National Fisherman


SamHillSamuel Hill is associate editor for National Fisherman.



The case for eating local seafood is an easy one to make: First, you know what you're getting is sustainably caught and healthy, and you get to support your local fishermen and the industry that relies on their productivity.

2015 0604 Coastlines Shrimp “Maine” shrimp from Canada. Melissa Wood photoSo what should the consumer do when a local fishery is shut down, like the New England northern shrimp closure, now in its second consecutive year? Consumers, like me, should switch to another local species, right? But what if I can find a similar version of the same product, caught from a nearby fishery that happens to be across an international border? What I’m trying to ask is, is it OK if I buy Canadian shrimp?

I found the Canadian pandalus borealis frozen by the pound at a great local seafood market, Coldwater Seafood, in Stonington, Maine. The shrimp is essentially the same product I would be buying if the Maine shrimp fishery were open, though for $12.99 a pound it's also more expensive. I’d rather buy Canadian shrimp than the frozen bags from Thailand, which is the only shrimp available at my local supermarket, but I realize that the shrimp I’m buying is still part of the overwhelming 91 percent of seafood in the U.S. marketplace that's imported.

Maine fishermen's loss has been a gain for our northern neighbors. The value of Canada's shrimp imports grew 20 percent 2013 to 2014, with imports of coldwater shrimp to Maine more than doubling to almost 100 metric tons, according to Canadian officials.

There actually was a small sample harvest of Maine shrimp earlier this year (shrimp caught during a survey that the fishermen were allowed to sell at auction), but that didn't stay in the local market. Unbelievably (to me at least), in one auction in February featured in a story about that harvest, of 1,200 pounds landed, 800 was bought for a Japanese buyer to sell to sushi restaurants.

Prices at that auction of around $4 per pound were higher than average because of the scarcity, but they may go right back down (the average is under $2) when the fishery comes back, according to an outbid New York buyer at that auction, because they've been absent for so long: “They’ll have to develop that market all over again.”

Gary Libby, of midcoast Maine’s Port Clyde Fresh Catch, predicted that Canadian shrimp may benefit Maine shrimpers because at least it will keep that product on their minds: “Once we get the resource back, we’re going to own it because we’re going to be able to deliver the product for less than Canada can,” he told the Portland Press Herald.

Ideally, the Maine shrimp fishery will come back and the price will stay high. So how do we make that happen?

The consideration that fishermen must have for other users’ rights is a necessary part of sharing a limited resource. In most cases, fisheries are divided by recreational and commercial users, different gear types, and beyond that, individual fishermen. When the resource is dwindling, everyone takes a hit.

That is, unless you’re a California farmer. As the statewide drought continues in its fourth year, Gov. Jerry Brown announced that for the first time ever, some residents will be required to cut back on their water use. His executive order mandates that the state's 3,000 urban water providers reduce their water use by 25 percent, and it includes other water-saving initiatives such as replacing 50 million square feet of green grass lawns with drought-tolerant plants, rebates for consumers who purchase water-saving appliances and bans on watering street meridians and irrigation systems for new housing developments. But there were no restrictions for the state's largest segment of water users, the agriculture industry.

For the state’s commercial fishermen, the lack of water means salmon either can't reach spawning grounds. And the problem isn't just because of the drought in and of itself: Fresh water is being diverted to support agriculture. A whopping trillion gallons goes to the Southern Central Valley, to be soaked up by the especially thirsty nut trees. To give an idea of how much, agriculture uses 80 percent of the state's water, while almonds suck up 10 percent on their own.

When water is diverted the salmon is misled into waterways that are too shallow and warm for them to survive in, according to San Francisco salmon fisherman Mike Hudson, interviewed for a PBS News Hour report about the competing interests of salmon and almonds for the state's water.

