National Fisherman

The case of Robert Thompson proves that people don't just steal lobster out of traps.

Thompson was the manager of the Spruce Head Fishermen's Cooperative in South Thomaston, Maine, and in that job he was in charge of buying and selling lobsters for one of the state's largest lobster cooperatives.

But he would also buy lobsters directly from co-op members as they unloaded at the dock. He covered the sales by issuing those lobstermen boat slips that didn't include the lobsters he bought. The fraud continued up the seafood chain: According to the U.S. Attorney's Office (as reported by the Bangor Daily News), those illegal lobsters were then bought by J.P. Shellfish in Eliot, Maine. Owner John Price gave his truck drivers cash to pay Thompson and the co-op members when making deliveries (J.P.'s was also Spruce Head's largest legitimate buyer).

2014 1216 Coastlinesforensics4 resizedNOAA analysts inspect a suspected shipment for seafood fraud. It's estimated 20 to 32 percent of U.S. wild imports are caught illegally, but fewer enforcement agents means the problem will likely get worse. NOAA photo.By buying those lobsters, Thompson was stealing from the co-op. Its members are required to sell their catch back to the organization. His theft was suspected by co-op leaders who installed video surveillance when Thompson went on vacation and worked with NOAA officials and the local sheriff's office to help bring charges against Thompson, who was arrested in October 2012 for felony theft.

This week, Thompson, 53, pled guilty to one count of tax evasion and one count of violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits illegal sales of lobsters. Thompson, who is expected to be sentenced in the spring, may be given as much as five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine for the tax evasion. However, last year the state dropped theft charges against Thompson. (The U.S. Attorney's Office requested the state drop the theft charges because it would have been required to give materials to his defense attorney that it said could jeopardize the federal investigation.)

But if the co-op had not been involved in the original investigation, it's possible Thompson's scheme would have lasted much longer. While U.S. commercial fishermen necessarily abide by quotas, monitoring and other sustainability measures, it's apparently getting easier to commit fish fraud. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, the number of special agents trained to investigate seafood fraud cases has fallen from 147 in 2008 to 93, and their numbers are expected to be further cut. The Sun also found out that in that same time period, the number of civil and criminal cases sent to NOAA's general counsel and U.S. attorneys dropped almost 75 percent, from 793 to 215.

Despite the sometimes acrimonious relationship between NOAA and commercial fishermen in the Northeast, this isn't good news for the industry. Only eight agents monitor domestic fisheries from the coastline extending from New York to Virginia. Those eight agents are also responsible for monitoring 1.4 billion pounds of seafood imports annually. Marine Policy journal reported that 20 to 32 percent of wild imports — worth an estimated $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion — are illegally harvested.

"If I was gonna be a criminal, I would be in the fish and wildlife smuggling business." Scott Doyle, a special agent for NOAA who investigates seafood fraud on the East Coast, told the Sun. "Nobody has any idea what's going on. They just buy the fish."

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In the 1960s, in the long summers of our youth, we would catch mackerel by the boatload off Ogunquit, Maine.

My boat was probably 10 feet long and had a flat, plywood bottom. When I was 10 my mother bought me a used 3-hp Johnson outboard (last year's model, $85), and when I wanted to stop or back down I spun it 180 degrees and slid the throttle to open.

Relatively speaking I was underpowered. The other kids had 5½-hp outboards on lapstrake Amesbury skiffs. But we all loaded up on mackerel.

2014 1211 Coastlines mackerelThere wasn't much of a market for mackerel in Maine in the 1960s and ’70s. Wikipedia/Jastrow photoWe trolled daredevil lures with treble hooks and three or four worms, and in the calm of late afternoons and early evenings, particularly if thunderstorms had passed through, the bottom would rise up. Mackerel would roil the ocean from the beach to Bald Head Cliff, and probably beyond. We trolled through great bunches reeling in three or four fish at a time, for the most part throwing them over. (Who said you can't catch 'em twice?)

Back and forth we would go, each of us landing and liberating hundreds of fish until the sun set. There was nothing like steaming into the cove after night fell for aspiring 10-year-old fishermen.

