National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
Thursday, 12 September 2013
Whenever I work on a story I ask people how they got involved in commercial fishing. It never seems like a choice. They either grew up in a fishing family or somehow were drawn to the water, fell in love with fishing and never looked back. It's in the blood, I often hear.
I should also ask why. Why choose a career path that's low-paying (median salary is around $25,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and risky? When you cover commercial fishing, reports of sinkings, men-overboard and accidents at sea are regular stories. Despite efforts to increase safety, the number of commercial-fishing deaths have not significantly decreased from 2000-2010, which saw an annual average of 46 deaths per year, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
That's 10 times the average of four per 100,000 workers among all U.S. workers during that same time period.
One piece of good news is that the program working to increase safety in commercial fishing has had its funding preserved again. For the last two years, the NIOSH fishing safety program faced elimination in the president's budget, but continued to be funded under a spending resolution from Congress. It's due to be cut again in the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, but it's also again being funded in a budget from Congress.
The program is important to maintain because its researchers focus on eliminating dangers in specific fisheries instead of trying to force a one-size-fits-all solution across all working in commercial fishing.
There are some things that are always going to be risky: falling in love, having children and commercial fishing. But taking risks makes us feel alive. Though chasing wild animals on an unpredictable ocean is never going to be safe, it's good to see support for a program trying to help those who go out to sea for a living come home again.
Thursday, 05 September 2013
In our October issue's Dock Talk column, veteran Alaska fisherman Douglas Herman looks back at 30 years of crewing with both good and bad skippers. "The best are blessed with crew retention," he says. "The worst go through crew like the Kardashians go through boyfriends."
Tales of the worst are the most fun to read about though. That's especially true if you're not the one who lived through the constant insults and volatile behavior. Herman recounts some of the skippers he admires as well as ones he doesn't — like "the only skipper I would have hesitated tossing a line, if he fell overboard" — on page 13.
Some skippers will tell you, however, that a little yelling is a necessary part of the job. For another perspective, I pulled up the 1998 article, "Loud & Proud" from National Fisherman's archives. The self-professed screamers point out that it can at times be the most effective way of managing a crew.
"All in all, I'm pretty hard on my crew, because I have no pity for them, and I tell them that up front," said Bristol Bay highlander Emil Christensen. "They will understand when the paycheck comes. And if they still have a problem after that, maybe they're not cut out for fishing anyway."
But there's also a line between a skilled highliner yelling at his crew and a crazy captain. One crew member tells about being thrown into the ocean in his sleeping bag for not making coffee early enough. The same crewman says he was more "duck-hand" than deckhand because he spent most of his time on deck ducking flying objects thrown by the skipper, including weights, a belt and even a television set.
Bad behavior can also be dangerous. This summer Michael Clemens was arrested for assault and operating under the influence in Kodiak after three crew members decided to abandon ship. He allegedly tried to push two of them off the boat when they confronted him about being too drunk to run the skiff. They reported that he had also been dropping equipment overboard and almost fell in himself.
What do you think? Is screaming at your crew a justifiable part of running a fishing boat or the sign of a bad skipper? Maybe it all depends on who's screaming.Add a comment
Friday, 23 August 2013
Last week the environmental group Watershed Watch Salmon Society posted a video of seiner fishermen mistreating salmon bycatch in the pink fishery off British Columbia's north coast. The video appears to show the fishermen leaving bycatch, including endangered chums and sockeyes, on deck, unsorted for as long as six minutes. As the narrator explains, they're most likely already dead by the time they're flung or kicked back into the water.
"DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] is claiming that 100 percent of these discarded fish are being returned to the ocean in good condition but this video provides clear evidence that those discarded fish are being thrown back dead or nearly dead."
The video got a reaction from DFO, but not the one Watershed wanted. The Canadian government is now investigating the fishermen caught on tape, and the environmentalists say that effort misses the point: They claim the video depicts an industrywide problem.
"Having a few fishermen charged, and their lives disrupted because they happened to be the first ones in line when we showed up with our camera is not going to fix the broken management system that let this fishery get so far out of control,” said Aaron Hill, an ecologist with Watershed Watch in a press release. “All three of the boats we filmed mishandled fish, and now DFO and the Jim Pattison Group are trying to paint them as ‘just a few bad actors’? It’s outrageous."