"I would argue that this is a fight for the livelihood of a farming family who has been doing this for generations,” an almond grower retorted in his industry’s defense. You can watch that report below:

How many times have commercial fishermen seen their livelihoods dwindle when agencies require cutbacks for preservation purposes? In some cases, a fishery will lose members, leaving the survivors with hopefully enough to carry on. It’s not ideal, but that’s the reality of a sharing a limited resource. But commercial fishermen seem to be the only ones required to make sacrifices compared to other industries in California that need water. Nestlé, which bottles water in California, has stated its refusal to slow down its water use. In fact, the company plans to increase the amount of water it bottles in California, according to the Guardian newspaper. “People need to hydrate,” said Tim Brown, chief executive of Nestlé Waters North America.

“They Came to Fish” is the title of a well-known (for locals at least) history book about my hometown of Portsmouth, N.H. “They” were the European settlers who came in the 1600s to fish the rich waters of the Gulf of Maine. Most valuable was the plentiful cod, which were dried, salted and shipped back across the Atlantic.

2015 0521 GroundfishThe view off the back of the 44-foot Ellen Diane, which drags for groundfish out of Hampton, N.H.
Melissa Wood photo
While those glory days are long past, cuts to cod quotas have left New Hampshire’s groundfish fishermen in dire circumstances. They lost 70 percent of their cod quota from 2014, which was already cut low. An allotment of 2,500 pounds per fisherman will likely mean a quick shutdown of the season that started May 1.

“You can catch (2,500 pounds) in a day,” Peter Kendall, manager of the Yankee Fishing Cooperative in Seabrook, told the Fosters Daily Democrat. “You can catch that in two hours if you’re looking for codfish.”

And to make matters worse, Gulf of Maine shrimp, a boom-and-bust winter fishery that often helps the fleet cobble together a fishing year, has been closed for two years.

The one piece of good news may also be the beginning of the end. Fishermen may be able to take part in a buyout of permits and boats, as part of the federal disaster relief granted to New England fishermen for the 2012-2013 season. Of the $33 million granted, New Hampshire fishermen received $2 million. As part of that, $200,000 will go toward forming a committee to examine the buyout option, according to John Bullard, NOAA’s Northeast administrator.

So what’s next? Will such a buyout lead to a 10-year shutdown while cod recovers? It may take longer. It looks like cod is finally returning to the coast of Newfoundland, where a collapse shut down codfishing for more than 20 years.

But the end of New Hampshire’s fleet has been predicted before. So far the fishery has remained active by having some keep their boats at the shore while leasing their quota. The members of the state’s only CSF, New Hampshire Community Seafood, are trying to establish a market for nontraditional species like hake, pollock and dogfish by educating the farmers market set about those species’ sustainable features.

Portsmouth is a fortunate little city, favored by a picturesque downtown and a restaurant scene that lures celebrity chefs from Boston. But a port without a working fleet just becomes a postcard — pretty but with no substance. The big question to me is will people care?

The behemoths parked alongside the canal were a bit of a mystery at first when I visited Sète. Yes, it was obvious that these big boats were purse seiners meant to catch bluefin tuna: Tall piles of netting were stacked on deck while smaller powerboats were arranged on and alongside. What surprised me was that the boats didn’t go anywhere. Though crew members could be seen, standing on the decks, clamboring, leaning, sometimes painting, they didn’t seem to be doing much besides waiting while the boats stayed still.

2015 0514 SeteShiny new purse seiners dominate the pretty canal that runs through Sète, a working class port on the French Mediterranean. Melissa Wood photoAs recently as five years ago, Sète, the French town that is the largest fishing port on the Mediterranean, was also considered “ground zero in the controversial trade in bluefin.” A powerful fleet helped to catch the Mediterranean’s quota of 50,000 metric tons of bluefin per year in the 1990s. Though that overall quota dropped to the 20,000-30,000 in the mid-2000s, it was often exceeded by more than 50 percent. Fueled by insanely high prices for sushi-grade tuna in Japan, the fishery was notorious for its widespread illegal practices, disregarded quotas, total lack of oversight by authorities, large government subsidies, and a booming blackmarket trade where, as documented in a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, one in three fish were caught illegally. “We always fished more than the quota,” retired French skipper Vincent Caci, told the ICIJ. “It was normal. No one told us to stop. And France helped us build expensive new boats.”

These big, expensive boats along the canal were the survivors of that time. After many years of unaccountability, the European Union finally did begin cracking down on illegal activities, catch documents were actually filed and recorded, and traceability increased. The number of bluefin in the Mediterranean have also been increasing. In fact, last November, the international group that sets quotas (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, also known as ICCAT) approved a 20 percent increase over the next three years (a move that many environmentalists say is too much too soon).

For the fishermen of Sète, catching bluefin is still a profitable business. Asking around about the fishery, I found that the season was now shortened to just three weeks, beginning May 25 and ending June 15, or sooner, if the quota is caught before then. But even so, I was told, a crewman can make 50,000 Euros in that abbreviated season while a captain could expect upward of 500,000 Euros (roughly $57,000 and $570,000 in U.S. dollars). It’s a paycheck worth waiting for.

But what most impressed me about Sète was how fishing coexisted with the cafes and hotels demanded by the Mediterranean tourist industry. The port is on a strip of land surrounded by water with the Mediterranean on one side and the Thau, a large saltwater lagoon home to legions of oyster and mussel farms, on the other. On the inland side of Sete is the Pointe Courte, a small “short tip” that juts into the Thau. Here is a fisherman’s village tucked away behind the train station where small boats are docked to the rows of traditional fishermen’s huts that line the water while nets dry in the sun. There is even a house for “lonely cats,” as roughly translated, a tiny but clean hut just for stray cats that mostly lounged peacefully on the many little beds that were provided for them inside and out.

So while the tuna fishermen waited for that paycheck, others simply fished. Even among the idle purse seiners, small dayboat trawlers came and went. A couple evenings we watched the skipper of a small trawler go through his end-of-the-day ritual of pulling up along the quay in front of our hotel (a great place to sit and enjoy cheap but delicious wine from the region), tying up and driving his pickup truck away. His actions were not unlike the woman who ran the bicycle rental place next door, who each day closed her shop around the same time and pedaled away across the cobblestones in the late afternoon sun.

Unlike other local fish, invasive lionfish is a species fishermen want to wipe out. In 2010, NOAA developed an Eat Lionfish campaign that brought together fishermen, seafood wholesalers and restaurants to market the invasive predators to consumers.

With the same goal in mind, fishermen in Florida and the Caribbean have been holding lionfish derbies with cash prizes for catching the most fish. In the Cayman Islands, for example, fishermen and divers have formed Cayman United Lionfish League, or CULL. During a tournament in January, groups of divers bagged more than 1,000 of the spiny creatures, which they followed with a celebration where lionfish dishes were served at local restaurants.

2015 505 lionfish 300Importing lionfish works against local efforts to cull the invasive species. NOAA photoIn some ways, the campaigns have been successful: With delicate, white meat that has been called similar to grouper and snapper, lionfish quickly became a favorite with diners. But now, at least in the Caymans, they've run into a problem faced by other local fish species: They're too expensive and can't compete with cheaper imports. Some restaurants there began importing lionfish from Honduras, which at $2 per pound, is much cheaper than the locally caught ones. For its part, CULL launched an additional campaign to support restaurants that serve lionfish caught in local waters. (And ideally lionfish from Honduras could became a more sustainable option for cheap imported whitefish elsewhere.)

There should be plenty from local waters, unfortunately. Since it invaded South Atlantic waters in the mid 1980s, according to NOAA — though some think it escaped a private aquarium during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — lionfish has been thriving off Florida and in the Caribbean with a range that stretches from South America to North Carolina.

Originally reef dwellers in the South Pacific and Indian oceans, the spiny species will eat almost any fish smaller than it is and has no known predators (except for man). Though there's no way to count them, the signs are troubling. They've been found in water 300-feet deep, meaning they're a threat to native species at various depths, and when researchers have tried to count them, they've added up more than 3,000 fish in an area roughly the size of a football field.

So what can we do? Researchers have been looking into what has curbed the lionfish from completely taking over its home territory for a possible way to control its population here. So far they've found no solutions. It looks like the best choice is to keep culling and keep eating them. Groups like CULL should be commended and supported for their efforts in raising the culinary profile of the species. In this case, buying local means not only sustaining local fishermen but also helping to protect the viability of an entire ecosystem.

