National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
Monday, 03 February 2014
The night before I headed out on Puget Sound on the Miss Mae, I had drinks in Port Townsend with the boat's skipper, Sam Bain, and his friend and fellow fisherman Billie Delaney. Billie thought it was amusing that I was going to be writing a story about Sam's fishery (see the March 2014 issue of National Fisherman, page 24).
This is no "Deadliest Catch." There's hardly any waves, no turf wars (at least not on the water; there have been battles over catch allocation among commercial state, tribal and recreational fishermen). For me, the story was in how Sam found his niche in a small-boat, low-key fishery that allowed him to stay on the water for most of the year.
That doesn't mean there's no excitement. A day on the water is not the same as a day in the office. If I trip, I'd be a little bruised and more embarrassed than hurt. When Sam is out on the water he's usually alone. A slip could mean a splash.
One thing Sam must consider is where to put his pots. One area may be falling off, but if he moves his pots, he loses a day of crabbing. The new area may not turn to be as productive as hoped and may also be farther from the dock, which means the gas you use to get there could offset the bonus crabs.
There's also price. Dungeness is prized by Asian markets, which can mean a lot of fluctuations. Some crabbers will put their catch back in the water at the dock to wait for a better price, but that's a strategy that can backfire: I heard about one crabber who lost $10,000 this way.
It's interesting to watch fishermen work these equations, but no matter how much you crunch the numbers, there's always going to be uncertainty. This to me is the most exciting part of fishing (when the waters are calm). Even though my paycheck isn't tied to what's inside, I always feel a thrill when I watch the pulleys turn and ropes slide up as they retrieve the net or pot below. What's inside can either prove or disprove a fisherman's logic — or just be luck. Wild animals hidden under dark waves will never be completely predictable.
I took a short (under 2-minute) video on the trip of Sam hauling up a pot. It may not leave you on the edge of your seat but watching it and hearing the hum of the engine and the cries of the seagulls was a nice mental break from a dreary February day in the office.
That hum in the video reminded me of some other excitement. As you'll find out in the story, a problem with the hauler almost canceled the day. As a fisherman said to me on a previous trip, "That's fishing."Add a comment
Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Someone asked me last night why fishermen are so angry. I live in Maine. When fishermen are in the news it’s over a contentious issue, like an area closure or reduced quota. In televised meetings fishermen speak their minds and tempers can flare. My answer was that often fishermen don’t feel like anyone’s listening.
These televised glimpses don't paint an accurate picture of fishermen in general, but the rules and quotas handed down affect their livelihoods. It's good to speak up. Sometimes if you yell loud enough and long enough, someone hears you.
That seems to be happening in the battle to protect Alaska's Bristol Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency released its final draft report on the potential harm to the area from large-scale mining operations and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) came out against the project last week. A rally held in Seattle on Friday (shown below) drew more than 200 fishermen and supporters.
That fight goes on. While the EPA report advises against the mine because of its threat to the valuable salmon watershed, the agency needs to issue a 404(c) to actually prohibit development. Brett Veerhusen of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay says a final decision could come in a couple months.
But I think it's good to go beyond battle-mode. The advocates for Bristol Bay have done this by using the Pebble Mine issue as a platform to spread the word about the value of their fishery. As Begich said in his release, the region "produces half the world’s red salmon and supports thousands of fishing jobs and way of life for thousands of Alaskans.”
More people need to understand that value. Yesterday, I talked to Laine Welch. She’s been the voice for commercial fishing on Alaska public radio since 1988. She wants more people to understand that the fishing industry provides more jobs than oil, gas, timber and tourism combined.
I like the example she's giving people: In her home of Kodiak there are about 700 boats in two harbors. She’s trying to make people see that each one of those boats is an individual storefront. They're small businesses. Each one supports one or more more families.
This example applies to every coast. If you value something you need to not only show it, but help other people understand why it's worth something too. If not, you stand to lose it all.Add a comment
Wednesday, 22 January 2014
At the beginning of the 2013 Maine elver season, Chad Jordan was hoping for another boom year.
“The spike in the eel market the last couple years has really changed my life,” he says on the TV series "Cold River Cash." With his earnings from the previous season he had put a down payment on a new boat.
But when the season starts slow, he’s working double shifts. At night he’s on the riverbank with a dipnet trying to catch glass eels then knee-deep in mud flats digging for clams during the day.
The reality television show, which debuted earlier this month on Animal Planet, was shot last spring in Southern Maine. 2013 was the third year of high prices for glass eels, or elvers.
The 10-week fishery has become a gold rush recently because Maine is one of the only places that can meet Asian demand for these tiny elvers. It takes 1,800 elvers to make a pound, but when prices go past $2,000 per pound, each one counts.
I was especially interested in the show because I wrote about the fishery in the September issue of National Fisherman after a trip Down East last spring. On the riverbanks I heard stories of nets being cut and attempts at elver robbery. Of course, those things happen when no-one's watching.
In the episode I watched the season had just opened to cold weather that was keeping catches low for the three teams, the Grinders, Eelinators, and Maineacs. The teams (not a normal part of elver fishing) are not only trying to catch as many elvers as they can but also competing against each other. I don’t know if there’s a prize beyond the price of elvers for getting the most but they heckle each other with words, fireworks and water balloons.
This comes across as silly. The show appears to be part of the trend of reality shows where the main premise is to marvel and laugh at blue-collar Americans with funny accents and pickup trucks.
These are New England fishermen. There’s plenty of real drama in the fishing industry around here. It doesn't need to be manufactured.
It was also hard to root for any of the teams. I’m sure the guys in Cold Water Cash are good guys, but on TV they’re presented as composites. The family man. The joker. The bickering father and son.
We get a small sense of their lives but it’s only a glimpse. I would have enjoyed a more in-depth look at a fisherman like Jordan, and how he’s managing to hold on to a way of life that’s quickly disappearing along these same shorelines. He says at the beginning of the episode that he makes as much money all year clamming as he does in the 10-week elver fishery. It'd be interesting to see what other fisheries he participates in and learn more about his life on and off the water.
I think that’s why I couldn’t get into the show. I would have liked it better if it focused on what it means to be a fisherman in a place where your kind is facing extinction. That would be more interesting than how many tiny glass eels are in the bottom of a dipnet and might also help the public understand what’s at stake.
Thursday, 16 January 2014
Certainly no high school guidance counselor could have predicted Sam Bain's path. The 34-year-old from North Carolina began commercial fishing 11 years ago in Alaska. During his first season he gillnetted for sockeye out of Dillingham, and for the last 10 years he's been traveling to Bristol Bay each summer to setnet salmon.
He wanted fishing to be more than a summer job, but he didn't see much of a future beyond crewing in Alaska, where the cost of boats and permits can be prohibitive. That's why he began running his own 25-footer to pot for Dungeness crab in Puget Sound's small fishery three years ago.
I just finished writing about the day I spent with him for National Fisherman's March issue. What struck me as most compelling about his story was his dedication to building a future for himself on the water near his home of Port Townsend, Wash.
As a writer, I didn't have a career path laid out for me to follow either. But I know what's important to me, and so does Sam. He values his work as a fisherman as well as sustaining the resource and environment that surrounds and supports him.
This is no gold-rush fishery like the ones you see on TV. The waters are calm and though there's a short peak after the Oct. 1 opening, the price falls as the season progresses (mostly because of other areas opening and fluctuating overseas markets).
But the resource is sustainable, and Sam's overhead doesn't usually exceed the cost of filling up his 100-gallon fuel tank every third day and $150 a day in bait. Even with the slowdown, he can keep going until the season closes on April 15.
That's the point. This isn't a quick get-rich gig. It's a job. It's a home. It's a life.
You can read more about Sam's life on the water in the March issue of National Fisherman, which will be out in the beginning of February.
Tuesday, 07 January 2014
It's so cold even Florida is under a wind-chill warning. That's because of the polar vortex dipping down from the North Pole that's bringing sub-zero temperatures with it. My own polar vortex experience hasn't been too bad: I lost water yesterday when a pipe burst in my building's basement, but it's fixed now and I'm warm and can take showers again.
That's a common story. Cold weather can cause a lot of damage, and not just to buildings. If you're in Florida or other places in the South not used to frigid temperatures, you should probably turn to page 30 when you receive your February issue of National Fisherman. In the article, "Save room for vroom," Brian Robbins writes about how to prevent freeze-ups before your pack up after a long winter's workday.
Before you go home for the night, Robbins recommends shutting off your boat's raw-water intake then adding antifreeze and rolling the engine over a few times to pump it through the system. He cautions to make sure to do the reverse before you head out again the next day.
Even if you're not experiencing the polar vortex, I'd recommend checking out Robbins' article. As a former offshore lobsterman and longtime contributor to National Fisherman, he offers common-sense tips for making engine maintenance easier that should come in handy all year.
I realize that these sub-zero temperatures aren't a novelty for our readers in Alaska, but being used to them means that you're also better prepared. Do you have any cold-weather tips you can share with our commercial fishermen readers in the South? And yes, I realize we're all in the south compared to you...
Photo of ice breaking on Maine's Kennebec River by Lauren Downs/USCGAdd a comment
Thursday, 02 January 2014
In 2012, a year after implementing catch shares in the West Coast groundfish fishery, NOAA was calling the program a success. It was hard to argue with the numbers: The fishery made $54 million in 2011 compared to its historical average of $38 million for 2006-2010. In addition, bycatch was down from 15 percent to 1.3 percent.
But some California fishermen are telling a different story about catch shares. Jeremiah O'Brien, director of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, called the program the "worst thing that ever happened to the fishing industry." Likewise, Jiri Nozicka of Monterey Bay told the Associated Press he hasn't been able to fish since spring because he can't find a monitor willing to go out on his trawler the San Giovanni (the Juneau Empire has a photo).
The lack of observers is hitting the fleet hard. “Financially, I can only say that multiple trips have been cancelled due to a lack of availability of these monitors, millions of pounds of fish have not been caught, processed and sold to markets and this is a loss of millions of dollars,” Michael Lucas, president of North Coast Fisheries, wrote in a letter to federal regulators that was also included in the AP report.
Electronic monitoring might help. Alaska's halibut longliner fleet is also pushing for the use of cameras instead of costly observers. That industry recently drafted an exempted fisheries permit for the use of cameras, which NMFS rejected because of a lack of technical specifications and performance standards. Its fleet also stands to lose its small boats if a more cost-effective solution to fund monitors isn't found soon.
Unfortunately, it may be too late for some in California. Beginning in 2014 fishermen can sell their quota, which was prohibited by a two-year moratorium when the program launched in 2011. Along with the loss of small boats also goes the fishing industries in the small ports they call home. If that happens, I wouldn't call it a success.
NOAA photoAdd a comment
Friday, 20 December 2013
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Dickens' iconic opening lines could also sum up this country's commercial fishing for any given year. A banner year for one fisherman could mean a horrible year for another.
2013 was the best of times for Alaska salmon fishermen. In recollecting the past year, they don't have to search for reasons to be grateful. They had record-breaking catches in 2013. During the Pacific Marine Expo in November I met some coming off this season who were ready to make the most of their good fortune.
Jim Whitcher of Anacortes, Wash., had just bought a new boat for gillnetting on Bristol Bay. He closed a couple days before the Expo. Another fisherman, Ray Forsman, skipper of the Silver Isle, told me it was a normal year, which he said (and other fishermen will probably agree) is a "good thing."
But Alaska's salmon fishermen have known the worst of times too. I also caught up with Vicko Fiamengo of Belllingham, Wash., at the Expo. The longtime salmon fisherman was only 16 years old when he left his home of Komiza, a historic fishing village in Croatia, in 1970.
“I was born on a little island back in Croatia. I fished on the dock in the port when I was five years old, and I’ve been fishing since,” said Fiamengo.
So 20 years ago, when salmon prices dipped down to 35, 25 cents a pound he never left the fishery. He remembers going out when it was just “me and the fish and game [enforcement personnel] and one other guy.”
But it was not enough to get Fiamengo off the water. “I didn’t go to school. That’s in my blood,” he said. “That’s all I do. That’s all I know.”
Perhaps his story of perserverance will inspire those whose fisheries experienced the worst of times in 2013. It may not be the best of times, but sometimes normal is good enough.
Tuesday, 17 December 2013
The often overlooked requirement of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is not overlooked by Madeleine Hall-Arber. As MIT Sea Grant’s marine anthropologist, she was one of the first people to closely study the social impact of regulations on fisheries.
In the field for 25 years, she works with New Bedford fisheries managers on how their decisions will affect their communities. In a new video released last week by NOAA she talks about New Bedford's Working Waterfront Festival.
While there is a rich heritage to celebrate in one of America's most historic ports, New Bedford is also the leading port in value, and Hall-Arber says that spreading the word about the importance of the industry today is an important goal of the festival.
"Part of the effort for the festival is to make the young people realize there's still an industry, there's still a value to working in the industry," she says.
As she points out, the value of those jobs goes beyond a paycheck. People who work in fishing should be proud of what they do. Their jobs put food on many people's tables — and not just their own.
Her words are a reminder of all that is lost along with the economic disaster facing the region's groundfish industry. But there are still those trying to keep this struggling part of the industry alive. When the New England council meets this week, the Northeast Seafood Coalition is proposing alternative management strategies that could help create stability in annual catch limits, Executive Director Jackie Odell told the Gloucester Daily Times.
The three-day council meeting started yesterday in Danvers, Mass. Those who are unable to attend can listen in on the proceedings by clicking on this link: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/865489879.
Learn more about Hall-Arber's work by watching the video below.Add a comment
Thursday, 12 December 2013
I went shrimping for the first time almost two years ago. The 65-foot trawler Jamie & Ashley left Portland a little before 4:30 on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, a week after the opening of the northern shrimp season in the Gulf of Maine.
My story of that day begins shortly after we left port, with the chatter of other fishermen also out that morning:
"There's plenty of squawking coming over the radio as we head out of Portland harbor.
"'You can't f-king do it three f-king days a week,' says one unidentified voice."
The overheard complaints stemmed from strict rules for the 2012 season. Trawlers like the Jamie & Ashley could only fish on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, beginning a half hour before sunrise and ending, with gear out of the water, at 3 p.m.
The story represents a couple firsts for me. It was the first time I had started a story with an f-bomb (or the indication of one). It was also the first time I had gone out on a commercial fishing boat and written about it for the magazine.
That day also marked the first time I saw the competitive nature of fishermen firsthand. The restrictions were designed to make a shortage in quota last longer, but they meant that everybody had to be out at the same time. Which meant everybody wanted to be in the best spots.
The ocean becomes a small place when fishing boats are on top of each other. It was the beginning of the season, but the Jamie & Ashley had done well so far, scooping up 5,000 and 7,000 pounds of shrimp its two previous times out (by comparison another boat had only hauled in 700 pounds on Monday). So when skipper Steve Jordan picked a spot to tow he had company "within punching distance," as he put it.
After a tense encounter with another boat that wanted in our groove, the first haul was a good one. But when Jordan decided to move away from the crowd, the catch thinned out too. "What are you going to do? That's fishing," as Jordan put it.
The rules and a quota cut in half made the 2012 season a difficult one. After the first couple weeks, Allyson Jordan, owner of the Jamie & Ashley (no relation to Steve), decided to piggyback groundfish trips on shrimp days so Jordan and the two crew members could at least make a living wage for their time on the water.
This year there will be no shrimp season. The closure, which followed a November assessment showing the collapse of the stock, is the first in 35 years.
With northern shrimp off the table, New England fishermen already struggling with poor groundfish quotas and low lobster prices have lost a fishery that was helping to make up the difference.
Being a fisherman has always been a gamble, but nobody wants to play a game when there's no chance of winning. If we want to preserve fishing in New England, people like Allyson need the flexibility and support to be innovative to come up with a Plan B. Or Plan C, D or E, if necessary.
I've read that there have been discussions of requesting federal aid for fishermen affected by the shrimp collapse. If money is available, shouldn't it go toward developing markets for species that are plentiful and gear innovations to avoid the ones that aren't? Give New England fishermen a chance to show their fighting spirit.
Photo by Melissa WoodAdd a comment
Thursday, 05 December 2013
It's a good thing the Eastern-rigged dragger Roann was well ballasted. After she was built in 1947, owner Roy Campbell of Vineyard Haven, Mass., would fish 120 miles off Cape Cod, all year. That's pretty far offshore for a 60-footer, but she was kept stable with 22,000 pounds of concrete and scrap metal.
Her stability was put to the test one early morning in 1953. With the captain in his bunk and the mate at the wheel, "a huge wall of water, a rogue wave, reared up in front of the Roann. She rode up one side and then dropped off into the trough. She fell over 90 degrees, pushing the mastheads under water and launching the sleeping cook across the fo'c'sle. But the Roann popped back up with the net wrapped around the spring stay," says Walter Ansel, senior shipwright for Connecticut's Mystic Seaport museum.
She survived that day and survives still, as one of the last remaining Eastern-rigged wooden draggers. These vessels fished off New England's coast in the mid-to-late 20th century before they were replaced by steel stern draggers.
The maritime museum bought Roann in 1997 but didn't begin restoration work until 2005. As Michael Crowley writes in the January issue of National Fisherman, the challenging work wouldn't have been possible without dedicated volunteers who spent thousands of hours retaining her original craftsmanship and repairing the wear from five decades worth of highliner-level fishing. Mike's story begins on page 28.
If you really like wooden boats — and many of our readers do — you can visit her in person too. The Roann is part of the historic vessel collection at the Mystic Seaport museum in Mystic, Conn. Learn more here.
Photo courtesy of Mystic SeaportAdd a comment
Page 4 of 11
National Fisherman Live: 8/14/14
In this episode:
National Fisherman Live: 8/5/14
In this episode, National Fisherman's Boats & Gear Editor Michael Crowley talks with Frances Parrott about the Notus Dredgemaster.