National Fisherman

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.”

monster fishI 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.

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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:

oysters“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.

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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.

elversAt 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!

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I never really thought about it this way before, but at National Fisherman, I’m working by watching you work. And while I’m watching you work, writing down what you’re saying and trying to understand technical details about fishing and gear, I can’t help but also wonder, “Could I do that job?”

oyster boat

No. Usually I don’t have to think hard about the answer. I love being out on the water, and the excitement of the net coming up with a mystery inside, but I can’t do what you do. A day on the water leaves me so tired I feel lucky to stay awake long enough to make the drive home and collapse into bed.

On Monday. I boarded a 22-foot Blackjack that took us through Louisiana’s Bayou Dularge to an oyster reef. It was my first time to the Gulf, and the inland fisheries surprised me. In the Northeast, where I’m from, most fishing takes place hours from shore. In Louisiana, waterways run alongside streets and through backyards; fishing feels like part of the neighborhood here, like the grocery store.

At least I could handle being on the water. The bayou wound through still waters. Ripples on the open water were smaller than the wake caused by passing boats, even a tiny crab boat, with two guys and a white bucket of blue crab they had hauled up from one of the many crab pots that dotted the waters.

The bayou is a bustling workplace though. As we headed out we passed shrimp boats docked and ready for the inshore season that starts next week. Here and there, a single conveyer belt along the shore showed us where sacks of oysters would be unloaded onto trucks. When we passed a gas station, a big black and white spotted pig shuffled inside a wire cage.

We left the shores behind when we finally made it to the open water and approached four oyster boats. The lake was quiet except for a hammering sound that we could hear as we got closer to the boats: a constant clink, clink, clink, clink, clink.

That was the sound of oystermen at work. I watched the oystermen hauling up dredges that scraped the tops of the beds below. Two men open the dredge, dumping the oysters onto a table, drop the dredge back into the water, and immediately they began hammering the big clumps, pounding the oysters apart and shoving them into growing piles on deck. Repeat. I was told that their work also includes hauling up big piles of oysters and moving them to other reefs where they can be more productive.

Our skipper, a charter boat guy known as ‘Lil Coon, shook his head watching them. He couldn’t do that, he told us. Being on an oyster dredge is a full day of hauling up the oysters, pounding them apart and sacking them up. I feel a twinge in my back thinking about it, all day long. These fishermen may not be rolling on a big sea, and they’re able to go home to bed at night, but I know I couldn’t do their jobs either.

I’ve learned a lot about commercial fishing at National Fisherman. What I’m learning is that if it’s not hard one way, then there’ll be something else to make up for that. It’s backbreaking, dangerous, dirty work. Not everyone can do it, but I feel privileged to be able to watch.

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In 1623, a group of settlers arrived in what would one day be called New Hampshire, about 100 miles north of where pilgrims had landed three years before in Plymouth, Mass. But these settlers were not fleeing religious persecution. They came here to fish.

GoethelThe Founding Fishermen came by way of an English land grant given to London fish merchants Edward and Thomas Hilton, and others, who established a fishing colony at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. On the shores, they built racks to dry and salt cod, which was so abundant and so valuable it could lure people across an ocean to catch it.

Four hundred years later, once-abundant cod is in trouble. Stock assessments show populations are not recovering despite conservation efforts. Either 400 years of fishing have taken their toll or other forces like predators and changing conditions in the Gulf of Maine have kept cod numbers down (some speculate they may also be in closed areas).

No matter the reason for cod’s scarcity, fishermen are disappearing here too. When I wrote about a day at sea on one of the state's last groundfish draggers (“Dragging it out,” page 22), I describe my trouble finding the Hampton marina, which is tucked away down a road that starts in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant and goes through a condominium development.

I mention these details because I think it’s important to note how far this area is from being a fishing community. In the summer, Hampton is a beach resort, and like most of New Hampshire’s tiny coastline, it’s dominated by tourism and second homes, whose owners enjoy the pretty coastline and the state’s lack of income tax.

Most of the boats in Hampton’s marina are recreational boats, and when I went out in December, most of them were shrink-wrapped and perched on land. It was at least easy to spot David Goethel's 44-dragger Ellen Diane since it was the only one with the lights on.

As David (pictured above) says in the story, his is one of only three boats going out now, people are still in their beds when he leaves for the day and on their third cocktail when he comes back to port from the Gulf of Maine, where boats from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire share the historic fishing grounds.

“That’s a community on the water,” David says. “They all fish at the same time, but go home to three different states. On land, they don’t even know I exist.”

Hampton is just a couple towns from where I grew up in Portsmouth, N.H., which is just across the Piscataqua from Maine. With a postcard-pretty downtown, Portsmouth is a lot less blue-collar than it used to be, but it is at least still home to giant scrap and salt piles that irk waterfront condo owners. Portsmouth’s fishing industry has been less fortunate. Its co-op shut down in 2007.

The fishing industry survives on lobster. Most of the state’s commercial fishermen are lobstermen whose resource is so abundant, they’re facing low prices amidst rising prices for bait and fuel. Their catch accounts for 70 percent of the economic value of New Hampshire’s landings, according to a 2009 report.

Speaking of lobster, New Hampshire draggers at least have one advantage over their counterparts in Maine. A bill that would have allowed them to land trawl-caught lobsters in Maine ports was voted unanimously down in committee on Wednesday, which means it will likely also face defeat when it goes before the state Senate and House.

I can see both sides of this controversial measure, but it’s too bad it was voted down without any solutions to keep the dwindling groundfish fleet intact.

It was hard to find a silver lining in this story, but I admire David’s resolve to keep fishing. Not only does he have to contend with regulations that seem almost designed to drive him off the water, but he also suffered near-fatal injuries about three years ago when he fell between his boat the dock. His mobility is still limited, but I don’t think anything will keep him from fishing. It was inspiring to watch that determination. I hope that comes through.

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Yesterday was Earth Day. On the web, it was noted in tweets, blogs and Facebook posts. For some, talking about the environment meant talking about commercial fishing.  

"Fish feeling pain not reason enough for you to stop eating them? This Earth Day, learn the environmental reasons."  That was a tweet from Food Empowerment with a link to a web page detailing the crimes of commercial fishing.

The "environmental reasons" were many. Basically, if the ocean has a problem, commercial fishing is to blame. The only way you can save the ocean is by eating vegan — and tell your friends.

When you hear those kinds of messages, you can direct your friends to NOAA's Fish Watch site. It provides information about species and sustainable fishing. This video, for instance, gives the basics about what they need to know to buy sustainable seafood:

Most environmental groups are savvy enough to know you can't get people to stop eating fish, and they've focused their resources in changing policies.

I may not make any friends by saying this, but it's not all bad. Environmental groups' involvement in fishery management and sustainable labeling programs has been controversial, but at least part of their message is that there are sustainable choices consumers can make.

But the message should always be to buy local first. If you buy fish that was landed nearby, you support local fishermen and the working waterfront that supports them. Their activities help sustain the local economies of small coastal communities that don't have other industries they can depend on for employment. That, in turn, helps sustain a future as one generation follows the next into a career that is hard but suits the individuals who make it their life's calling. Common sense tells you they're heavily invested in keeping the resource around for the future as well.

As they say about the ocean, the environment, the earth — it's all interconnected.

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It's not a pretty story when we try to "manage" nature, but it's an interesting one. I’m reading the article “Deep Trouble: A High-Tech Hunt for Asian Carp” by Dan Egan.  It was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last August, but came to my attention this week when the winners of the Pulitzer Prize — journalism’s top honor — were announced.

Egan’s piece was a finalist in the explanatory journalism category. He tells how bighead and silver carp were first brought here in 1963 and up through efforts to stop their entry into the Great Lakes today.


I want to share it because I think it’s an outstanding example of the kind of reporting and writing it requires to understand our nation’s fisheries, and our complicated history with them. I think you'll enjoy it too.

At first, these fish were going to be used as cleaners, eating up waste and weeds in fish farms in Arkansas — a “natural” alternative to chemicals. The second plan was to use them as a self-sustaining sewage treatment. Towns could feed them sewage and then fund their costs by selling the fish as food. Thankfully, the FDA stepped in before they made it to the market.

That’s how they got here, and this is how they got around: As Egan writes, it was the “tinkering with the hydrology of a continent” — the building of canals — that has given invasive species with any kind of foothold free access to the rest of the country.

The efforts to contain them are fascinating too. The electric barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that is hoped will keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes was originally designed to keep other invasive species in the Great Lakes (there are currently 186). By the time the barrier was built, those species had already made their way out of the lakes and into the Mississippi River basin.

There’s more, including the mystery of how close these invaders are to the lakes. DNA showed them to be in the Chicago canal, but they didn’t turn up in the body count after a 2009 poisoning of the waters that was designed to stop them in their tracks (yes, ironically, we're using chemicals to stop them). Click here to read the whole story.

Photo of bighead carp credit: Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee

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Some things change while others never do. A lawsuit dug up by an archivist at the Library of Virginia gives an illustration of commercial fishing traps used around 1900. Though technology has certainly changed since then, the dispute is over something timeless — a fishing spot.

The lawsuit involves a dispute over fishing weirs in the Potomac River near Hack Creek. Two men entered into partnership over two weirs in 1895. When one of the men died, his widow sought to have the sites divided between them so she could contract the equipment to someone else. She then sued the surviving partner to stop him from interfering with her use of the more profitable spot.

She lost, but the interesting part is that the archives of the lawsuit include descriptions and illustrations of fishing techniques used back then, such as how fishermen claimed their spots by "bushing a stand":

"When an individual chose a site for his weir, he installed a pole at the spot and attached a green bush to the top of it to indicate that he intended to occupy that particular location. After 'bushing a stand,' custom demanded that other fishermen place their traps no closer than roughly 1,200 yards."

