National Fisherman

Last fall the Asbury Park Press reported on the first archeological expedition of the shipwreck Robert J. Walker. The wreck dates back to 1860, when the government survey vessel collided with the schooner Fanny and subsequently sank, killing 20 of the 73 people onboard.

2015 0824 coastlines shipwreckyoutubeUnderwater cameras explore the Eregli E. Called the most trawled shipwreck in the Black Sea, it sank 2,300 years ago. Youtube screenshot.The ship’s final underwater resting place remained a mystery for 100 years until a lobsterman caught his traps on the wreck. Since wreck sites are known for being productive, the lobsterman sold the coordinates, which were about 10 miles off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J., to a local head boat captain for $25. Today, the 132-foot iron steamer is listed on the National Record of Historic Places. That means it’s protected from salvagers and treasure hunters but open to diving and fishing.

In some places, however, fishing has damaged historic shipwrecks sites, leading to some researchers calling for making these sites into marine protected areas. A paper recently published in Marine Policy by Jason Krumholz and Michael Brennan makes the point that since shipwrecks create artificial reefs protecting them benefits both historical/societal good and the commercial fishing industry by contributing to higher fish populations. In fact, they found that shipwreck sites that were heavily damaged tended to have a lower abundance of fish.

The researchers studied shipwrecks in the Aegean, Black and Mediterranean seas, where a 100-year-old wreck would seem modern compared to the ancient vessels in these waters. The damage from trawl fishing can be devastating to these ancient wrecks. In an earlier interview with National Geographic, Brennan, an expedition leader with Robert Ballard’s group, described how trawling damaged the Eregli E, the most trawled shipwreck in the Black Sea. It is 2,300 years old.

“The site had been so disturbed, it uncovered materials from beneath the sediment, including human bones,” he told National Geographic. “ The bones had been preserved in the mud, but then had been ripped out by trawls and that’s why we actually could see them. When we returned this year the artifacts we had seen the year before were either further damaged or gone, including the bones that were completely missing, again due to trawling.”

The perils of wreck fishing have been well documented in National Fisherman. Those who dare to fish near wrecks can hope to be rewarded with an abundant catch, but they also risk losing their nets if they get too close and the lines snare on the gnarled wreckage below. Not to mention, shipwrecks are also usually found in waters that were dangerous enough to take them down in the first place. (However, some of the ancient sites in the study were well worn down and in channels that had shifted, which may have contributed to why they were so heavily fished.)

Krumholz and Brennan’s proposal makes sense. But good ideas don’t always turn into sensible management policies. It’s interesting to note that in their research they did not see any difference in fish abundance if a site had been fished or not. In other words, it was the destruction of the habitat created by the artificial reef/shipwreck that mattered. So I think it also makes sense that if anything develops from this research, the focus should be on greater protection of wrecks/artificial reefs that are in actual danger, and hopefully not a new MPA that simply eliminates all fishing in the area.

Beyond that, I confess I’m totally fascinated by underwater photos of shipwrecks and deep-sea creatures. If you are too and want to see more of the work of Ballard’s team, visit the expedition website:

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I’m researching a story on dead boats. Certain boats, think of the many fiberglass boats used in the recreational industry, only last so long, and then it’s expensive to get rid of them. They have to be taken apart by hand, and once that’s done, most of the materials are only fit for the landfill. In places like Florida and Michigan, abandoned boats litter backyards and canals. Sometimes a boat owner simply files off the serial numbers and leaves the boat to sink. You can’t give these boats away.

2015 0716 Coastlines DeadBoats“I hope they don’t tell me who it was because I’ll get my own justice,” the understandably angry Rhode Island fisherman Bob Cerenzia told a TV news crew after his boat, Elizabeth Victoria, was set on fire and sank Friday morning. WPRI screenshot.There’s more than one way to destroy a boat, which is apparently what somebody wanted to do in Narragansett, R.I., where three commercial fishing boats were set on fire before dawn at the Galilee State Pier last Friday.

According to the Coast Guard, responders arrived at the pier after receiving a report of a fishing vessel fire at 3 a.m. on Friday, June 10. One fire heavily damaged the vessels Gator and Blue Thunder while about a mile away on a different dock, a second fire sank the Elizabeth Victoria. The cleanup and investigation are ongoing, but investigators are already saying they believe the fires are suspicious.

