National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
Thursday, 15 May 2014
What exactly is local fish? That question came up during my research for a couple recent stories. It seems simple, but it’s not.
The way distribution is set up for commercial fishing makes it difficult for diners who want to make sea-to-table connections. In North Carolina, Ryan Speckman of Locals Seafood discovered that most seafood was being landed and shipped out of state to major hubs like Boston and New York before making its way to back to the state — and no longer as fresh as when it first arrived.
Likewise, in Maine, our commercial fishermen steam out to the Gulf of Maine to fish. If that fish is landed in Massachusetts and makes its way back to Maine, is it still local? Believe it or not, these things matter (a lot) to those invested in promoting local food. They want to ensure that food is consumed as close to the source as possible.
But when it comes to fish it’s probably better to look at the bigger picture. In her presentation, “Integrating Seafood Into Maine’s Food Systems,” Amanda LaBelle points out 90 percent of the fish we eat is imported. Most consumers don’t know that fish caught in U.S. federal waters are sustainably managed by law. Even species at low levels like cod are being caught at rates that won’t further deplete those levels. In the many reports on seafood sustainability, that’s a story people usually don’t hear.
The other problem is that local fishermen are often left out of the local food conversation. I wrote about this in a story about selling fish at farmers markets for the Maine Sunday Telegram. Only about 30 of Maine’s 140 markets have fish at all (and that’s a high estimate). Advocates for the industry like Monique Coombs of Lobsters on the Fly and Ben Martens of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association are working to change this. There’s a lot of work to be done educating people about local fish species. Farmers markets may be useful forums to spread the word about the industry to people who care about what they eat.
It seems the fishing industry could use more middlemen like Speckman. I interviewed him for an upcoming National Fisherman story. He wasn’t initially involved in the seafood industry but had been working on the North Carolina coast and got used to enjoying fresh seafood. When he moved inland, he was disappointed to find it wasn’t readily available. He and business partner Lin Peterson started Locals Seafood to make this possible. He told me the most important part of local is that the fish be fresh and come from North Carolina fishermen and support that state’s industry.
Don’t forget that all seafood is required to carry country of origin labeling. Telling people to check that label and buy U.S. fish is the easiest way to support our commercial fishermen.
Screen shot of Maine fish being unloaded at the Portland Fish Exchange by Leslie TaylorAdd a comment
Tuesday, 06 May 2014
For our June issue I wrote about electronic monitoring. The story starts with the well-known frustration commercial fishermen feel toward regulators. In Massachusetts, groundfish fishermen have been demonstrating through pilot programs for 10 years that electronic monitoring should be an option for small boats that are challenged with squeezing a human observer onboard. However, implementation remains out of reach for the members of the Cape Cod Fishermen's Alliance.
"We got stuck trying to cross that threshold from pilot to full implementation," says Tom Dempsey, policy director for the alliance, "and that's still where we are right now."
It turns out that commercial fishermen on all U.S. coasts have been looking into electronic monitoring. The movement is especially strong on the West Coast, which makes sense since that region's groundfish fishermen are required to have 100 percent observer coverage.
They pay about half the cost of observer coverage now, but the push for cameras on boats is not just about cost. Paul Kujala, a fisherman out of Warrenton, Ore., told me that for some small ports it's just not feasible to have observers ready and available when the time is right for a boat to go out.
It's not that electronic monitoring hasn't been proven to work. It's working for fishermen right now in British Columbia. But that plan was developed with cost as a primary consideration, said Sarah McTee, a fisheries consultant with the Environmental Defense Fund who coauthored the group's Fishery Monitoring Roadmap:
"They either had to start monitoring their program or stop fishing, and they realized that human observers were going to be expensive, that if they required 100 percent human observers they would lose some small vessels on their fleet. So they started at the back end," she said, by asking, "How much money do we have? What can we afford? And they had scientists come in and review how to design a program."
So we know that electronic monitoring is important for some fishermen to remain viable on the water (and catch accountability is probably going to keep increasing), and we know that it can be done. But going back to the Cape Cod fishermen's dilemna, what about implementation?
Hope is not lost. Dempsey is encouraged by national efforts to push electronic monitoring forward (or else he wouldn't get out of bed in the morning, he told me). In January a national workshop brought different regions together to talk about monitoring. Let's hope that if one U.S. fishery can make it work, it will pave the way for others to follow.
You can learn more about these efforts in the story, "Camera ready," beginning on page 27 of our July issue.
Photo courtesy of Dan FalveyAdd a comment
Tuesday, 29 April 2014
BP can't shift responsibility for the cause of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But four years later it can — remarkably — portray itself as a victim.
It's a supposed victim of its own settlement: That plan allowed businesses with no direct connection to the gulf to file for damages if they could show a loss of income during the spill. This, not surprisingly, led to many, many claims being filed. Some of those claims are far-fetched. Some are fraudulent. Because of this, the company is now seeing the error of its ways and trying to shift the blame.
“It’s not just bad for this company that illegitimate, dubious claims are being paid to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars; it is bad for, dare I say, America,” Geoff Morrell, senior vice president for communications and government affairs at BP America, told the New York Times. That article describes how the company shifted its position on the settlement.
There are some problems with this new role for BP. The company's own legal team "not only helped create, but also fought for and hailed" the settlement.
BP's legal and PR battle against its own settlement has led to a more complex, 88-page-long claims policy. It also hasn't helped fishermen and others who do make their living off the Gulf of Mexico. In the article, gulf shrimper Barry Labruzzo says he was offered only $14,500 when he had expected $188,000 and was asked for financial information he had already submitted.
