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melissaNational Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.

 

Welcome to Washington County. Brushing against Canada, it's the easternmost spot in the United States, Maine's poorest county and for two months in spring, part of the state's booming elver fishery. Over the last two years, tiny baby eels have become Maine's second most valuable catch, creating a Wild West atmosphere on these usually quiet riverbanks.

To read my feature on elvers, check out page 22 of the September issue of National Fisherman. As a web extra, I've added some photos and information that didn't make it into the magazine from my trip Down East below. Enjoy!

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Small coastal fishing communities depend on small commercial boats to survive. The health of fish stocks may depend on them as well.

Earlier this month a high court in England ruled that unused quota can be redistributed from larger boats to small ones. Though the decision will likely be appealed, for small-boat operators it’s a victory toward fixing unfair quota allocations they say are putting them out of business.

The numbers certainly don't look fair for small boats in England. Though fishing boats that are under 10 meters (33 feet) make up 77 percent of the fleet and account for two-thirds of fishing-related employment, they only get 4 percent of fishing quota. More than 95 percent of quota is allocated to the larger boats — often large trawlers owned by foreign conglomerates — which are granted individual quota while smaller boats share from a national pool.

Though there are many differences in our countries' quota programs, the U.K. ruling could be meaningful to U.S. fleets as a sign of a larger trend recognizing the importance of small boats.

The benefits of keeping them in the water were pointed out in an interview following the ruling. Small-boat advocate Jerry Percy from the New Under Ten Fishermen's Association was asked whether, in terms of economies of scale, it made more sense to have a small fleet of large boats catching the fish instead of a large fleet of small ones?

Percy was adamant: smaller boats are more sustainable on every level.

"Small scale vessels have a much lower environmental impact, not just in terms of impact to the seabed but in terms of carbon emissions and so forth," he said. "At the same time they have a very high social and economic benefit and impact to coastal communities. They employ local people, they utilize local services and of course they land top quality day-caught fish to the local consumer."

thynes P1020428I believe both big and small boats play important parts within our diverse U.S. industry. But policy often makes it harder for small boats to compete, especially when quota shrinks. Small boats aren't able to move offshore to target something else, and they can be excessively burdened by the expense of 100-percent observer requirements.

We've seen some movements in the United States for protecting small boats like Maine’s permit bank program for groundfish. The Nature Conservancy recently made an agreement with the N.H. Fisheries Sector to buy groundfish quota from a retiring fisherman and lease it to fishermen who agreed to use it for research. And in Alaska, there are ongoing efforts to develop technology and rules that would allow small boats to carry cameras instead of costly observers.

To me, that seems better than having fishermen with smaller boats sell their quota when they can no longer make ends meet. It's a loss for everyone when a small-boat guy drops out: Often he takes with him generations of local fishing knowledge as well his port’s future as a fishing community.

Photo is a crew shot of the 32-foot salmon driftnetter Arctic Dawn submitted by Dave & Tanya Thynes. Ed Tagaban is owner/operator and homeport is Petersburg, Alaska.

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I remember seeing green crabs on the beach when I was a kid. They were tiny and tended to scamper under rocks when I reached into tidepools to scoop up a starfish or a snail, which I always wanted to catch out before they shrank into their shells.

Green crabs were faster, and I couldn't always catch them. Sometimes I'd shift the rock to see where a crab had gone and it would disappear into the the whirls of sand. Someone told me they were an invasive species, which sounded exotic (I grew up in Maine), but I didn't think much of it. Apparently, no one else thought much of green crabs either.*

Now they've become a threat to mussels and clams, Maine's third largest fishery, and there are concerns that lobster will be next. Green crabs came from Europe reportedly riding over in the ballast water on ships. Though they've been here for more than 100 years, a couple of warm winters combined with warming water temperatures have caused populations to explode in Maine. Green crabs may be small, but as I saw, they can burrow down into the sand and eat tiny clam spat.