Are these fishermen scapegoats or a couple of bad apples? Here's my reaction. How do you prove it's an industrywide problem if you're only showing three boats? For all we know, the group could have taken hundreds of hours of video and ONLY found a couple examples. It's unfortunate if those fishermen in the video are unfairly punished as scapegoats for a larger problem, but the group should have done a more thorough investigation if it wanted its viewers to make that conclusion.
Watch the video to see for yourself, but be careful about jumping to conclusions. A more thorough investigation with more information — including interviews with fishermen — is needed before we can do that.
Thursday, 22 August 2013
As a writer, if I make a mistake it's in print and everyone knows about it. Fortunately, our talented editors make sure that doesn't usually happen, but I could still sympathize with skippers of grounded boats that made headlines this week. Stranded on land, their vessels were the subject of spectacle, curiosity — and video.
The fortunate part is there were no injuries reported. Plus it's good to talk about our mistakes. If you've ever been the skipper of a grounded boat and would like to share your side of the story, please leave a comment below.
First up, I can imagine it was a bad day turned worse for a couple of shrimp trawlers in South Carolina's Jarvis Creek. According to WTOC, the Lady Essie was sent out to tow the Diane, but then it ran aground and both boats were stuck.
Then it got worse. After the Lady Essie tipped on its side it began leaking hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into the creek. According to the news report, the Coast Guard is working with a private contractor to clean it up. As of this writing they are still stuck, perched in the creek and an invitation for news crews' continuous coverage. You can watch the action here.
Things went a little more smoothly for the skipper of the 56-foot Jessica Heather, but he got a lot more attention. According to news reports, the boat was on autopilot when it hit the beach overlooked by hotels and casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. It became an instant tourist attraction with interviewed bystanders saying they thought it was "cool." Not everyone was pleased, however, with one woman saying, "I think it shouldn't be parked there."
The Jessica Heather remained "parked" on the beach for 18 hours before it was towed back into the ocean. According to the latest report from Press of Atlantic City, the Coast Guard is still investigating exactly how it ran aground. The initial report said the captain was not at the helm and that one of the ship's two deckhands may have fallen asleep while driving.
In Alaska at least, there's less of a crowd. Unfortunately the skipper of the 65-foot Fate Hunter from Astoria, Ore., has bigger problems to worry about. The tender ran aground last week four miles west of Valdez, Alaska, and a salvage operation is currently under way to recover fuel — including 1,500 gallons of diesel, 300 gallons of hydraulic oil and 100 gallons of lube oil — along with 150,000 pounds of fish onboard. On the bright side, none of the crew were reported injured and the boat does not appear to have any major structural damage.
According to the Coast Guard the cause is still under investigation.
USCG photoAdd a comment
Tuesday, 20 August 2013
"Invented" fish are nothing new. In the early 1960s Washington State fishery managers thought if they could get chum and pink salmon (humpies) to breed they'd come up with a new type of Pacific salmon that would combine the best qualities of both.
"A 'chumpie' is a cross between a humpie (pink) and a chum, the latter — though delicious in flavor — is less desirable of the five species because of its color which does not stir one's appetite like the red, medium-red and pink salmon."
Back then as now, the rule in the commercial salmon market is the redder the fish, the higher the price. Because pinks only spawn on odd years the biologists hoped that combining the two would create a new salmon with pink flesh that runs every year.
By October 1963, National Fisherman reported that developments were promising. Two years earlier, 155,000 chum males and pink females had been released from Hoodsport Hatchery on Hood Canal. Returns of around 5 to 6 percent were very good. It looked like the new hybrid species were among them:
"A number, identified as the new hybrid, have been taken on lures [unlike chums, which rarely take a lure] and are reported to be stronger and put up a better fight than the humpie (pink). They also run slightly larger, and the flesh has a darker color than the pink."
Despite those promising beginnings chumpies obviously never fulfilled their goal of becoming a new type of commercial species. It's likely the hybrid — like other hybrids — was sterile.
One of my favorite parts of working for National Fisherman is the historic perspective provided by back issues of the magazine, which go back more than 75 years. As the controversy about genetically modified salmon shows, we're still trying to tamper with nature to create something more convenient for us.
Though I've met a few chumps but never a chumpie, it is apparently possible. A quick Google search reveals a couple mentions of the hybrids in angler forums. I'm curious, if this is true, have any of our salmon fishermen readers caught one? What did you sell it as?