A look back at National Fisherman's coverage of the spill shows this is nothing new. Fishermen and seafood dealers have been jumping through hoops to prove their losses since 2010.
In our August 2010 issue, writer John DeSantis talked to people on the gulf who were having trouble reaching the claims center, or were challenged with coming up with financial records because they were destroyed during hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008.
Shrimpers and seafood dealers were also frustrated by damage calculations based on a decade of historically low prices that were just rebounding when the oil started to gush.
They fought to maintain a positive attitude and (unfortunately) correctly predicted the long road ahead.
"Now we need to lift each other up, because it is going to be a long haul," said Anna Luke, wife of fisherman Henry Luke of Houma, La. "If we keep knocking down BP or knocking down the Coast Guard it is not going to let us get anywhere but sickness in the body. It has been a learning process for all of us."
I think we're still learning. The most recent lesson is one in public relations.Add a comment
Wednesday, 23 April 2014
Commercial fishermen are often the targets of negative publicity that goes viral. In the most recent example, Oceana's report on the nine dirtiest U.S. fisheries provided material for at least a week's worth of news and social media headlines, rewrites, blog posts, tweets, likes and shares.
Words are needed to fill all that space on the web, and the Oceana report is an aggregator's dream. It provided a number (those get more clicks) and a provocative word. Do you really believe "dirty" was chosen because it's the most accurate description?
The message was successful. Or was it? Despite the movement having more money and power, environmentalists' shift from organizing to political dealmaking and viral messaging has actually made them less successful, argues critic Nicholas Lemann.
The subject comes up in Lemann's review for the New Yorker of “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation” by Adam Wong. Though lacking central coordination and big-money, that first event drew millions of earnest participants and preceded the passage of important environmental legislation in the 1970s like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In contrast, the modern movement failed to pass the carbon emissions bill — its most important recent legislation — in 2010. Lemann writes it's arguable there's been no significant environmental legislation since an acid rain reduction bill in 1990. He points out the difference between then and now:
"The organizers of Earth Day never would have been able to get a substantial group of corporate chief executives to sit down with them and negotiate, even if they had wanted to. Today’s big environmental groups recruit through direct mail and the media, filling their rosters with millions of people who are happy to click 'Like' on clean air. What the groups lack, however, is the Earth Day organizers’ ability to generate thousands of events that people actually attend — the kind of activity that creates pressure on legislators."
I used to think commercial fishermen were at a disadvantage because they lack a simplified and cohesive message. But the kind of grassroots activity Lemann talks about still happens in commercial fishing, and it has been successful. That was the case when fishermen from Alaska traveled around the country to successfully obtain Clean Water Act protection for Bristol Bay from the proposed Pebble Mine.
I'm glad to know real people doing things is still worth more than meaningless buzz. As new threats to Bristol Bay's protection arise and the reauthorization of Magnuson proceeds, it's critical to keep up that type of activity: Attend hearings and write your legislators. Let them know what's important to you.
This subject gave me a lot to think about and I'm curious what our readers will think about it too. Please share your thoughts in the comments. Thanks!
NASA imageAdd a comment
Thursday, 17 April 2014
If you're doing everything right, isn't it a good idea to be able to show that to people? Justine Simon runs Salt & Sea, a community supported fishery in Portland, Maine. Her husband is a fourth generation fisherman. Her goal is to connect Maine consumers to the best quality local fish. The fishermen she works with — who catch their fish using best practices — want that connection, too.
"The fishermen we work with take tremendous pride in what they're doing. They'll have heated conversations about which way to lay fish in the hold," she says.
Quality is priority, and they don't like it when their fish is not given the recognition it deserves.
"For these guys, it kills them when their boat's being unloaded and it's kicked off the boat or mixed in with other fish" for which maybe the same care wasn't taken. "For them it means a lot when we give them the customer feedback — people are raving about their fish."
The conversation reminded me of a discussion I had with Eric Brazer of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance. I interviewed him for a story I'm writing for the June issue of National Fisherman about efforts to use cameras for catch monitoring instead of or in addition to human observers.
It's a cost issue, but it's also one of recognition. The fishermen Brazer works with would like electronic monitoring to help tell the story of the quality and sustainability of their fish. That story includes the success of the recently rebuilt red snapper fishery.
Extra accountability from cameras on fishing boats could help reinforce the Gulf Wild program, which tags a fish so the consumer can see the boat it came from and/or dock it was landed at. He says it was developed partly to disprove myths and rumors about gulf fish that followed the oil spill.
"It's more than just traceability, it's getting the most accurate information into the hands of anyone who touches the fish," he says.
It shows the importance of marketing. It's not just about adding value through best practices, but getting the word out about those practices. There are challenges to doing this, but consider this: Are you doing enough to ensure your fish and your hard work are getting the recognition they deserve?
As we've seen with the recent report from Oceana about the United States' "dirtiest fisheries," sometimes others will gladly tell the story for you, but it won't be a good one.
Photo by Bill Cochrane/Gulf Seafood NewsAdd a comment
Tuesday, 08 April 2014
David 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.Add a comment
Thursday, 03 April 2014
Sometime 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.
Photo of the Seeker entering the Port of Newport terminal courtesy of Sharon Biddinger, simplydesignstudios.com
Tuesday, 01 April 2014
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 FarmsAdd a comment
Thursday, 27 March 2014
On 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.
Tuesday, 18 March 2014
Frank 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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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: