National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
Tuesday, 22 October 2013
Have you ever heard of the "ama"? Ama, which means means "sea-women," are the famous female divers of Japan. While some talk of preserving this important but declining cultural tradition, one ama has been using techniques similar to ones used by U.S. fishermen to stay on — or in this case, in — the water.
Ama fish in groups and sometimes in mother-daughter teams, diving headfirst without any special equipment in shallow water (15 to 30 feet) for about 50 to 90 seconds to collect abalone, seaweed, mollusks and fish, according to Fish Catching Methods of the World, which was first published in 1964 and part of National Fisherman's inhouse library.
Sometimes a husband is there too, not in the water, but assisting from a boat. The work suits women, writes author A. von Brandt, "because they have a better fat layer which insulates their bodies." Men were also often absent from villages for a long time fishing for tuna, making it economically necessary for women to dive for food.
However the tradition began, it is declining: In 2010, about 2,174 female divers were still working the waters across Japan compared to 17,000 in 1956. Their average age is over 60, according to a recent article in the Japan Times about efforts to keep this occupation alive.
Those efforts include the formation of several ama preservation groups. Preservation is a good thing, but to keep an occupation alive, people in it need to make money. One ama, Nayomi Oi, said "she believes that if divers can earn enough to provide for themselves, younger generations will be more interested in the work."
Oi, age 56, is the youngest of 16 divers in her district (the oldest is 89). She had long wanted to become an ama, and finally began seven years ago after undergoing surgery for breast cancer because "she wanted to live a life without regrets."
Oi has been using direct-marketing and education to keep her profession viable. She sells "tsukudani" (seaweed stalk) and turban shells cooked in soy sauce in partnership with a store in Tokyo, holds workshops about diving and visits elementary schools to get children interested in the ama profession too.
This makes so much sense to me. Fishermen, whether they're from California, New England or Japan, don't want to be preserved. They want to keep working.
To learn more about the ama, watch this clip from this BBC documentary, Fish! A Japanese Obsession. Watching the dives is pretty amazing.
Though the host chuckles as he watches a husband stand by while his "missus" constantly dives, he has obvious respect for the ama. I do too. I'm not sure if I buy the reasoning of women being better for the job because we have more fat — especially now wetsuits and not fat can keep people warm in cold water. At the same time, not to be sexist (or reverse sexist?), I don't blame them for using it as a reason for keeping the ama a women-only club.Add a comment
Thursday, 17 October 2013
Every year National Fisherman names three Highliners. These fishermen are not just rewarded for their considerable fishing skills, but also their commitment to the industry. I'm often amazed by how far some fishermen will go to promote their fisheries, protecting a way of life for themselves, other fishermen and often the coastal communities they call home.
So I was not surprised to see 2012 Highliner Dewey Hemilright starring in a recent video promoting his fishery on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Though the background is idyllic, Hemilright works hard throughout the year, gillnetting spiny dogs and targeting croaker and bluefish until April, longlining for mahimahi and tilefish in the summer and longlining for tuna and swordfish in the fall.
The video gives a taste of life on the 42-foot Tar Baby. He takes the time to explain his state's fisheries: How the Labrador Current and Gulf Stream converge to produce a diverse fishery. He points out technology on his boat in an easy to understand way. I believe this type of consumer education — direct from the fisherman — works better than any certification.
Speaking of Highliners, stay tuned for the announcement of our 2013 honorees, who will be named in our December issue.Add a comment
Thursday, 10 October 2013
Though Louisiana shrimpers haven't asked for my sympathy, they have it. They have persevered through natural and manmade disasters and a marketplace dominated by cheaper, imported shrimp. Now their product has been put on the dreaded "red" list in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guide to sustainable seafood.
The red listing means that Louisiana shrimp should be avoided by those who use the guide to make purchasing decisions. That includes eco-friendly shoppers and also major retailers like Whole Foods, Costco and Trader Joe's.
Louisiana shrimp was put on the red list because the state does not mandate the use of turtle excluder devices (TEDs). The devices prevent turtles and other bycatch from getting caught in the nets. They are required in federal waters and by all Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic states except Louisiana, which forbid their enforcement in a 1987 law.
It is possible the aquarium's Seafood Watch listing will force the state to change its bycatch laws, but in the meantime it will certainly hurt Louisiana shrimpers. Even those who voluntarily comply with federal bycatch recommendations will have their product on the red list.