*A quick note about the illustration: At least for now, the fish pictured here does not exist in nature or in the lab. It is a mishmash of a wolffish and chinook put together as an imaginative depiction of a hybrid by Laura Dobson using illustrations from the Seafood Handbook published by SeaFood Business magazine.
Thursday, 15 August 2013
Lobsters are so delicious they even eat each other. Noah Oppenheim, a marine biologist from the University of Maine, says that when scientists placed underwater cameras off the coast of Maine in 1992 they found that fish were the primary predators. Now there’s more lobster-on-lobster predation.
It’s easy to imagine the main reason lobsters are eating more of each other: There’s a lot more of them. In 1992, Maine lobstermen landed about 27 million pounds of lobster. They landed almost 127 million pounds in 2012.
Oppenheim talks about lobster in the “Attack of the Cannibal Lobsters” video posted by Climate Desk. Beyond the video’s initial theatrics is a brief look at some of the challenges facing the Maine lobster industry, whose lobstermen are not enjoying high prices along with their high catches.
Some people believe lobster needs an image makeover. I recently talked to John Hathaway of Shucks Maine Lobster about this problem. In Maine, lobster processing is beginning to catch up to its high landings. He hopes to grow its potential in the raw meat category by opening a new processing plant on Portland, Maine’s waterfront next year.
“We believe that people come to Maine to find the ‘Maine lobster experience’ — to have that Maine lobster bake on the beach or at someone’s house in the summertime,” says Hathaway. “The problem is, those people go home and don’t enjoy Maine lobster until they come back for next summer’s visit.”
As he points out, consumer demands have changed. People no longer buy live chickens and pluck the feathers, nor do they buy fish with the head-on and de-bone them.
Though the live lobster market is important, perhaps it’s time for lobster to change too: As he puts it, “At Shucks, we are selling food, not a live animal.”Add a comment
Thursday, 08 August 2013
The announcement of devastating quota cuts and subsequent disaster declaration for New England’s iconic groundfish fishery made a big splash in the media. But while the rest of the news cycle moved on to other stories, journalist Farhod Family believed there was still much more to tell.
“These guys can’t come up with a proper business plan because of all these cuts they’re facing,” he says. “Wow, they've been doing this for 400 years out of ports of New England and now it could all be finished.”
The Brooklyn-based filmmaker is working on a (still untitled) documentary telling the story of New England’s disaster through the people experiencing it.
The stories are heartbreaking, like that of Scituate fisherman Frank Mirarchi. Family says Mirachi — who in the clip below is shown on his boat and at a council meeting, saying, “This basically is perhaps the end of an era” — is a tireless advocate for the industry. But it's not enough.
“The story about Frank is he bought this boat eight years ago thinking he would fish until his retirement and pass on to his son,” says Family. But Mirachi’s son has moved away from fishing.
Family’s goal is to show how the disaster is affecting different Massachusetts towns. In New Bedford scallops have helped the industry thrive, but they are also threatened by cuts to yellowtail, an important bycatch in the scallop fleet. On the trailer, the city’s scallop boss Carlos Rafael passionately tells a council meeting what that could mean for this port:
“Some of the people in this room, they are on their last leg. You pull the plug here, they’re going to fall,” he says.
And in Scituate and Gloucester fishermen are tying up their boats because they don’t have scallops to fall back on.
“Scituate is a very small town with a small fishing fleet,” says Family. “They’re all about to be done because of these cuts.”
Though Family’s work is focused on the people in the industry, and not politics, he has taken away some things from the experience of going out on fishing boats (including a 10-day trip on Rafael’s Athena), attending council meetings and touring processing plants. He found it frustrating to observe the lack of communication between NOAA and fishermen, whom he feels have a right to question fluctuating survey data.
“One universal thought is in a few years the cod could come back, and at that point so many people will have sold their boats,” he says. “If they sell their boats, they sell their boats, that may be the end of it, who knows?”
Family, who works as a freelance journalist, is paying for the film himself, which he conservatively estimates will be released in spring 2014. He has applied for grants and may open a Kickstarter account to help with funding. Check NationalFisherman.com for updates.
Wednesday, 31 July 2013
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!
Monday, 29 July 2013
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."
I 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.Add a comment
Thursday, 25 July 2013
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.Add a comment
Page 6 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.