Now researchers are claiming farms will help bluefin tuna. The species was in the news earlier this week after the Mexican government suddenly banned all bluefin tuna fishing for the rest of 2014. The ban came after WWF warned that Pacific tuna fishing catches should be cut in half to guarantee sustainability, claiming that the species had declined 96 percent and that 90 percent of the catch were juveniles that had not yet had the chance to reproduce.
Bluefin has long been at the center of sustainability efforts. In the Atlantic, overfishing in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic led to steep declines in the 1990s and early 2000s. International conservation measures have helped stocks recover (so long as all nations follow those measures). Now Pew is calling for similar international action to save Pacific stocks, including science-based catch limits, minimum sizes and an oceanwide rebuilding plan.
No environmental group seems to be promoting farming as the answer. Yet researchers for an EU-funded project are hoping to establish a sustainable and commercially viable operation raising bluefin tuna. Because the researchers are focusing on hatching the fish (like they do in Japan), it’s at least more sustainable than current Mediterranean methods of catching juveniles and raising them until they are fat enough for market.
But can farmed bluefin ever really be sustainable?
The researchers admit there are challenges. In confinement, adult bluefin have been known to cannibalize juvenile fish. Ocean-crossing bluefin are also fast swimmers with poor eyesight. They bash into the walls of their pens if they are farmed in closed tanks on land. (I know this is not the point of sustainability, but it’s also heartbreaking to imagine these great fish in this type of environment.) But farms risk contaminating the waters if they are in the open ocean.
Then there’s the issue of what they eat. Though vegetarian feed is more sustainable, tuna grow faster and bigger when there’s dead fish in the feed. That puts pressure on the wild forage fish stocks that go in the fishmeal. So much for preserving wild populations.
Bruce Collette, senior NOAA scientist and chair of the tuna and billfish group for International Union for Conservation of Nature, told Science 2.0 that he did not believe bluefin will be successfully domesticated.
“The best course of action for the bluefin is to reduce the quotas to let the wild populations increase to some approximation of their original size,” he said.
As fish farming grows in popularity it’s important to acknowledge that some species just don’t lend themselves to it. Tilapia can be raised pretty much anywhere you can put a pond. A bluefin needs an ocean.
Tuesday, 08 July 2014
I remember reading a story from one of National Fisherman’s back issues that profiled U.K. fishermen who targeted wrecks in the English Channel. The fishermen liked to be on top of the wrecks because they could catch fish created by the structures’ artificial reefs. But they had to be careful of damage to fishing gear. Wrecks can also be a sure sign of dangerous waters.
Whatever your feelings about fishing shipwrecks, it’s probably good to know where they are. That may be easier to do: NOAA Coast Survey announced today that it has improved its online Wrecks and Obstructions Database.
The improved database combines the historic information from Coast Survey’s Automated Wreck and Obstruction Information System with the more authoritative information from its electronic navigational charts. In all, the improved database contains information on 13,000 wrecks and 6,000 obstructions.
NOAA has also expanded the formats that can be used to view the data. For example, you can view original AWOIS and ENC data together in layers and on different map backgrounds. You can also use the data with Google Maps and Google Earth.
Seeing all those red dots on the map is a reminder of the ocean’s deadly toll. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to look at photos of ships underwater. I feel like I’m looking at someone’s grave. It’s unsettling and sad.
But I also understand the value of underwater exploration. Every wreck tells a story, like the torpedoing of the Robert E. Lee. In 1942 a German U-boat hit the passenger steamer while it was traveling from New Orleans to Trinidad. After the attack, the Lee’s escort vessel, the PC-566, dropped several depth charges. The submarine sank with all hands. It is the only known U-boat to be sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.
Both wrecks were recently visited by the E/V Nautilus (though the U-boat is considered a war memorial and can’t be disturbed), which is currently exploring the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. You can watch the expedition in real time on a live cam.
The expedition also plans to explore the final resting places of Gulf Penn and Gulf Oil, two oil tankers also sunk by German U-boats. These are particularly important to the researchers because they have a high abundance of large corals growing on them.
I can imagine that for fishermen, who have to understand what’s going on below, it must also be fascinating for you to watch as new life blossoms beneath the waves.
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Tuesday, 01 July 2014
One hundred years ago, Americans ate oysters not shrimp. Our per-capita consumption of oysters back then matches what we eat in shrimp now. Shrimp is the most popular seafood today, but unlike those American grown oysters, most of it is farmed and imported.
The "seafood swap," according to Paul Greenberg, who pointed this out in a New York Times essay adapted from his new book "American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood," goes beyond the high amount of imported fish we eat:
"While a majority of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of what Americans catch is sold to foreigners," he writes. For example, three-quarters of Alaska salmon is exported while we eat imported farmed product from Chile. As a result, we are "radically disconnected from our seafood supply," writes Greenberg.
For fishermen, globalization has mixed results. One of the downsides, however, is that lack of connection between you and your community. How are people going to value their local fishermen and industry when they don't eat your fish?
That's one of the reasons why I believe serving fish in schools, part of the national farm-to-school movement, is so important (for the full story, see our August issue, page 20).
The farm-to-school movement puts local product on school lunch menus. For a community like Sitka, Alaska, it made sense to bring in local seafood, particularly salmon instead of imported processed fish and other proteins from the Lower 48.
