National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
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?
Thursday, 12 June 2014
The very idea that a human being could be kept as a slave is shocking. But I was not shocked when I recently read about slave labor harvesting prawns in Thailand. It's a familiar story.
I wrote about seafood industry labor violations for a cover story in Seafood Business a year ago. Back then I noticed a pattern: A human rights group finds violations, the media covers them and then things quiet down until the next report comes out. I'm sure it will happen again.
In the latest case, the UK's Guardian newspaper interviewed 15 migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia. The workers had paid brokers to find work in Thailand but were instead sold to boat captains as slave laborers. For more, watch the video from the Environmental Justice Foundation below:
This is another familiar part of the story. Thailand's industry depends on immigrants from poorer neighboring countries. Though Thailand has improved conditions in its shrimp processing plants, there remain loopholes that these vulnerable, undocumented workers continue to slip through. In some of the most shocking reports, interviewed workers have told about other workers murdered on the high seas, their bodies thrown overboard and fates never known to the families they left behind for economic opportunities.
There may be ramifications for Thailand. The U.S. State Department is considering downgrading it to a Tier 3 country among North Korea and Saudi Arabia in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons report. But it's not enough to instigate change. That must come from the marketplace, said Pedro Bueno, an FAO consultant I interviewed for the Seafood Business story. He told me industry-wide codes are more effective than legally prescribed standards that only give one motivation for improvement: not to be penalized. "Market-based standards tend to reward adherents with better prices," he said.
Change from the marketplace usually comes from the end user: consumers, but people like their cheap imports (in particular, they like cheap shrimp).
But we also have good and abundant seafood products from the United States like pink salmon, which is currently the subject of an Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute promotion. The U.S. industry should follow the institute's lead and develop and promote these abundant species along with the higher-end lobster, king salmon and red snapper.
Word of mouth is helpful too. Tell your neighbors, your friends and, of course, your family to buy American. If that doesn't work send them the video above.
Photo: A laborer displays battered hands from hauling fishing nets on a Thai vessel. The Environmental Justice Foundation photoAdd a comment
Thursday, 05 June 2014
I’m not a food blogger, foodie or any other type of self-promoting gourmand. So when the tempura-coated butterfish I ordered last weekend at Pai Men Miyake arrived as a whole fish propped in an upright, swimming position my first thought was not to take a photo. Instead I thought, “How am I going to eat this with chopsticks?”
I succeeded with the chopsticks — using my fingers to pick out some of the bones — but by the time I thought about taking a photo the bones were pretty much all that was left.
Butterfish is small and bony, but it’s also delicious and from the Gulf of Maine. Our region’s groundfish fishermen recently learned what they’ll be receiving for federal disaster aid. But commercial fishermen also need people like Chef Masa Miyake, who’s made it his mission to emphasize local fish on the menus of his three Portland, Maine, restaurants.
National Fisherman caught up with some of local seafood’s champions for the special marketing section in our July issue, which is out this week. Ryan Speckman of North Carolina’s Locals Seafood, for example, grew up inland, so he didn’t experience fresh local fish until he worked on the coast as a wildlife biologist. But when he moved back to the Raleigh area, which is about three hours inland, he was disappointed that he couldn’t find that same fresh fish. He and business partner Lin Peterson started bringing fish in from the coast, selling it to farmers markets and restaurants.
In California’s Morro Bay, locals and visitors are well aware of how good fresh salmon is: It’s tradition to buy it off the boat there. However, after a total shutdown followed by another year with hardly a season, people didn’t know salmon was again available. From that need came the Fishline app, which alerts those who download it on their smartphones when boats are coming in to 12 California ports from San Diego to Fort Bragg. So far, says app creator Joe Falcone, close to 7,000 people have downloaded it.
Their stories reminded me of a session on direct marketing I attended at last year’s Maine Fishermen’s Forum. Bernie Feeney, a Massachusetts lobsterman who sells some of his catch direct, gave this advice for finding new local markets:
“Go west until you find some community that is reasonably populated and ask yourself, ‘Where can I buy fresh seafood?’ If you can’t find a place, you’ve got a location.”
Is it really that simple? Most fishermen don’t have the time to sell their catch direct, but I believe that much more can be done to promote local seafood by building on and replicating the ideas of enterprising seafood lovers like Speckman and Falcone. It’s not like anyone gave these guys a blueprint for success: they simply figured out ways to connect more people to fresh fish. I was so inspired I might even look into it myself if the writing career doesn’t work out (I do have to get better at taking food photos).
Tuesday, 27 May 2014
It was the height of Alaska salmon season when I visited Kodiak a couple summers ago, and there was a lot to be had: to be grilled, smoked, pickled and, most importantly, eaten. But the addiction to this fish goes beyond the fresh stuff coming off the boats. During dinner at Kodiak resident Jeff Stephan's home he demonstrated his easy DIY salmon burgers. Open up a can, shape the stuff inside into a patty, put it on a plate and microwave it.
I left questioning why I didn't buy canned pinks more often. Salmon wasn't something I thought of when I was trying to save money at the grocery store. Hopefully more people will be thinking of it in that way thanks to the recent passage of a revised product development bill and a promotional campaign focusing on pinks.
Salmon has already gone through a transformation. Over the last ten years, the 72 percent of Alaska's pink salmon that went into cans dropped to 49 percent in 2012. Part of the reason for that change was a bill that gave tax credits to processors that invested in equipment for creating new product forms.
Canned salmon products were excluded from that credit until now. In April the Alaska Legislature passed a new version of the bill (called The Salmon & Herring Product Development Tax Credit) that expanded the credit to new herring products and new sizes of canned salmon. For salmon that will likely mean smaller can sizes that will help processors hit lower price points, according to Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau.
While the number of cans has gone down, average ex-vessel prices have gone up — from 9 cents per pound in 2003 to 48 cents in 2012. But this past year people in the industry have worried that record high landings of pinks would cause a glut and lower prices. To address this, ASMI has kicked off a marketing campaign targeting "über" athletes and will be advertising in running and cycling magazines and promoting at rock 'n' roll marathons.
Too much of a good thing is not a bad thing — when it comes to Alaska salmon. I hope the word gets out to more working families out there too. It's an easy sell, a cheap, healthy meal in a can, caught by American fishermen. The advertising slogans practically write themselves.
Photo: A salmon seiner docks in Kodiak between sets; Melissa WoodAdd a comment
Tuesday, 20 May 2014
When I interviewed Dorothy Lowman, fisheries advisor and chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, she told me she was a workshop skeptic. That was surprising considering she had organized the first national electronic monitoring workshop in Seattle in January.
But I knew what she meant. I’ve been in plenty of meetings where people talk a good talk, but nothing happens after.
I don't think that will happen with electronic monitoring. The national workshop was timely. Fishermen on all coasts are working toward electronic monitoring. That makes sense because around the country an increasing number of fisheries are under quota management systems that require greater catch accountability.
With so much going on and so many interested parties, Lowman organized the workshop to bring people together from different fisheries and councils. Dan Falvey, a workshop participant who is working on electronic monitoring in the Alaska longline industry, told me there have been over 40 EM pilot programs around the country. It makes sense for those people to talk to each other.
For National Fisherman it’s an issue that’s important to get in the magazine, especially considering that people on all coasts are working toward implementation so that they can better track their catch and make it easier for fishermen to do it.
The skepticism comes in with what happens next. When I talked to people for a story about electronic monitoring for National Fisherman’s June issue, they were far from done. Several told me their own councils were holding EM workshops.
In addition, the workshop generated a great online resource for those continuing to work on its implementation. At www.eminformation.com, you can find a workshop summary and takeaways, videos and papers of presentations from the workshop as well as pilot program studies and contacts within the EM world.
The website is intended to continue to be used as an information sharing resource for fishermen and others interested in electronic monitoring. I expect the number of people interested will only get bigger.
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National Fisherman Live: 7/17/14
In this episode, National Fisherman's Boats & Gear Editor Michael Crowley talks with Mike Hillers about the Simrad PX Multisensor.
National Fisherman Live: 7/8/14
In this episode: