National Fisherman

Coastlines 

melissaNational Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.

 

DavidSoaresDavid Soares knew he had hooked a big one when his line practically vanished. It was around 10 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2013. He was trolling for wahoo and yellowfin tuna on Challenger Banks about 12 miles southwest of Bermuda when 950 yards of a 1,000-yard reel was gone in seconds.

It wasn’t just a big one. It was the big one. After the fish took him two miles in reverse and fought a "straight up and down battle” for two hours, Soares reeled in a bluefin tuna weighing 1,003 pounds, gutted and gilled. It was the biggest one ever caught in Bermuda, said Soares.

“Right away, when anything takes that much line off a reel that fast, I realized he was quite large,” said Soares. “I’ve never had them take it that fast or that much. I’ve had them take 400 or 500.”

For the two-hour battle, Soares said his reel was set at its maximum drag of 55 pounds and at low speed for a slow and steady pull-in.

About halfway through, the fish dashed away with 400 yards of line. But Soares, who caught the big bluefin single-handedly, persisted. When finally the fish was about 10 to 12 yards away, he harpooned it and brought it in.

Once you learn more about Soares, the monster catch is an achievement but not a surprise. At 43, the third-generation commercial fisherman has been fishing from Bermuda for 25 years. His grandfather was the island’s last whaler and last person to build and sail a trade schooner. Soares has caught four of the 10 bluefin tuna landed in Bermuda, which also included a 630-pounder in November 2009 and a pair on the same day — weighing 403 pounds and 395 pounds — in February of 2012.

When I talked to him last week he was stateside at Platypus Marine in Port Angeles, Wash., which is building him a 55-foot power catamaran for personal use. He and his wife plan to make its first journey to Southeast Alaska toward the end of this summer when the salmon fishing is hot (and fishermen love to fish on their vacations).

Soares fishes year-round from his Central Marine 44-footer, which was built in 2003 on Prince Edward Island, mostly trolling for yellowfin tuna and wahoo with some longlining for swordfish. He said of the small island’s 65,000 population, there are about 150 full-time fishermen and lobstermen. There’s a handful like Soares who go out each morning alone and are back in time to sell their catches directly to hotels and restaurants.

“There’s no fishhouses in Bermuda,” Soares explained. “We go out and catch the fish and we sell off the fish directly to them, tell them what we have and they tell us what they want and then we sell it off piece by piece.”

He told me he had a personal goal to catch a tuna more than 1,000 pounds on his own. “The way I truly wanted to do it was by myself, that’s the way I’ve been fishing for the last 15 years now… this is the way I really wanted it to happen.”

He sold the bluefin to the restaurant company MEF, which distributed the fish to the restaurants it owns (those are listed on the promotional poster of Soares with his fish).

At National Fisherman, we talk to fishermen on all coasts about the concerns surrounding their fisheries. But when I asked if commercial fishermen in Bermuda were facing any troubling issues, he had nothing for me. “Life’s good. It’s sunny, nice weather, average temperature 70, 72. In the dead of winter you might get down 60 to 65.”

He’s clearly passionate about life on the water. Soares tells me he jumps out of bed in the morning ready to go fishing. “The true fishermen fish for the love and the passion of fishing, they don’t fish for the money,” he said.

Life is good.

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Seeker 1timeuseSometime before 8 a.m. on Wednesday, March 12, Eric Eder fell from the 87-foot trawler Seeker into the Bering Sea. A 10-hour search by Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, Jayhawk helicopter and nearby good Samaritan vessels was called off at 10 p.m. The water was 42 degrees.

Eric was 43 years old. He was a lifelong commercial fisherman and had recently moved from his hometown of Waldport to Redmond, Wash. His wife Adrienne was home with their two sons, a 5-year-old and 5-week-old baby, when their father passed away. Eric’s last time home was for the birth of his son, according to Taunette Dixon, whose husband, Kevin, is one of the two captains of the Newport-based Seeker though he was not on the boat at the time.

It’s a hard hit for the whole community, says Taunette. “He's just known as a super nice guy. I have never heard a negative word about him. He's a very kind and selfless man.”

I had heard the news about Eric’s death but only learned more about him recently when I came across a GoFundMe page created for Eric’s family. The page’s goal was to raise $8,000. As of this writing, people had donated $44,700. That’s when I knew I had to find out more about how Eric’s community has responded to this tragedy.

There are three ways to donate. The Newport Fishermen’s Wives is collecting donations and Oregon Coast Bank, a local bank in Newport, has set up an account for donations too. Taunette says unlike the GoFundMe account, which collects 5 percent for the service, all proceeds donated to the nonprofit Fishermen's Wives go directly to the family. I contacted Sandi Pankey, the administrator for the GoFundMe page, who told me the money goes to Eric's wife as it comes in. She also offered to send me the Oregon Coast Bank account number to donate directly.

Taunette, whose family has been in the fishing industry for generations, says she has never seen anything like this outpouring of support. “We’ve had other tragedies in this area, but this has been amazing. I think it's unique in the fact that he just had a baby, and I think that really tugs at people’s heartstrings.”

She told me for Eric’s family the loss is not only a huge hit emotionally but also financially. He made a good living on the water, and that's gone now. Often commercial fishermen’s wives stay home with their children because their husbands are gone for weeks at a time. 

She also says his family has been overwhelmed with thankfulness: Nothing really helps but the support makes them see how much he was loved.

I can’t imagine what Eric’s family, friends and community are going through. This support for them shows the importance of healthy fishing communities and organizations like the Newport Fishermen’s Wives. Taunette says the group helps keep the community connected through events and education. Its fundraising efforts help local families who have lost someone at sea or in times when someone can’t work because of an injury on a boat.

We will all die someday, but when your job is the most dangerous one in the U.S., it’s nice to know your community will look out for the loved ones you leave behind.

To donate:

Newport Fishermen's Wives

GoFundMe

Oregon Coast Bank

Photo of the Seeker entering the Port of Newport terminal courtesy of Sharon Biddinger, simplydesignstudios.com

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At a session on seafood export trends at the Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockport, Jeff Bennett from the Maine International Trade Center pointed out 95 percent of people live outside the United States. That means there are great untapped seafood sales opportunities beyond our borders.

A month later, I'm still not sure about that message. I know international trade has been valuable for the seafood industry. It fascinates me to see how much Asian holidays can spike the value of fisheries like red king crab, Dungeness crab and geoducks. Expanding trade in Asia and Europe may help Maine get more value for its abundant lobster harvest.  

In China consumers will pay up to $150 per pound to put geoducks in their hotpots. But it can also lead to problems when a catch's value is dependent on something totally beyond your control. Geoduck harvesters learned this when their main market — China — shut down on December 3 after that country banned all mollusk shellfish from most of the West Coast. The ban came after Chinese officials reported finding unacceptable levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning in geoducks from Alaska and inorganic arsenic in shipments from Washington.

Testing and diplomacy have not yet been able to lift the ban. In National Fisherman's May issue, Phil Doherty, of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association in Ketchikan, tells how his group is doing what it can during the ban, which some believe is motivated more by politics than safety concerns. Whatever the reason, it's hurting the harvesters, says Doherty:

"Some divers bought permits at high costs expecting to be able to fish; others bought new boats and have boat payments; others are talking about leaving Alaska to participate in fisheries elsewhere to make some money. All divers have everyday living expenses. As long as the embargo is in place, Alaskan divers face economic hardship."

Doherty says it's possible $3 million of geoducks won't be harvested this season in Southeast Alaska (read more in our May issue's Northern Lights column, page 7).

Everyone wants to get the most value possible for their catch. That makes sense. It also makes sense to establish markets that offer both value and stability. Seattle restaurants, for example, have begun highlighting geoducks on their menus to help establish a greater local demand for Washington producers.