Kids in Sitka are getting to know their fish and fishermen. They learn about salmon's life cycle in the Stream to Plate curriculum and they also meet fishermen who donate much of the fish.
Educating young minds could be the best way to get more Americans to value their local seafood. It reminds me of a conversation I had about Seafood 101, which uses the Newspapers in Education program to educate schoolchildren about fish and how fisheries are managed. Rebecca Reuter of NOAA compared the program to recycling. When she was a kid in the '80s, it was an up-and-coming trend first embraced by kids.
Now we all recycle. Can kids today do the same thing for local seafood tomorrow?
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Tuesday, 24 June 2014
There are a couple of facts everybody loves to share about Maine lobster: In Colonial days, it was so plentiful prisoners were forced to eat it. Indentured servants requested their contracts specify that lobster could only be served so many times per week. Anything more than that was cruel and unusual punishment.
I usually get annoyed hearing these same anecdotes so often, but I also realize why they’re so memorable. It’s absurd to think of anyone protesting lobster for dinner. At some point lobster magically transformed from bottom-of-the-barrel foodstuff into a luxury cuisine. How did that happen?
Cathy Billings of the Maine Lobster Institute brings up those anecdotes and answers that question in an interview promoting her new book, “The Maine Lobster Industry: A History of Culture, Conservation and Commerce.”
In the interview, which you can watch in the video below, she says part of the reason lobster got a bad rap is because people thought of it as a scavenger willing to eat anything it found on the seafloor. She says her boss at the Lobster Institute, Dr. Robert Bayer, prefers to call them “opportunists.”
Billings says lobster became popular after it become portable, thanks to advances in technology that allowed it to be shipped to diners in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. But it really hit the big time thanks to wealthy people like the Rockefellers who summered in Maine and served it to their guests. (Wouldn’t it be nice to use summer as a verb?)
Today, Maine lobster is popular and plentiful. It could also be on the verge of another transformation thanks in part to lobstermen like Jim Merryman of Harpswell. When I met Jim I was deeply impressed by his knowledge of the species. He’s just as impressive off the water where he’s making a name for himself as lobster dealer and educator. He’s an expert marketer who’s also a Mainer to the core — which makes for an interesting contrast. Read more about Jim here (starting on page 25).
As part of his business, he sells lobster at a farmers market in Brunswick (with help from the pound’s enthusiastic manager Sue Nelson). Those direct-to-consumer sales add value for Jim and the other lobstermen who sell through his dealership, and by making those consumer connections, Jim and Sue are also educating people about lobster and the people who catch it.
By demystifying lobster and spreading the word about its sustainability, they may also help with its next makeover. Most people think of lobsters as a summer vacation treat. But some in the industry would like it be thought of as an everyday protein by people across the country. It makes sense. Why import so many millions of pounds of farmed shrimp and tilapia when we have sustainable seafood like lobster landed right on our shores? Hopefully efforts like the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative will also help.
It’s a great idea as long as I don’t have to eat it more than three times per week.
Wednesday, 18 June 2014
The photos are shocking, but they don’t tell the whole story.
In February Oceana acquired photos of dead, bloodied marine animals caught as bycatch in California’s drift gillnet fishery. The environmental group obtained the photos by petitioning NOAA through a Freedom of Information Act request and is using them in a campaign to get rid of driftnet fishing.
It almost worked. Subsequently, a bill banning drift gillnets was introduced but defeated in the California State Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. This was thanks in no small part to a delegation of commercial fishermen and their supporters who countered Oceana’s sensational images with a campaign of their own to get the truth out about their fishery.
Like all U.S. fisheries, California’s drift gillnets are highly regulated. It’s limited entry with short fishing seasons and off-limits to areas because of concerns about bycatch of sea turtles and other marine mammals. Fishermen are also required to use pingers on their nets that make sounds that deter mammals. In May, NOAA renewed an emergency rule shutting down the fishery if a single sperm whale interacts with a driftnet.
But don’t think this fight is over. Oceana will continue to push for the shutdown, and those photos are still making the media rounds. This week they came out again in a story on PBS News Hour. Fortunately, the reporter also interviewed a fisherman’s wife and a scientist, who made a good point about what would happen if the U.S. fishery were shut down. People wouldn’t stop eating swordfish, there’d just be more imported from other countries where fishing practices are not highly regulated. Watch the video below:
It reminded me of a conversation I had a couple months ago for a story I wrote for Seafood Business magazine about software systems that tracked seafood from the boat. That’s good, but unfortunately American buyers can only track from the boat if the seafood is landed in an American port. For those who import seafood, traceability still mostly means trusting your supplier to do the right thing.
Trust is good, but regulations and documented traceability are better — which brings me back to the photos. They are gruesome, but let’s not forget who took them: NOAA fishery observers who are on boats to track the catch and make sure fishermen are following regulations. Wouldn’t it make more sense if environmental groups stopped attacking U.S. commercial fishermen and started promoting their catch as the most sustainable choice?
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National Fisherman Live: 8/14/14
In this episode:
National Fisherman Live: 8/5/14
In this episode, National Fisherman's Boats & Gear Editor Michael Crowley talks with Frances Parrott about the Notus Dredgemaster.