National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
Wednesday, 17 July 2013
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."
It 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 WoodAdd a comment
Thursday, 11 July 2013
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.Add a comment
Monday, 01 July 2013
Thirty 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.Add a comment
Thursday, 27 June 2013
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.
When 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 consumers 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.Add a comment
Thursday, 20 June 2013
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.
The 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?Add a comment
Wednesday, 12 June 2013
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.
The 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.
Thursday, 06 June 2013
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).
The 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 the 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.Add a comment
Thursday, 30 May 2013
In 1868 a “wonderful fish” was brought up near Eastport, Maine. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before.
“This animal, part beast and part fish, is over 30 feet in length, and girths 21 feet. It has one enormous dorsal fin, two side belly fins and a broad, shark-like tail. About one-third of its length from its tail, in connection with small fins, it has two huge legs, terminating in web feet.”
I had been looking through the old issues of National Fisherman to find stories for the magazine’s “Back When” when I was stopped by a drawing of this monster fish sprawled on its belly with its enormous mouth gaping and looking gigantic next to the Victorian-era gentleman surveying it. The creature’s two back legs curled under like it was getting ready to pounce from feet that were drawn in the style of a mythical creature with sharp, pointed claws.
The description and picture were part of a 1963 article debating whether sea monsters exist. The topic came up after a skipper and crew on a New Bedford dragger reported seeing a giant sea monster having a huge body and a small alligator-like head. The writer pointed to the 1868 account from Harper’s Weekly as evidence that they may.
Every time I look at old issues of National Fisherman I’m reminded how everything old is new again, with issues like disputes over fishing rights coming up again and again. Even sea monsters are making news today too, but this time we’re creating them.
According to an article in Scientist Magazine, Canadian researchers found that genetically modified (GM) salmon are able to breed with wild brown trout. Though GM salmon are often called “Frankenfish,” their hybrid offspring may end up being the true monsters. In the experiment, they outgrew their GM salmon and wild trout parents as well as wild-type hybrids and wild salmon in tanks. They also beat wild salmon and GM salmon in a simulated stream environment, stunting the growth of the other fish — most likely because they couldn’t compete for limited food against the hybrid fish.
A representative for AquaBounty, creator of the AquAdvantage GM salmon, said this discovery should not have any environmental consequences because its fish — which is likely to become the first GM animal approved for human consumption in the United States — are sterile females raised in land-based tanks.
Does that reassure you? To be honest, I don’t know enough about precautions being taken to know whether they’re foolproof. But I do understand that we always think we know everything, and then we discover that we don't. It’s easy to laugh about supposed sea monsters, but when I read old issues of National Fisherman, I also see outdated attitudes about fishing, when the biggest worry was to scoop up as much fish as possible to out-compete foreign vessels.
That’s not a knock against fishermen. That’s history — and life — for everyone. We all make mistakes when we’re young then look back and know better. It happens all the time. On the East Coast, for example, salmon runs are just beginning to recover after the removal of dams that blocked their passage for decades. Will they as well as thriving West Coast populations be threatened by the approval of GM fish?
It seems like we’re taking a risk by unleashing a new “monster” on the world. Let’s just make sure we don’t make a mistake that can never be undone.Add a comment
Tuesday, 21 May 2013
When you write about commercial fishing, you write a lot about the downturns, the small fishermen squeezed out, the sinkings, the disappearance of working waterfronts and rising fuel bills (you get the picture). Sometimes, you just want to put some good news out there too, even if it means you have to dig a little to find it.
That's especially true for the Gulf of Mexico. When I visited Louisiana a couple weeks ago, a cold, wet spring had deflated blue crab production there. If that wasn’t bad enough for gulf fishermen, they’re also contending with oysters not being as productive as expected. But despite the bad news, I also heard optimistic predictions about oysters.
Chris Nelson, of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Ala., has survived a downturn before. His father started Bon Secour after returning from World War II. When he was in high school, Nelson remembers the company had 80 shrimp boats. Those were mostly sold out in the early 2000s; now they have two.
Nelson, whose great-grandfather was an oysterman, compared the species’ slow recovery to a cork pushed down into a bottle. The gulf, its seafood and fishermen, have taken some big hits over the last few years, from multiple hurricanes to the oil spill and the fresh water used to combat it that harmed oyster beds in its path:
“All those things individually would have been a problem, having them — boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom — it just pushed the resource down to the point where it’s taking longer to recover,” he said.
The good news? A slow recovery is better than no recovery, and the area is still prime for oyster production: “Louisiana is tremendously productive in its ability to grow oysters,” he said.
Let's hope "normal conditions" return soon. Instead of fresh water, too much salt water has been part of the problem this year, Steve Otwell, a seafood safety specialist at the University of Florida, told me. He’s a fascinating person to talk to about oysters (I interviewed him for a separate story I wrote for SeaFood Business) because he knows so much about them. He predicted oysters would return to normal production if the drought doesn’t continue.
One issue that was brought up several times was better marketing of oysters that come out of the gulf so that they are no longer a commodity, but a premium product that people pay more for — and fishermen make more money. The example you usually hear during these discussions is Alaska’s success making Copper River salmon a brand name.
Otwell says he has advocated for more oyster appellations for years. Appellations use geographic names to build distinction among products (like how wine is named after the regions the grapes are grown in). “It just builds a lot of romance back into the product,” he said.
He obviously felt strongly about making more Gulf oysters into household names. It makes sense as people love them even without the marketing effort.
“It’s such a powerful preference,” he said. “People demand that they want it raw, wow! How many products do we demand raw? Not many protein products. How many people want raw chicken? I don’t know anybody — that’s a pretty powerful preference.”
Above photo taken by Melissa Wood at Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La.Add a comment
Thursday, 16 May 2013
With the season about to end on May 31, I drove five hours north to Eastport, Maine, this week to learn more about the fishery for elvers, which have been making headlines since last year when prices reached more than $2,000 a pound.
At first I imagined life must be pretty good for elver fishermen these days. Even though their price is down from last year, elvers, or baby eels, are still fetching about $1,700 a pound.
Their price is so high because the 2011 Japanese tsunami wiped out Asian eel farms that need to be replenished with baby eels. Maine and South Carolina are also the only states that allow the harvesting of elvers, and in Maine that demand brought in almost $38 million last year compared to $7.5 million in 2011 and half a million dollars in 2010.
This was unlike any other fishery I've ever written about. First of all, you don't get on a boat. Elvers are caught at night along riverbanks in either stationary fyke nets or with hand-held dipnets. Eels are catadramous, meaning they spend most of their lives in fresh water, but go out to sea to reproduce. The baby eels born at sea then make their ways to and up the rivers and streams along the coast.
It may not be a high-seas adventure, but there's certainly excitement along the riverbank. I heard stories of guns being brandished or shot into the air (everyone's packing, I was told), nets being cut and tampered with, and bad blood between long-time fishermen and newcomers hoping to cash in on the elver gold rush.
If anyone's getting rich, it's not the fishermen Down East, at least not the ones I met. Right at the Canadian border, it's a beautiful but down-and-out area with little to offer for jobs and industry. It takes about 2,400 elvers to make a pound, and elver dealer Tim Sheehan says people usually bring in an ounce here and there. "In order for me to get 30 pounds, I have to buy from 150 fishermen," he said. Sheehan guesses the fishermen making the big bucks have their own connections and aren't making a lot of noise about it.
But even dribs and drabs can equal a couple hundred dollars a day. Doesn't that make a difference? As David Nicholas picked out the glass eels among a bycatch of sand fleas and slippery adult eels in his fyke net, I asked whether he's planning to take a vacation or buy a new car.
"First thing I do is fill up the oil barrel. There's no work, you gotta save for tomorrow," he said (that's us talking in the photo above). I talked to him around 5 a.m. Later in the day he was planning to go "winkling," picking tiny periwinkles for about a $1 a pound.
There's more to this story, and I'll be sharing it in a future issue of National Fisherman. As always, thanks for reading!
Page 7 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.