By looking across our borders to grow seafood consumption, we're missing a better opportunity. One of my colleagues at Seafood Business, Jamie Wright, made the case for taking another look at growing U.S. seafood consumption at his presentation at the Maine forum. In the United States the average person eats just 14.4 pounds of seafood per year, down from a record high of 16.6 pounds in 2004. For a comparison, we ate 44 pounds of pork, 54 pounds of beef and 58 pounds of chicken per capita in 2012.

Part of the problem is image, according to Wright. Seafood is usually enjoyed on special occasions. Through innovation, the industry needs to make more convenient products for everyday use. As he said, for today's consumer, "You have to produce products that eat themselves." If you'd like to dig deeper, read his story about seafood's challenges at the plate in the January issue of Seafood Business

As Jamie also pointed out, the good news about geoducks is that they live a long time. If harvesters leave them in the sand, they'll still be OK to harvest next year (or the next, geoducks in the wild can live to be 150 years old). But as Doherty writes, it's the fishermen who might not survive geoduck's market meltdown.

Image courtesy of Taylor Shellfish Farms

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May1964coverOn March 27, 1964, Basil Ferrier and his son Del were fishing near Valdez, Alaska. They had rowed their skiff to shore from their fishing boat anchored in deep water when earth and sea began to move.

"A snowslide, set off by the forces working through the earth's crust, roared toward them and — at the same time — their skiff was tossed out from shore. Their only refuge was behind a large tree in the path of the snowslide," National Fisherman reported in the May 1964 article, "Earthquake Staggers Alaskan Fishing Industry."

The Ferriers' strange experience stands out among the many stories of Alaska's Good Friday earthquake. After they had taken refuge behind the tree "an incoming wave carried the skiff back, almost to their feet. They jumped in it and rode out with the wave, but were unable to maneuver the skiff because the oars had been swept away. As if the fishing boat was a magnet for the skiff, the outgoing wave carried them to the side of their boat. They climbed aboard, cut the anchor and rode out the storm safely in deep water."

They were safe, but the 4-plus-minute earthquake and the tsunami that followed devastated much of southern Alaska, its fishing fleet and processors. Among the casualties were fishing gear and boats around Kodiak Island, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. In Kodiak "fishing boats were picked up and tossed around like pieces of cork. Many are still unaccounted for, with no trace of the men aboard them."

In Seward, eyewitness Robert Lenz described a wall of water and flames engulfing everything. "Docks on the waterfront catapulted into the air and disintegrated into flames. Railroad cars flew through the air, I saw one box car hurtled about a block." The scene is depicted on the cover of National Fisherman in an illustration by Sam Manning.

But amid the stories of destruction, the National Fisherman article, written immediately after the earthquake, was hopeful about the Alaska industry's future. Writer Tom H. Inkster looked back at how after the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco "arose from her ashes to become a magnificent city, with one of the finest harbors in the world.

"We envisage the earthquake area of Alaska arising from the debris, just as did San Francisco to go onward to be — in a few years — more substantial and prosperous than ever. And while the fishing installations of that area are being reborn, the areas below — in Southwestern Alaska — and above — in the Aleutians and Bering Sea — will keep Alaska's great fishing industry moving forward."

It was a good prediction. I saw a reminder of the earthquake in my one trip to Alaska two years ago. The Star of Kodiak, once the World War II liberty ship named the Albert M. Boe, was towed to Kodiak after the canneries were destroyed, as a quick means of getting production back online. It is still part of the Trident Seafoods plant today and a symbol of the tenacity of an industry and its people who continue to move forward.

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FrankMirarchi MagnusonhearingFrank Mirarchi runs his small groundfish dragger, the F/V Barbara L. Peters, out of Scituate, Mass. He is out of quota until the next season begins on May 1, and the free time has allowed him to follow congressional hearings for the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law overseeing U.S. fisheries.

“I watched with horror the crescendo of voices calling this the ‘empty ocean act,’” he said at a workshop on the reauthorization held on Monday at Seafood Expo North America in Boston. “We’re not going to have empty oceans. We’re going to have empty ports.”

The act’s inflexibility has been tough for fishermen in places like New England. Mirarchi (he's in the photo above in the green plaid shirt) has been a commercial fisherman for 50 years. He said although the industry will receive $33 million in disaster funding, it may not be enough to save small ports like Scituate. The town has only six draggers left.

“The reality is rusty old boats and burned out people. It’s terrible,” he said.

The session was part of a series of public workshops put on by the Center for Sustainable Fisheries (CSF) and National Fisherman. CSF is led by former Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Scott Lang, former mayor of New Bedford — the nation’s No. 1 port in terms of landings value — and Brian Rothschild, former dean of the School of Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Frank, Lang and Rothschild saw the Magnuson reauthorization as an opportunity to fix arbitrary requirements and the act’s failure to balance the needs of fishing communities with sustaining healthy fisheries.

“The fishing industry understands the need for regulations,” said Frank. “They don’t want fishing to disappear — they want to keep this up.”

But some of the act’s arbitrary requirements, like the 10-year time line for rebuilding depleted stocks, are making it difficult for fishermen to stay on the water. Frank said when he asked the former head of NOAA Fisheries Jane Lubchenco if the 10-year timeline was scientifically justified, she told him it wasn’t, but when he asked if she would consider changing the law, she said no.

“It did not seem to me to make a great deal of sense to have something that arbitrary,” he said. “Frankly, that’s when I lost confidence in her.”

Rothschild said CSF believes the authorization should be based on certain fundamental principles, including maintaining the scientific process, a recognition of flexibility, decision-making from the bottom up and a national discussion that accommodates and builds upon regional differences.

“We have centralized solutions for decentralized problems and they don't work,” said Rothschild.

Mirarchi said it would help if the law could be changed immediately to prevent catch limits from fluctuating wildly from one year to the next.

“You can run a business with that kind of volatility, and it is basically breaking down the economic structure of our ports,” he said.

The next Magnuson workshop will take place on Tuesday, April 8, in Baton Rouge, La.

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redsnapperThis week a series of public hearings began on proposed Amendment 28, which would reallocate a greater share of Gulf of Mexico red snapper to recreational fishermen. Commercial fishermen and others who support the gulf seafood industry are encouraged to attend a hearing and speak up against the change.  

According to a briefing from the Coastal Conservation Association, the move would right a past unfairness that bases anglers' catch on an allocation that was made 30 years ago.

"It's not fair." If you're a parent you've probably heard those three words many times. You'll also know that when the question of fairness comes up, there's no way to settle it so everybody's happy.

But if we're going to argue about fairness, it should apply to all aspects of the fishery, not just allocation. Since 2007, the recreational fishery has gone over quota every year except 2010 (the year of the BP oil spill). Even though its "unfair" share is set at 49 percent, the recreational sector harvested 56 percent of red snapper in 2012, going over its quota by an estimated 440,000 to 880,000 pounds.

Can you imagine what would happen if commercial fishermen overreached their quota by half a million pounds in any fishery anywhere in the United States? My guess is that they would not be granted a bigger share of the quota next year.

Again, take a look at the public hearing schedule and make your voice heard. There may be more recreational fishers than commercial harvesters out there to argue in favor of this change taking place. But the greater seafood and restaurant industry that depends on a well-managed fishery and public who enjoy eating fresh Gulf of Mexico seafood should be fighting against this too.

Photo from NOAA

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wizard077Though 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.

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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 Fisherman

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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:

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Pinks ForecastI 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 Hathaway

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National Fisherman Live

National Fisherman Live is a web video series featuring the latest fishing news, product information and industry analysis by our editors. In this episode:

  • Ruling favors commercial red snapper fishermen
  • Fishermen file suit over Texas oil spill
  • Florida gov. announces oyster recovery funding
  • Hatchery salmon were 36 percent of harvest
  • Maine's new elver rules delay season start

Inside the Industry

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is currently soliciting applicants for open advisory panel seats as well as applications from scientists interested in serving on its Scientific and Statistical Committee.

Read more...

The North Carolina Fisheries Association (NCFA), a nonprofit trade association representing commercial fishermen, seafood dealers and processors, recently announced a new leadership team. Incorporated in 1952, its administrative office is in Bayboro, N.C.

Read more...

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