The article, "Don't Bush My Stand" also includes illustrations of fish traps, a diagram of a fish trap with a glossary, and a plat of fish trap locations.

It doesn't mention what fish they were trying to catch. Could it have been American shad? In the same family as anchovy, menhaden and sardines, American shad were once the "East Coast's most abundant and economically important fish, according to an article on restoration efforts in the Potomac. I don't know much about this fishery, so I'd be glad if anyone has any knowledge and would like to weigh in. Apparently, it was worth fighting for.

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Have you ever had an argument with someone that lasted so long and made you so frustrated that you ended up forgetting how it all started? Ever had an argument like that for years? Relationship counselors call it a “lack of effective communication.”

It's a problem in the commercial fishing world too, and it's easy to see why when you consider the varied stakeholders, including environmentalists, government officials, fishery managers, scientists and, yes, fishermen.
 
But unlike couples who can get divorced, you’re stuck with each other. And as David Frulla and Shaun Gehan point out in our May issue (p. 10), fishing’s lack of communication can lead to even bigger problems:  

"Management has become a language unto itself, spoken by those who participate in it. The effect is to alienate fishermen, the public, and public officials not steeped in the system, and create barriers to effective participation. It also permits management decisions based on little to no credible scientific information to be masked in technical verbiage."

UnitedWeFishFor some, the only way to be heard has been to go outside the system like the commercial fishermen who filed lawsuits to keep gillnetters in the main stem of the Columbia River or the participants in the United We Fish rallies who marched on Washington, D.C. in 2010 and 2012 (pictured). 

National Fisherman is a voice outside the system too, telling the stories of individual fishermen in our nation's varied fisheries. But despite their differences, every fisherman must fish by the same laws, and those are a part of the story too, whether stated or implied.

In their column, "It really is that simple," Frulla and Gehan give us a good reminder of what these laws are by providing a simplified overview of fishery management’s evolution.

It’s the type of article that’s helpful to set aside for when you need to stop the buzz of confusion that can surround controversial topics because it’s a good reminder of the basics — this is the law and this is how it works.

The article is not available online, but is in our May issue, which arrives in mailboxes this week. I hope you'll check it out.

Photo by Linc Bedrosian

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As a journalist, my future job prospects seem to mirror those of commercial fishermen. According to the Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook, both commercial fishermen and journalists are facing a 6 percent decline in their fields with estimated job losses of 2,000 and 3,200, respectively, between 2010 and 2020.

So why do we keep trying? For me, it's simple. I like what I do. I like meeting people, learning about their lives (and livelihoods) and sharing those stories. Often, you never know what you’re going to find out until you bEllenDianeegin talking to someone. Or should I say, reeling them in? In another similarity, I think fishermen and journalists both enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

And we both must adapt to survive. For fishermen, survival means making the most for your catch in the face of ever-rising expenses and figuring out other ways to remain viable on the water. I’ve written about some of these recently, such as direct marketing, catering to tourists and targeting different species when the primary one becomes scarce.

In covering this industry, I’m often impressed by the on-shore efforts of fishermen on top of their long hours on the water — which would be more than enough to exhaust me.

When markets are flat, you create new ones. I've seen fishermen work with top chefs to promote under-utilized species, and take part in initiatives to target invasive species like lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico. You're also quick to mobilize when action is needed, like the men and women with Commercial Fishermen of Bristol Bay who are working to halt the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska.  

But how possible is adaptation for U.S. fishermen? Regulations with good intentions may ultimately make it harder for fishermen to stay on the water. Catch shares, for instance, have worked very well for some commercial fishermen who’ve wisely used their shares to bring up their catch’s value and create a more stable market. But heavy investments in quota may be hard to maneuver around if and when fisheries change, which may be happening more as species shift their locations because of changing water temperatures.

As I consider my own future, I realize we have something in common. Our jobs may be very different, but we’re both doing what it takes to keep on doing what we love.

How are you adapting to survive?

Above photo of groundfishermen on the Gulf of Maine — one of commercial fishing's endangered species — by Melissa Wood.

Page 8 of 11

National Fisherman Live

National Fisherman Live: 9/9/14

In this episode:

Seafood Watch upgrades status of 21 fish species
Calif. bill attacking seafood mislabeling approved
Ballot item would protect Bristol Bay salmon
NOAA closes cod, yellowtail fishing areas
Pacific panel halves young bluefin harvest

National Fisherman Live: 8/26/14

In this episode, National Fisherman Publisher Jerry Fraser talks about his early days dragging for redfish on the Vandal.

Inside the Industry

More than a dozen higher education institutions and federal and local fishery management agencies and organizations in American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Hawaii have signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at building the capacity of the U.S. Pacific Island territories to manage their fisheries and fishery-related resources.

Read more...

PORTLAND, Maine – The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative has appointed Matt Jacobson as its new executive director.
 
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