The state is taking action to limit green crabs, which you can read about here. Although there's no commercial fishery for the crabs, among the efforts is a private-sector initiative to grind them up into a protein that can be used for aquaculture feed. But the priority is to get rid of them. (Such initiatives are also of interest to those on the West Coast where they're a growing threat to shellfish populations there as well.)

How much it will take remains to be seen, but our track record for fighting invasive fish species is not good. Yesterday, a federal plan with a $50 million price tag was released in the latest fight against Asian carp's reaching the Great Lakes. The plan includes strengthening barriers as well as some alternative methods that include the use of water guns and hormonal fish love potions.

It's a lot of money, but that's just a fraction of what is being spent in the Asian carp battle. Including the $50 million, in four years the Obama administration will have spent $200 million. Plus there's no plan to get rid of these harmful invaders, which continue to spread in the Mississippi. They're just trying to keep them out of the Great Lakes, and no one's sure if it will be successful.

Will Maine's action be enough and in time to stem the green crab tide? I hope so. But it seems like too much of management is waiting until a problem becomes so great that it is often too late to solve.

*A historical note: Green crabs have gotten some attention through the years during other spikes in their populations. I found a 1959 article from National Fisherman's archives that reported a jump in green crab populations that were threatening Maine's soft-shell clams. Warming water temperatures were blamed for the increase then too.

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Last month I wrote that nobody should die over lobster after three Cape Breton lobstermen were charged with killing a man they allegedly caught stealing from their traps. (To update that story, Phillip Boudreau's body has still not been found.) Many people disagreed with me, at least on Facebook, where comments were all along the lines that "he got what was coming to him."

lobster potIt must have been immensely frustrating for the crew of the Twin Maggies, especially since Canadian news outlets report that Boudreau had been (again, allegedly) stealing from them for years. I got more insight about what they may have been up against from "J.R.," who commented on the blog about his experience with a poacher while commercial crabbing. Even though the man was caught and charged, he was not punished beyond a fine and the loss of his recreational license for a year.

"If we wanted to pursue getting any compensation for our loss we had to hire a lawyer and sue in civil court. Even the officer handling the case was disgusted [with the] slap on the wrist he got. This would have taken more money and time off the water. So basically the man got a slap on the wrist for taking food off our table," he wrote.

Another poaching story came out yesterday from Australia. Commercial crab fisherman Greg Sichter of Sarina Beach was fed up with people stealing from and actually taking his pots. He had lost $4,000 in equipment since Christmas when he decided to take action. The problem is apparently an epidemic there with people thinking of pots as "fair game" according to one official.

So Sichter bought bright pink and gray floats so that nobody could claim they mistakenly thought his pots belonged to them, and he bought two portable cameras, which he hid in the mangroves. What he found shocked him: He knew some of the people who were stealing from him.

"It really hurts me to think that people who know us, and family people, would do this to us," said Sichter, who turned the images over to police. The violators face up to $55,000 in fines.

I understand the fishermen in Cape Breton didn't have mango trees to tie cameras to, but they did allegedly catch Boudreau in the act. Could they have filmed him on their camera phones? Maybe the product companies need to come up with an underwater camera that can be camouflaged in gear? But even that wouldn't do any good if the gear itself is stolen.

And after reading what happened to J.R., it made me wonder what options, if any, fishermen have for dealing with people who steal from their traps. For all I know, since few details have come out about the case, the Cape Breton fishermen could have tried many tactics before the violent confrontation with Boudreau.

But again, I don't think killing should be a solution. Not only is someone dead, but those fishermen are sitting in jail. How can they support their families now?

Photo by Melissa Wood

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About a month ago a friend of my neighbor's stopped by (we share a backyard) and somehow we started talking about the Appalachian Trail. Chris had hiked it a couple years ago, and said it was a life changing experience.

The more he talked, the more I believed it. For a while after that conversation, I was tempted to drop everything and do it too. It was early summer in Maine. It was the right time of year to start on Mt. Katahdin and make it down to the Georgia woods in five or six months before winter really set in.

For now, I'm still here. The dream of escaping into the wilderness is alive but dormant — put aside by the distractions of everyday life. It was sparked again today, however, after I watched the video, "I am a Commercial Fisherman." It's part of the Indie Alaska series produced by Alaska Public Media with PBS Digital Studios.