There was no market for the mackerel, which is to say they weren't worth catching at our artisanal scale. From time to time seiners from exotic ports like Rockland would lay over in Perkins Cove, real fishing boats with masts and fish holds and nets, thrilling us to no end. But they were pogy boats and they, too, had no interest in our mackerel.

The mackerel were still there several years later when I graduated from high school. I had a bigger flat-bottomed boat (same outboard) and I figured, optimistically, no doubt, that I could carry 1,000 pounds of mackerel. But there was no market for mackerel, so that fall I pumped gas and torched herring with a friend, and the following spring I got a job on a redfish boat.

In the late 1960s and in the 1970s until the enactment of the 200-mile limit, mackerel, like everything else in the northwest Atlantic, were hammered by distant water fleets from Europe and the Soviet bloc.
American are not big mackerel eaters. So although stocks have recovered, they still aren't worth much money. Mackerel is now a midwater fishery, and getting on them and staying on them is a dicey proposition.

One reason is suggested by the research, which has found that in the years since my cohort and I fished them, warming water has spread out stocks to the north and east of their traditional winter grounds.

In any case, they no longer make themselves available in vast plentitude to little boys between Ogunquit Beach and the home shore, pining for the day when they can make a living on the ocean.

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Superstorm Sandy spared Maryland's Smith Island the heavy damage it flung on most of its neighbors, yet it still almost destroyed the historic commercial fishing community. That's because while 7,000 acres of tidal marshes, which are also home to abundant crab nurseries, kept the storm at bay, the federal government planned to use relief money as an opportunity to offer island residents cash in exchange for their property, as long as no one ever built on those abandoned parcels again.

Thanks to community organizing, Smith got lucky again. Though some residents were in favor of the government buyout, others opposed it. Wanting to protect their unique way of life, they formed Smith Island United and proposed government money instead be used to protect the island against erosion. It worked. Smith, home to about 250 people, is expected to receive $15 million in federal money toward building a new breakwater and jetty.

The story of Smith's near demise is told in "Come High Water: Sea Level Rise and Chesapeake Bay,"  a special report produced by Chesapeake Quarterly, published by the Maryland Sea Grant, and the Bay Journal newspaper. The articles, while short and focused, present a comprehensive yet easy-to-grasp assessment on the science behind rising sea levels as well as how the threat of rising seas is affecting low-lying communities on Chesapeake Bay.

2014 1209 Coastlines Screen Shot 12.02.49 PMRising sea levels pose a threat to low-lying communities on Chesapeake Bay. YouTube screen shotAs explained in the report, rising sea levels are one of the consequences of global warming thanks to melting polar glaciers and the fact that warmer water takes up more space than cooler water (because of its chemistry). Added to this, the Mid-Atlantic coastline had already been sinking because of a phenomenon called "glacial forebulge." During the last ice age, the ice sheet's massive weight pressed down on the land beneath it so much that it caused the land outside the sheet (including the Mid-Atlantic coastline) to tilt upward, so that it rose like the opposite end of a downward seesaw. Scientists expect the Eastern shoreline to be hit especially hard, with sea levels rising 3 feet or more by the end of this century — the fastest rate in the United States.

One of the most interesting parts of the report is the skepticism in these communities about global warming. In the article, "Snapshots From the Edge,"  Bill Boicourt, an oceanographer at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, says he is often met with skepticism when talking about climate change to church groups and civic organizations. "They know what they are seeing, but many blame the problem on erosion, or 'tides.' Many don't want to talk about melting ice sheets or greenhouse gas emissions. They want to talk about fixes today that may help to get the water out of their yards, fixes such as the reconstruction of barrier islands in the Chesapeake Bay."

At first, it's hard to understand this skepticism. Why wouldn't people who can actually see their land sink into the ocean accept climate change as a real event? Why wouldn't they want to advocate for solutions that may slow down or halt the rising seas that may someday engulf their communities?

But then again, I see valid reasons for the denials. Even though rising sea levels are accelerating, the land has been sinking around here since Europeans first settled centuries ago. And messages about climate change have long been mixed, not just among politicians but also among scientists: For example, while they mostly agree that climate change is a real thing, there are differences of opinion on its outcomes, such as whether warming water is causing the Gulf Stream to slow down.