The aquarium acknowledges this too. “Even when conscientious Louisiana fishermen voluntarily comply with regulations that protect sea turtles, the state’s mandate not to enforce this essential measure creates a critical conservation concern and an ‘Avoid’ recommendation for all shrimp caught in Louisiana,” said Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in a news release.
The message to fishermen: you could be doing everything right, and it's still not enough.
Photo of shrimp being unloaded at the docks of Bundy Seafood in Lafitte, La., by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink.Add a comment
Wednesday, 02 October 2013
Stories about seafood in the mainstream media aren’t always bad news. In “The Name Game” (page 8 of our November issue) National Fisherman columnist Roger Fitzgerald praises an August New York Times article by Mark Bittman for its surprising accuracy about salmon.
But the majority of Fitzgerald’s media examples are the more common misstatements surrounding news coverage of seafood, including mistakes in nutrition articles and some fishy fraud investigations.
Then there are stories that seem designed to incite the commercial fishing industry. In last week's Washington Post article “Farmed vs. wild salmon: Can you taste the difference?” wild salmon took a beating from farmed in a blind taste test. The writer does admit that the winner, Costco frozen Atlantic salmon from Norway, may have had an edge because it was packed in a 4-percent salt solution.
Still, farmed salmon won overall, taking the first five spots of the 10 varieties that were taste-tested and leading the writer to conclude: “One thing, though, is certain. You’ll never catch any of us saying wild salmon tastes better than farmed.”
Predictably there was outrage in the comments. Wild salmon is sacred to many in the Northwest and Alaska — and many of our readers. Some of them point out that pitting the two against each other was unfair, because wild (Pacific) and farmed (Atlantic) are different species. It might also be fair to say that American palates are usually inclined to the fish landed near them (though I don’t know the background of the panelists, the taste-test took place in Washington, D.C., not Washington State).
But it’s also probably fair to say that milder farmed salmon is more in tune with many Americans who are unfamiliar with seafood. I know people who are intimidated by seafood, and that's a problem for many in this country with the average American only eating about 15 pounds of seafood per year (compared to 110 pounds of red meat and 74 pounds of poultry).
But what if someone reads an article about the health benefits of seafood and decides to try it? If they're afraid of encountering strange, fishy flavors at the seafood counter, maybe it’s best to start them out with some frozen, salty farmed salmon from Costco. Taking that first step could open the door to the fascinating and delicious world of seafood, where it comes from and who catches it.
To most of the general public, particularly those who don’t eat it, the debate over farmed versus wild is not that relevant. Fish is fish. Farmed salmon could be the gateway drug that leads those who are unfamiliar with seafood to explore different preparations, recipes and species. As they learn, maybe they’ll become a little more adventurous and take a walk on the wild side too.Add a comment
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
One of my favorite parts of working for National Fisherman is access to our archives. While certain issues are timeless — like disputes over who gets to catch what and where — it’s also amazing to see how much has changed in the world of commercial fishing. Take a look at our slideshow to see some of the differences between 1963 and today.
Thursday, 19 September 2013
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) made a big splash this week after releasing a video it claims was taken at a Maine lobster processing plant. The video, which was allegedly shot undercover at Linda Bean's Maine Lobster in Rockland, shows a lobster being pulled apart, its shell and tail ripped off while still alive, its legs still moving.
Following the video's release PETA announced it would be filing a criminal complaint. The animal rights group might be able to make a case for animal cruelty under Maine law, which states that it is a crime to kill an animal "by a method that does not cause instantaneous death."
Add a comment
But what does this mean for the industry? The treatment of crustaceans — and whether they can feel pain — is an issue that has come up before. In 2006 Whole Foods announced it would no longer carry live lobsters in its stores. Today Portland, Maine, is the only store in the nationwide chain that sells live lobsters because it is close enough to where lobsters are landed to ensure they are handled with care during shipping and processing. When you buy a lobster there you can have it killed humanely by asking a seafood counter staff person to electrocute it in the back room (you'll want to cook it soon after).
Whether it makes any difference to the lobster continues to be debated. Some say no, like a February 2005 study by a University of Oslo scientist who concluded that lobsters and other decapod crustaceans “have some capacity of learning, but it is unlikely they can feel pain.”