Credible reports suggest that Newfoundland cod stocks are on the mend. Fishing interests would like to see a limited fishery, but others are not so sure.

In any case, no one should be surprised that a recovery is under way, thanks to a pair of critical environmental conditions: warmer seawater and a moratorium on cod fishing.

It's not likely the seascape in the far northwest Atlantic will be riddled with trawl doors splashing their way down to codfish honey holes anytime soon. The recovery will be heralded as proof that the moratorium, imposed in 1992 following the collapse of stocks to a theoretical 1 percent of earlier levels, is working.

"I'm not sure we'll just wake up one day and someone will say, 'This will be over tomorrow,'" said John Boland of Fish, Food and Allied Workers, which represents 12,000 Newfoundland fishermen. Boland spoke with Munchies, a website and digital video channel describing itself as dedicated to food and its global purpose, in December.

"I suspect we'll be more cautious this time," he said, suggesting that harvests would be increased slowly. More than 35,000 people were put out of work when the moratorium was imposed.

If the Barents Sea is any indication, circumstances may favor cod. Between Russia and Norway, more than 950,000 tons were landed in 2013. In the video below, a Norwegian trawler takes to the Barents Sea to catch, process and freeze cod during a 2014 trip.

This year's Barents Sea quota is close to 900,000 tons. (New England fishermen will be allowed 386 tons this fishing year.)

When you are catching fish at this pace it is not because you have the best fathometer or the smartest managers, although both these things may be true. It is because the fish are ass deep.

Warming seawater temperatures over the last three-plus decades are viewed as a likely factor in the abundance of cod in the Barents Sea. Interestingly, managers there have felt compelled to cut haddock quotas, not as a result of scarcity or overfishing but in response to predation by cod.

Off Newfoundland, seal predation will factor in the recovery of cod, just as surely as fishing effort and water temperature, even if there is a chorus that will deny this with its last breath.

All of which reminds us that nothing much happens of its own accord in the ocean.

Meanwhile, we'll bet on Newfie cod and wait patiently, surrounded by environmental factors like ourselves.


At least there's a name for it now. Australian researchers studying the mental health and well-being of commercial fishermen have come up with the term, modern uncertainties of fishing, to describe the challenges facing members of the industry.

Those uncertainties are on top of the traditional dangers (like accidents, physical injuries and skin cancer) commercial fishermen face, and they include the stress of navigating government bureaucracies, having no control over their livelihoods because of uncertainties about rules and quotas, and being prevented from making long-term plans in business and life. In other words, it's not possible to take on a 30-year mortgage if you're afraid your fishery will be shut down tomorrow. Sound familiar?

The problem gets worse because the researchers found that fishermen don't always seek help for what they can control. For example, they were reluctant to make doctors' appointments — especially if going to the doctor meant losing time on the water.

2014 1211 NFWGroups like the Newport Fishermen's Wives, who recently spearheaded a drive to save their community's rescue helicopter,  should be recognized for their importance in supporting the well-being of commercial fishermen. Newport Fishermen's Wives photoBut the good news is, there is a way to address it. In the paper, "Not just a fisherman's wife: Women's contribution to health and well-being in commercial fishing," published in the Australian Journal of Rural Health, researchers concluded the best way to help is to strengthen and capitalize on the efforts of women in the industry.

Fishermen, for example, were likely to talk about the problems that were driving them crazy, and not that they were being driven crazy (and broke). As one fishermen told the researchers, "… to just get… a bunch of blokes together every now and then to talk about mental health issue just won't happen." Added another, "No, we'll sit and whinge [complain] about the fisheries [government management agencies] and bank managers and things like that, but you're not going to [talk about mental health] . . . you vent your spleen and then away you go."

Though venting can be helpful, it doesn't usually lead to a solution. On the other hand, women were more likely to talk candidly about not only the problems, but also the effects those modern uncertainties had on them and their families. And they were also likely to come up with solutions, such as suggesting blood-pressure checks where fishermen land their catch and organizing community events for families facing similar issues to get together for support. In one case, a group of women obtained funding from a national health organization to bring together mental health experts and providers to address a series of suicides and attempted suicides in their community.