Originally from suburban Connecticut, Toby Sullivan setnets for salmon with his partner, Katie Oliver, from Uganik Bay on Kodiak. The clichés in the story of his journey west — riding boxcars with a copy of Jack Kerouac's On The Road — make it no less inspiring.

"I remember thinking this is the life. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," says Sullivan.

He's been fishing from Uganick for 31 summers, and in the video you not only see the stunning scenery but also feel the tranquility of this wild place. Watching Sullivan and Oliver poking around the bay on their skiff in the middle of alll that, it's hard not to want to join them.

 

Dropping everything isn't always feasible, but it can be possible. I'm still thinking about hiking the AT; for now it's a maybe. Life changing experiences don't happen every day — unless you fish in Alaska.

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BurnsbrothersThirty years ago, Mike and Pat Burns' definition of a good season was having enough money the next spring to buy the fuel they needed to make it back up to Cordova. Times have changed.

Roger Fitzgerald caught up with the brothers both then and now — in a 1983 article for Alaska Fisherman's Journal and in his August column for National Fisherman ("Blue is the new green," p. 8) coming out this week.

When we first meet the Burns brothers — East Coast natives from  Fayetteville, N.Y. — they're relatively new to fishing. After a couple successful seasons crewing on salmon seiners they decide to buy a former Chesapeake Bay buyboat they named the Chesapeake. That's Mike and Pat at the bow, right.

The Chesapeake was in rough shape when they first saw it near Astoria, Ore., "tied up in a river slough which looked like a Louisiana swamp. You had to wade to get to her." Even worse, after they fixed her up for halibut, prices collapsed, and they spent much of their time tendering for North Pacific in Prince William Sound. (For the whole story, read "Two brothers and a boat from Chesapeake Bay," which was reprinted in the July 2012 Pilot House Guide.)

Now here's the sequel. Thirty years and many boats later, the brothers, founders of Blue North Fisheries, are building the Blue North, a 191-foot longliner for the Bering Sea cod fishery, which promises to be the first of its kind in U.S. waters.

Designed by the Norwegian firm Skipsteknisk and being built by Dakota Creek Industries in Anacortes, Wash., Blue North is set to be launched in late 2014. Among its many state-of-the-art features, the boat makes fuel-saving and sustainability top priorities. Her diesel electric engine is supposed to reduce fuel costs and emissions by 30 percent, and her hull will be designed to lessen resistance for even greater fuel economy.

There are many more "wow factors" about this boat that you can read about in our August issue. But Fitzgerald also has to ask, with cod prices "through the floor," why they're spending $35 million on this vessel now?

It turns out (or at least it seems) that not everything has changed. Though written 30 years apart, I thought this quote from the 1983 story sums up their attitude both then and now:

“Success is not going backwards,” said Pat. “If we were in it strictly for the money, we’d have been out of it a long time ago.”

Photo courtesy of Mike and Pat Burns.

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I met Allyson Jordan about a year and a half ago. In January 2012, she allowed me to go out for a day of shrimping on one of her family's two groundfish draggers, the 65-foot Jamie & Ashley out of Portland, Maine. That's when I first learned about her business, Eat Local Fish, for which she sells her boats' catch directly to consumers.

EatLocalFishWhen I first heard about what she does, It seemed almost unbelievable. How could anyone have enough time to manage the fishing side of the business as well as the promotion and customer care required for direct sales? But when I met Allyson it made sense. She doesn't stand still for long. She told me she lies awake at night thinking of ideas to keep her family's two boats, which also includes the Theresa & Allyson, viable. She's also been an advocate for the industry since taking over the business 14 years ago, after her father, longtime fisherman David Jordan, died at only 57 years old.

And she keeps moving. I was reminded of Allyson's hard work yesterday when I saw her smiling face on the opening page of our local paper's food section. The paper's food writer had heard about Jordan's business after meeting a couple from Boston. They had bought her fish on a visit to Maine after hearing Allyson on a local radio program (talk about word of mouth). The couple told the writer that their Atlantic pollock and Acadian redfish was the freshest fish they'd ever tasted.

This is how Allyson makes it work: She has a newsletter announcing when her boats are landing and what's on board to buy. She sells fish year-round and this summer will be concentrating on flounder (American plaice or dab). She'll also be selling redfish, hake and pollock, which are being promoted to consAllysonumers through the Gulf of Maine Research Institute's "Out of the Blue" promotion of underutilized species.

Though species like pollock and hake aren't as familiar to Maine consumers as classics like haddock, Allyson helps the home cooks feel less intimidated by includng recipes in her newsletters and interacting with customers on her company's Facebook page.

She makes her own deliveries too. After customers let her know what they'd like to buy, she'll either arrange for a pickup at Portland's Holyoke Wharf (where her boats land) or set up a shipment or delivery. In some cases she'll bring fish, which people can buy whole or in fillets, to workplaces or homes. People don't need to be home to get their orders but just leave a cooler at the door with enough ice so that fish is fresh when they do get home.

I don't need need to remind anyone how bad this year's quota cuts have been for New England's groundfish industry. There's not enough to go around. For instance, I talked to New Hampshire's sector manager last week who told me the number of active boats dropped from 22 to just 14 over the past year. The boats still going out are leasing from the boats who are sitting out. When I saw Allyson's photo and read how she was doing I was reminded that's there's still a lot of fight left in this community.

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This is not the food poisoning story you'd expect from the word "buffet" in the headline. I'm referring to all-you-can-eat phytoplankton buffets, also known as phytoplankton blooms, which cause massive oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA predicts this summer's will be the biggest ever.

Why is this year's dead zone predicted to be the biggest ever? According to NOAA, flooding along the Mississippi will increase the amount of pollution that makes its way down to the gulf. The short video below does a pretty good job explaining how dead zones are created, though I thought it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, considering the scary levels of pollution we're talking about here. But it's worth watching for the explanations, colorful visuals, and numbers that you need to press pause for a moment to take in when you hear them.



The biggest number of them all is 1.7 million tons: that's the amount of phosphoros and nitrogen — mostly from agricultural runoff — the Mississippi dumps into the Gulf of Mexico each year. That creates food for phytoplankton. They gobble it and turn into big masses of phytoplankton blooms. As the video explains, those blooms become an all-you-can-eat buffet, attracting a high concentration of predators that create a high concentration of waste.

The dead zone arrives after bacteria that eats up the waste uses up oxygen in the water. The biggest ever reported was 8,481 square miles in 2002. NOAA predicts this year's will be between 7,286 and 8,561 square miles.
dead zone 1000The frightening part to me is ALL of it, of course. But I'll try to narrow it down to my biggest concerns. First of all, the video explains the zones get stirred up by winds from summer to fall and conditions return to normal. Nice solution. Those in the fishing industry have already learned that the ocean is not some bottomless sink. Not all problems go away.

We can see the huge dead zones when they happen, which are bad enough, but what else is the pollution doing out there? When stocks go down or sea turtles die, many fingers point to the fishing industry, which must carefully monitor and adjust its catch and byctach. But nobody seems accountable for the dead zone. Why isn't anything being done to stop or at least minimize it?

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Often news from Canada doesn't make it across the border. If you haven't heard, three lobstermen from Cape Breton have been charged with the murder of a man suspected of stealing lobsters from their traps.

Though his body has not yet been recovered, divers continue to search for Phillip Boudreau whose overturned motorboat was found near the harbor entrance of Petit-de-Grat on June 1. The Canadian Broadcasting Co. reports the hull contained bullet holes and evidence that it had been rammed by a larger boat.  

A source told the CBC that investigators believe the Twin Maggies crew caught Boudreau cutting their lobster traps the day he disappeared. Police have seized the Twin Maggies and charged crew members James Joseph Landry, Dwayne Matthew Samson and Craig Landry with second-degree murder.

lobstertrap2The story's posting on Canadian Atlantic Lobster's Facebook page has mostly drawn comments about the senselessness of a man losing his life over lobsters. A couple commenters, however, are sympathetic to the lobstermen charged with Boudreau's death, while others blame low prices and government regulations for creating desperation among lobstermen.