Three destroyed fishing boats also means the destruction of three small businesses. That loss is made even worse by the loss of income that comes with it. Summer is peak fishing season. Each day these fishermen don’t have a boat working, they lose money.

There’s no walking away in this business, however. Less than a week after the fires, two of the fishermen are determined to get back the water. Ryan Labriole is raising money through a Go Fund Me page titled “Can’t burn me down” to restore his boat, the Gator. According to the page, Labriole previously worked as an offshore skipper, which meant he would be out fishing for a week at a time. He bought the dayboat to spend more time with his 6-year-old daughter, Annika. When the boat is restored he plans to rename it Anni’s Gator after her.

Squid and fluke fisherman Bob Cherenzia’s boat, the Elizabeth Victoria, was a complete loss. He is heartbroken but not discouraged, according to his daughter, who wrote about what the loss of his boat means on a separate Go Fund Me page. “We need to get my dad back into action,” she writes.

“Owning a boat is not like owning a car or a house — this really is his livelihood. He has had the Elizabeth Victoria for as long as I can remember — this is where he built his business and chances are, you've eaten some of his catch. Off season is a tough time for commercial fishermen, especially when they cannot work to their potential in the summer, and whether you share this story, help us find whoever did this or donate a $1, we need all of the help that we can get.”

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The most recent death was on June 22. George McBeth, 56, a contractor from Santa Rosa, was about 150 yards offshore when he became ill and couldn’t be revived. He was the fifth person to die this year diving for abalone off the Northern California coast.

But as one of the “strongest divers on the California coast,” according to his wife, he had more experience than others, who are usually vacationers with little experience with local ocean conditions.

2015 0709 abalone photo 1Though California banned commercial abalone diving in the 1990s, poaching continues to threaten the species. NOAA photo

Case in point: Three of the divers who died in April were part of a group that had rented a vacation home nearby. They drowned after becoming trapped in rough waves in a narrow channel surrounded by rock outcroppings. Nate Buck, a lifeguard for California’s Department of Parks and Recreation who patrols that area, told the San Francisco Chronicle that more experienced divers—usually not locals—tend to avoid the water when it’s rough.

“The rougher the conditions, the less skilled the divers tend to be,” he said.

California banned all commercial fishing of abalone in the 1990s, but recreational diving for it is still allowed north of San Francisco from April to November, but with restrictions. Divers, who aren’t allowed oxygen tanks, hold their breath and weigh themselves down to reach the mollusks on the ocean floor.

The ban was protested by commercial divers, who predicted there would be no abalone industry. In a sense, they were wrong. While legal commercial catches have been banned, the black market is another matter. Poaching is a problem that comes to the surface on a regular basis by way of high-profiles busts (one case in 2013 netted 13 people alone). Most recently, in April, two San Francisco poachers were sentenced to three years of probation fined $20,000, and ordered to serve 240 hours of community service after being caught with 59 red abalones (the limit is three).

The year before, a commercial diver from Santa Barbara was found with four lives abalones onboard his boat with his legal sea urchin catch. He paid for it too, not only was he fined $15,000, but he also lost his commercial fishing license for life. 

It’s hard not to imagine a better way. Could rules for the recreational fishery be amended to allow a limited number of licenses with applicants showing some technical skill—or even an endorsement of new divers from older, more experienced locals? I realize that kind of change would limit the number of divers, but it’s hard to be fair when you’re dealing with a limited resource.  

And in some ways that limited number could be a good thing, with divers known to each other and (hopefully) invested in protecting a local resource. Perhaps, with such changes, a limited amount of commercial fishing could be allowed too?

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When I attended a couple sessions on aquaculture at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum this spring, there was a lot of excitement about the future of the industry in Maine.  It’s understandable. Thanks to its well-known lobster industry, Maine has made itself into a brand for sustainable (and delicious) seafood, it’s close to major markets like Boston and New York, and can boast clean waters: In other words, it’s a marketer’s dream come true.

It’s not just Maine, but on all coastlines that aquaculture is growing or at least touted as the next big thing. Thanks to new rules allowing aquaculture in federal waters, offshore mussel farms have been approved off Southern New England and California. Additionally, oyster aquaculture has helped maintain watermen on Chesapeake Bay; and there continue to be yearly predictions that finfish farming will start up in the Gulf of Mexico.

But aquaculture’s success does not just depend on reaching big-city markets, providing jobs and funding farms. It also has to be compatible with its surrounding environment. In places like Southeast Asia, for example, overcrowded shrimp farms have not just hurt the ecosystem, but also led to diseases like early mortality syndrome that have devastated the industry in some areas. Even in places where best practices are followed carefully, there are understandable risks in introducing a non-native species (though it’s important to note that some filter-feeders like mussels can actually be good for the water).

A recent initiative is trying to better understand that risk. Researchers in Canada have started a three-year experiment tracking escaped farmed salmon from open-water fish pens. The project records the behavior of escaped salmon from farms on the south coast of Newfoundland that have been tagged and released into the wild.

“What we do is simulate escapes,” explained Dounia Hamoutene, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in a video about the project (above). “We have a certain number of fish that we tag, and then we have deployed receivers in some strategic areas, and we basically detect whether they went through that area or not.”

Some of the questions the researchers are trying to answer through this work are where the salmon go, how fast they are going, whether they are reaching rivers, and if they are able to be recaptured.

The biggest concern is what effect such escapees will have on native salmon if they interbreed: Will such interbreeding alter the genetic makeup of the native species and hurt their chances of being successful in their native environment? According to the researchers, this information will help them better manage the industry.

Of course, I’m also wondering what happens if they find out that escapees threaten the survival of local salmon? What then? But at least this research acknowledges that aquaculture can have an effect on its environment and tries to find out what that might be.

Caption: Canadian researchers are tracking what happens when salmon escape from open-water pens. Youtube screenshot.


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When U.S. fishing stocks are deemed fished beyond sustainable levels, it means a cut in fishing and a shrinking number of commercial fishing boats. In some places fleets face extinction, like in Maine, New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts, where the loss of an iconic species, cod, could mean the end of the inshore fleet.

2015 0611 Coastlines ChinaIn response to dwindling inshore stocks, China’s fishing fleets have expanded so they can reach fisheries around the world. YouTube screenshot.So it is interesting to see a vastly different approach to diminished fish stocks on the other side of the globe. In China, the loss of nearshore fisheries from overexploitation and pollution has led to the expansion of fishing fleets. The number of fishing boats is not just expanding but rapidly so to reach fishing stocks around the world.  

China’s demand for fish is huge. Not only is it the largest consumer of fish, it is also the world’s largest producer and exporter. In response to that demand, the country has invested in a global fleet of more than 2,000 boats that fish around the world. Though it reported an annual catch of 368,000 tons, a European Parliament study estimated the annual catch is around 4.6 million tons, mostly fished near Africa but also near Asia, Central and South America, and Antarctica.

The scariest thing to me is the inability to cooperate with other countries. In a book about the contested waters, “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia,” author Bill Hayton recounts problems with disputed territory there. In the South China Sea, China has been using its growing world dominance to assert its rights to resources on waters that have traditionally belonged to nations like Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

That of course has led to problems with fish stocks. According to Hayton, the Philippines provides a quarter of the canned tuna on American supermarket shelves. The recorded catch grew from 870,000 tons in 2001 to 1.9 million in 2008, but it has since dropped to 1.6 million in 2010 — not because of decreased demand but decreased fish.

For all the millions who depend on a healthy tuna supply, an agreement to jointly manage the tuna has been blocked by the region’s contested waters. The countries can’t even agree on an investigation to determine the health of the fishery.

“All countries around the sea depend upon cheap supplies of fish to feed their populations,” he writes. “In the absence of any agreement to safeguard the stocks, increasing short-term exploitation is putting all countries in the region at risk of a major food crisis. If China and its neighbors can’t agree on basic steps to avoid the risk of starvation, how likely are they to reach agreement on wider issues of sovereignty and territory?”

Our ability to manage our shared fishing stocks can provide lessons on how to manage (or not manage) other valuable resources, like water in California. In a best-case scenario, well-managed fisheries could be a role model to the rest of the world of how to do it right. In a worst-case scenario, the decrease of fish populations from bad management and an inability to agree can be a sign of troubles to come.

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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?

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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.

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“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?

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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.

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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.

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Page 5 of 20

Inside the Industry

It’s no secret that fraud is a problem in the seafood industry. Oceana repeatedly touts a mislabeling epidemic. While their method has been criticized, the perception of rampant fraud  has been established.

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The Center for Coastal Studies recently announced that Owen Nichols, Director of the Center for Coastal Studies’ Marine Fisheries Research Program, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the John Annala Fishery Leadership Award by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. 

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