In conclusion, the paper says more must be done to build on those efforts: "To make the most of women as contributors to good health in fishing, there must be a structural response that supports women both in terms of recognition for their existing work and that links them with resources for action. The knowledge and credibility of women in their local industry community plus the credibility of industry associations at state and national levels is a powerful combination."

Though it's not news that women are key to supporting healthy fishermen and fishing communities, it is nice to see a formal acknowledgement and recommendation to support their good work.

Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project video

Sperm whales are no fools, as you can see in the video above. Shot underwater by a camera attached to a longline, it shows the whale closing its long mouth around a longline with a blackcod attached. Though the fish the whale targets stays on the line, the tension causes another fish to pop clean off its hook: a quick and easy lunch for the whale.

Sperm and killer whales have been a problem for Gulf of Alaska longliners whose blackcod are being grabbed — sometimes from the line or shaken off, leaving no sign of the stolen catch. Now some are about to take a big step to prevent their catch from being stolen: changing their longline gear for pots. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved permitting pot fishing for blackcod in the gulf earlier this week. 

The change in gear wasn't an overnight decision. Gulf fishermen have been dealing with the whales for more than three decades, according to the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project.   (SEASWAP is a cooperative research project involving fishermen, scientists and fishery managers to prevent whale depredation.) The problem got worse when the fishing season was expanded in 1995, because the longer season also gave the whales more opportunities, and by 1997 reports of whale depredation of blackcod from longline gear "increased substantially."

In 2003, Sitka fisherman Sean Tracey recounted a day when a 50-foot sperm whale rested up against the 42-foot Connie M while three smaller whales picked fish off the line — grabbing a third of the blackcod catch.

"They've gotten smart. You turn on the hydraulics to operate the gear puller and it's like the dinner bell," Tracey told the Alaska Department of Fish & Game

More recently, researchers and fishermen focused on the whales' dependence on acoustics to prevent the line grabs. In 2011, as part of a $353,000 federal grant to study the amount of fish taken in the fishery, researchers tried attaching beads to lines so that a sperm whale would "hear" sablefish all along the line and be confused about where the fish actually were. Fishermen have also tried blasting heavy metal music from their boats to deter the whales.

But apparently, it's not easy to trick a whale. The problem continued, and now some see the change in gear, though drastic, as their best option to remain profitable.

Your move, whales.

The idea, I guess, is that we'll all sleep safer tonight knowing that Jorge Vargas is in jail.

Vargas, 59, of Miami, was found guilty last week of illegally possessing 267 lobsters (of which 246 were shorts), a commercial trap-puller, and sadly, no commercial license. He was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $28,680. When he gets out he's looking at five years' probation, and he's been banned from fishing the waters of the Florida Keys.

2015 409 Screen Shot Spiny lobsters 2015-04-08 at 6.30.57 PMIllegal possession of 267 spiny lobsters and lack of a commercial license brought Jorge Vargas a one-year jail sentence and a $28,680 fine. YouTube screen shotHis bond in last fall's case was set at $1.4 million – a little steep, in my view, no doubt reflecting his failure to appear in a 2011 case – prompting the headline, "Undersize lobster tails lead to oversize bond for jailed Miami man."

No doubt many of you believe that Vargas got no more than he deserved for what amounts to thievery, reckless disregard for the health of the resource, and flouting rules you and I comply with as a matter of good citizenship. At the risk of provoking righteous indignation, I disagree on the jail time.

I'll grant you it's a close call. There is no question that as poachers go, Vargas is something of an overachiever. According to the Miami Herald, during the three years prior to this episode Vargas was cited on two other occasions, for possession of wrung lobster tails (332, of which 274 were shorts) and possession of stone crabs out of season.

But he's also a small-time operator, and as far as I know, there was nothing violent about what he did (unless you are a spiny lobster). Prison time is a harsh sanction – and an expensive one, from the perspective of the taxpayers. Better to have Vargas on the outside, where in theory he can work toward paying down his fine, and off the water, where I am confident he'll remain with five years in jail hanging over his head.