The Maine lobster industry agrees with those findings. “There’s been a lot of research done on this that shows lobsters have a very simple nervous system. It’s comparable to a bug or insect. It’s very unlikely to feel pain,” says Marianne LaCroix, acting executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council when I talked to her about this subject for an article in SeaFood Business earlier this year.
But animals rights groups can point to research that shows a different story. While Prof. Robert Elwood of Queens University in Belfast, Ireland, admits it's impossible to prove if animals can feel pain, he believes the behavior of crabs in a study he released this year is consistent with the "idea of pain." In the study, crabs that had been shocked twice after running to a dark shelter chose a different shelter, rather than risk being shocked again.
But, as LaCroix pointed out, this issue is not likely to have much fallout for the industry. There are always exceptions to the rule of course, but those who care about whether an animal feels pain as it's being prepared for our consumption aren't usually the ones eating seafood in the first place.
Thursday, 12 September 2013
Whenever I work on a story I ask people how they got involved in commercial fishing. It never seems like a choice. They either grew up in a fishing family or somehow were drawn to the water, fell in love with fishing and never looked back. It's in the blood, I often hear.
I should also ask why. Why choose a career path that's low-paying (median salary is around $25,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and risky? When you cover commercial fishing, reports of sinkings, men-overboard and accidents at sea are regular stories. Despite efforts to increase safety, the number of commercial-fishing deaths have not significantly decreased from 2000-2010, which saw an annual average of 46 deaths per year, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
That's 10 times the average of four per 100,000 workers among all U.S. workers during that same time period.
One piece of good news is that the program working to increase safety in commercial fishing has had its funding preserved again. For the last two years, the NIOSH fishing safety program faced elimination in the president's budget, but continued to be funded under a spending resolution from Congress. It's due to be cut again in the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, but it's also again being funded in a budget from Congress.
The program is important to maintain because its researchers focus on eliminating dangers in specific fisheries instead of trying to force a one-size-fits-all solution across all working in commercial fishing.
There are some things that are always going to be risky: falling in love, having children and commercial fishing. But taking risks makes us feel alive. Though chasing wild animals on an unpredictable ocean is never going to be safe, it's good to see support for a program trying to help those who go out to sea for a living come home again.
Thursday, 05 September 2013
In our October issue's Dock Talk column, veteran Alaska fisherman Douglas Herman looks back at 30 years of crewing with both good and bad skippers. "The best are blessed with crew retention," he says. "The worst go through crew like the Kardashians go through boyfriends."
Tales of the worst are the most fun to read about though. That's especially true if you're not the one who lived through the constant insults and volatile behavior. Herman recounts some of the skippers he admires as well as ones he doesn't — like "the only skipper I would have hesitated tossing a line, if he fell overboard" — on page 13.
Some skippers will tell you, however, that a little yelling is a necessary part of the job. For another perspective, I pulled up the 1998 article, "Loud & Proud" from National Fisherman's archives. The self-professed screamers point out that it can at times be the most effective way of managing a crew.
"All in all, I'm pretty hard on my crew, because I have no pity for them, and I tell them that up front," said Bristol Bay highlander Emil Christensen. "They will understand when the paycheck comes. And if they still have a problem after that, maybe they're not cut out for fishing anyway."
But there's also a line between a skilled highliner yelling at his crew and a crazy captain. One crew member tells about being thrown into the ocean in his sleeping bag for not making coffee early enough. The same crewman says he was more "duck-hand" than deckhand because he spent most of his time on deck ducking flying objects thrown by the skipper, including weights, a belt and even a television set.
Bad behavior can also be dangerous. This summer Michael Clemens was arrested for assault and operating under the influence in Kodiak after three crew members decided to abandon ship. He allegedly tried to push two of them off the boat when they confronted him about being too drunk to run the skiff. They reported that he had also been dropping equipment overboard and almost fell in himself.
What do you think? Is screaming at your crew a justifiable part of running a fishing boat or the sign of a bad skipper? Maybe it all depends on who's screaming.Add a comment
Friday, 23 August 2013
Last week the environmental group Watershed Watch Salmon Society posted a video of seiner fishermen mistreating salmon bycatch in the pink fishery off British Columbia's north coast. The video appears to show the fishermen leaving bycatch, including endangered chums and sockeyes, on deck, unsorted for as long as six minutes. As the narrator explains, they're most likely already dead by the time they're flung or kicked back into the water.
"DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] is claiming that 100 percent of these discarded fish are being returned to the ocean in good condition but this video provides clear evidence that those discarded fish are being thrown back dead or nearly dead."
The video got a reaction from DFO, but not the one Watershed wanted. The Canadian government is now investigating the fishermen caught on tape, and the environmentalists say that effort misses the point: They claim the video depicts an industrywide problem.
"Having a few fishermen charged, and their lives disrupted because they happened to be the first ones in line when we showed up with our camera is not going to fix the broken management system that let this fishery get so far out of control,” said Aaron Hill, an ecologist with Watershed Watch in a press release. “All three of the boats we filmed mishandled fish, and now DFO and the Jim Pattison Group are trying to paint them as ‘just a few bad actors’? It’s outrageous."
Are these fishermen scapegoats or a couple of bad apples? Here's my reaction. How do you prove it's an industrywide problem if you're only showing three boats? For all we know, the group could have taken hundreds of hours of video and ONLY found a couple examples. It's unfortunate if those fishermen in the video are unfairly punished as scapegoats for a larger problem, but the group should have done a more thorough investigation if it wanted its viewers to make that conclusion.
Watch the video to see for yourself, but be careful about jumping to conclusions. A more thorough investigation with more information — including interviews with fishermen — is needed before we can do that.
Thursday, 22 August 2013
As a writer, if I make a mistake it's in print and everyone knows about it. Fortunately, our talented editors make sure that doesn't usually happen, but I could still sympathize with skippers of grounded boats that made headlines this week. Stranded on land, their vessels were the subject of spectacle, curiosity — and video.
The fortunate part is there were no injuries reported. Plus it's good to talk about our mistakes. If you've ever been the skipper of a grounded boat and would like to share your side of the story, please leave a comment below.
First up, I can imagine it was a bad day turned worse for a couple of shrimp trawlers in South Carolina's Jarvis Creek. According to WTOC, the Lady Essie was sent out to tow the Diane, but then it ran aground and both boats were stuck.
Then it got worse. After the Lady Essie tipped on its side it began leaking hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into the creek. According to the news report, the Coast Guard is working with a private contractor to clean it up. As of this writing they are still stuck, perched in the creek and an invitation for news crews' continuous coverage. You can watch the action here.
Things went a little more smoothly for the skipper of the 56-foot Jessica Heather, but he got a lot more attention. According to news reports, the boat was on autopilot when it hit the beach overlooked by hotels and casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. It became an instant tourist attraction with interviewed bystanders saying they thought it was "cool." Not everyone was pleased, however, with one woman saying, "I think it shouldn't be parked there."
The Jessica Heather remained "parked" on the beach for 18 hours before it was towed back into the ocean. According to the latest report from Press of Atlantic City, the Coast Guard is still investigating exactly how it ran aground. The initial report said the captain was not at the helm and that one of the ship's two deckhands may have fallen asleep while driving.
In Alaska at least, there's less of a crowd. Unfortunately the skipper of the 65-foot Fate Hunter from Astoria, Ore., has bigger problems to worry about. The tender ran aground last week four miles west of Valdez, Alaska, and a salvage operation is currently under way to recover fuel — including 1,500 gallons of diesel, 300 gallons of hydraulic oil and 100 gallons of lube oil — along with 150,000 pounds of fish onboard. On the bright side, none of the crew were reported injured and the boat does not appear to have any major structural damage.
According to the Coast Guard the cause is still under investigation.
USCG photoAdd a comment
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National Fisherman Live for Feb. 27, 2014
PORTSMOUTH, NH - The New Hampshire Fish and Lobster Festival, known locally as Fishtival, invites the community to Portsmouth's Prescott Park each September to honor, celebrate and rediscover the proud tradition of small-scale, local commercial groundfishing in New Hampshire and its valuable contribution to our local food system, local economy and local culture. Now, the mission continues with the announcement of small grants available from the proceeds of the 2013 event.
In this year's Alaska Symphony of Seafood new-product contest, a distinguished panel of judges, composed of industry chefs and experts, bestowed the grand prize on Tilgner's Specialized Smoked Seafood Products for their Ruby Red Ole World Scottish Style Cold Smoked Sockeye Salmon.Read more...