Nobody should die over lobster. I agree with Lindsay M Labour, who commented that if the crew had spotted him poaching lobster, they should have taken video and given it to the authorities.

Lobster wars aren't new, but video cameras are everywhere now. Her comment reminded me of a story I read a couple of months ago about the prevalence of dashboard cameras in cars in Russia. Many motorists have them because the video is the only protection they have against widespread lawlessness on the road and police officers who accept bribes to lie in court.

Could a camera have made a difference in this case? I don't know. Sadly, the only thing we know for sure at this point is that a man is missing and probably dead, and the lives of all involved will never be the same.

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Last week I met the president of Iceland. Well, we weren't formally introduced, but I took his photo as he shook hands with folks at a reception held at the new Eimskip operation in Portland, Maine (that's him in the center of the photo below).

PresidentThe Icelandic shipping company's choice as Portland for its North American operations center is supposed to be a good thing for our little port. As I walked around the terminal, I tried to find people with seafood companies on their name tags. I wanted to find out what they thought it meant for the industry here.

For Sean Bergen of Sustainable Seafood Sales, located just down the street, the answer was positive. He's an importer, and Eimskip's containers are expected to be delivering fish from Norway as part of their international cargo.

On the outgoing side, I talked to Derek Hardy of Island Seafoods (pictured), from Deer Isle, about three hours north. He had attended Maine International Trade Day, held earlier that same day where President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was keynote speaker. Derek's in the lobster business, and Eimskip's Portland home may help him if he sells those lobsters to Asia. He had even more "good news" to relay: President Grímsson mentioned during his speech that global warming is actually a good thing for northern ports like ours. Melting ice could cut down shipping times by as much as 40 percent during the warmer months.

In the talk about seafood I didn't hear groundfish mentioned at the Eimskip terminal — even though it's nearby docks where about 350 boats landed groundfish 15 years ago. Like many New England ports, Portland's industry has shrunk in terms of the number of groundfish boats, reeling from the double whammy of catch shares and the drop in quota of important species like cod.

National Fisherman covers all U.S. coasts, but when events happen close to home, we like to escape our cubicles and go. Last month my colleague Linc Bedrosian covered a much different seafood-related event in our backyard. He traveled two hours south to go to a groundfish rally in Boston. His story is in our July issue on page 14.

These fishermen are fighting for their livelihoods, and I think they're doing a good job. New England's groundfish industry has gained some powerful political supporters, and it may eventually benefit from the rejigging of Magnuson where talk of flexibility seems to be well-received. It's a fight on several fronts: In Maine, the legislature is trying to throw tProtestershe industry a lifeline with a couple recent funding proposals.

Certainly they're having more success than protesters I encountered at Eimskip. Across the street, a scattering of animal rights activists had gathered with blow-up Shamus to protest Iceland's whaling commercial program, which has just resumed after a two-year hiatus.

When I walked out of the gated terminal, some of these protesters now sprawled on the grass as temperatures reached 90 on the last day of May. An occasional passing car beeped in support. Though President Grímsson may not have given their signs a glance, at least they're raising awareness, which is all you can do sometimes.

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Page 5 of 9

National Fisherman Live

National Fisherman Live: 4/22/14

  • OSU study targets commercial fishing injuries
  • Delaware's native mud crab making recovery
  • Alaska salmon catch projected to drop 47 percent
  • West Coast groundfish fishery bill passes
  • Maine's scallop season strongest in years

Brian Rothschild of the Center for Sustainable Fisheries on revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Inside the Industry

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is currently soliciting applicants for open advisory panel seats as well as applications from scientists interested in serving on its Scientific and Statistical Committee.

Read more...

The North Carolina Fisheries Association (NCFA), a nonprofit trade association representing commercial fishermen, seafood dealers and processors, recently announced a new leadership team. Incorporated in 1952, its administrative office is in Bayboro, N.C.

Read more...

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