Some of you will recall the case of another Florida fisherman, John L. Yates, who in 2012 was sentenced to 30 days in prison for possession of undersized grouper, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court toss out the sentence two months ago. 

The Vargas and Yates cases are dissimilar in several ways. Yates was a licensed commercial fisherman, as opposed to a rogue operator, and the issue was the composition of his catch, not the very fact of it. Moreover, the high court found that a federal law against the destruction of evidence – the grouper were tossed overboard – should not have been applied to Yates.

But in their ruling, the justices raised the issue of proportionality in sentencing, and that can be applied to Vargas' case. Prison is for people who don't belong on the street. Vargas doesn't belong on the water.

On my first trip to Alaska, one thing that popped into my head was that it was like going back in time. The wilderness seemed so vast that I imagined it must have been similar to landscape of my home on the East Coast as it was first seen by early European settlers. The colonists foraged, fished and farmed that abundance for themselves. They also saw their valuable resources extracted to support their home countries, like the stands of white pines that were some of the only trees large enough to function as masts for the British Navy.

In the case of the white pine trees, they became so scarce that the British made it against the law for anyone but the king's government to cut them down. In 1772 the law led to the "Pine Tree Riot" in New Hampshire, when a mill owner in Weare was caught with illegal pines. According to a Weare Historical Society account of the riot, when the sheriff arrived to collect the fine, the mill owner and 20-plus men blackened their faces with soot, and then they beat the sheriff with switches to "their hearts' content" and crossed out any references to the illegal trees on his ledger. They beat his deputy with floorboards they pulled from the room above. That act of defiance, like the coming Boston Tea Party, was one of the events that helped set the stage for American Revolution, says the historical society.

I love stories like that because they show how much things stay the same. The problems of sharing natural resources are of course well known to fishermen, who must share their catch with each other. Often you must also share access to those resources with industries like wind power. It can be difficult to know what's right. Not everyone can be a winner in the competition for resources. So who gets to decide the winners and losers?

2015 331 Coastlines Chuitna overview 090908An overview of the area for the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine, about 45 miles west of Anchorage. Alaska Department of Natural Resources photoIn Alaska, another mine proposal raises this question. The developers of the proposed Chuitna strip mine, about 45 miles west of Anchorage, would like to dig through and completely remove the upper portion of Middle Creek to reach the coal deposits beneath. It's an area that Alaska Department of Fish and Game identifies as important to salmon, according to Inletkeeper, a group rallying opposition to the mine: "PacRim's mining plan removes the entire streambed, bank-to-bank to a depth of 350 feet destroying the underlying water flow paths essential for overwinter survival of salmon eggs. This level of impact will fundamentally alter the underlying hydrology to a point where stream reconstruction is fundamentally impossible; Middle Creek will be destroyed."

PacRim, the would-be developers, make a point to note that the project would benefit local economies by creating up to 500 jobs during construction and up to 350 jobs during the life of the mine. But it's also clear that the major winners are not Alaskans. According to Inletkeeper, PacRim is a Delaware corporation owned by Texas investors. The coal they intend to extract would not go to Alaska, which does not depend heavily on coal for energy, but to China and other markets that do. 

I think the answer here is simple: the long-term costs outweigh the short-term gains. In this case we can't afford to sell off Alaska's salmon resources forever to the highest bidder.

Alaskans have until April 9 to tell their governor and the state's Department of Natural Resources what they think of the project. The "riot" of opposition this time is a more civilized undertaking and includes opinions voiced by Alaskans in the media and work by organizations like Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Inletkeeper

Page 5 of 19

Inside the Industry

The American Fisheries Society is honoring recently retired Florida Institute of Oceanography director Bill Hogarth with the Carl R. Sullivan Fishery Conservation Award — one of the nation's premier awards in fisheries science - in recognition of his long career and leadership in preserving some of the world's most threatened species, advocating for environmental protections and leading Florida's scientific response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Read more ...

The Marine Stewardship Council has appointed Eric Critchlow as the new U.S. Program Director. Critchlow will be based in the MSC US headquarters in Seattle. He is a former vice president of Lusamerica Foods and has over 35 years in the seafood industry.

Read more ...
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