Going back to the story about Smith Island, I wonder if for some that skepticism/denial may be the best way to hang on. After all, erosion is a problem that can be dealt with at the local level. Stopping climate change requires global action that we have no control over. How do you argue in favor of preserving a way of life, if you're as good as doomed?

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If one species could serve as a poster child for fishery conservation efforts, it would probably be bluefin tuna. When NMFS was devising its new Atlantic bluefin tuna regulations, for instance, it received more than 200,000 public comments, according to a Reuters article announcing the new regulations.

Announced this week, those new rules will affect commercial fishermen by making surface gillnetting off limits during bluefin spawning months in the Gulf of Mexico in April and May. Longline restrictions will also be in effect off Hatteras, N.C., an area considered a prime feeding ground for bluefin, between December and April.

20141204 bluefintuna marinebioDOTorgNew bluefin tuna regulations will affect Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic bluefin tuna harvesters. MarineBio Conservation Society photo Another change for longliners is that their bycatch and discards of bluefin will now be counted against their individual vessel quotas, meaning they must shut down fishing if they exceed it. The new rules start on Jan. 1.

According to NMFS and conservation organizations these new rules are a win-win: "The United States is committed to protecting Atlantic bluefin tuna using sustainable, science-based management, and we will continue to be an international leader in its management," said Eileen Sobeck, director of NMFS, in a statement. "These measures allow fishermen to continue fishing for their target species using alternate gear. We are balancing the needs of the fishermen with the recovery of bluefin tuna."

"This is a balanced solution to the problem, a good balance," Tom Wheatley, conservation manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts, told the Associated Press.

But do you, commercial fishermen and the people most affected, believe these new rules are balanced? Greg Abrams, a seafood dealer and boat owner from Panama City, Fla., told the Miami Herald that the restrictions were over the top and that they unfairly hit gulf fishermen while leaving the issue of bluefin take in Mexican waters untouched. "They've put so many fishermen out of business," he said.

Speaking of balanced, what gets left out in reports about bluefin is that U.S. fishermen sustainably harvest the species, playing by the rules and staying within quotas (but of course fishermen make up a small percentage of the 200,000 comments that came into NMFS when considering the measures). In fact, at the November meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, quotas for Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks were slightly increased.

Sometimes if you play by the rules, you just get more rules.

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2014 1125 Coastlines lobsters DSC 0233China can be a profitable market for lobster and other seafood products provided demand remains healthy. Laura Dobson photoLast week, the e-commerce site Alibaba made headlines in Canada when it sold 90,000 Nova Scotia lobsters from a single operator in one day. The company that made the sale, ZF Max International, was described as a “Canadian-based operation with a parent company in China. ZF Max employs up to 60 Nova Scotians and runs a lobster plant near Halifax.” In other words, those Canadian lobsters are being sold to Chinese consumers by a Chinese company over a Chinese website.

You may have never heard of it, but the Alibaba Group is the world’s largest online retailer. Taking advantage of the country’s growing middle class, Alibaba sites account for 80 percent of China’s online sales, racking up $248 billion in sales last year, which is more than the United States’ two biggest retailers, ebay and Amazon, combined.

It’s big business, and a market as big as China can dominate. The problem is that if all of a sudden that market is shut off, it can be difficult to make up the difference in domestic markets that may have been neglected. This is what happened when China boycotted geoducks earlier this year: Fishermen, divers, growers and dealers in the Northwest suffered heavy losses.

I’ve covered other fisheries, like Maine elvers (or glass eels), that depend on overseas markets. A couple years ago, prices peaked at around $2,500 per pound for these tiny glass eels to help stock Asian eel farms whose global supply was limited by conservation measures on glass eels taken around the world. That spiked prices, and helped create a contentious fishery of Maine fishermen fighting over who gets to put their net where, and, later, who gets a share of the quota.

With such a prized catch, fishermen should have had control of the market. Instead, they had almost no idea about where the elvers were going. I visited a seafood dealer in Pembroke, Maine, in the spring of 2013, and happened to be there when Asian exporters Jason and Kevin (last names were not provided) of American Elver Depot in Flushing, N.Y., came to weigh, package and ship the tiny elvers to China. I tried to find out more about where they were going, but neither Jason nor Kevin would speak to me, and I was hung up on when I tried calling the company (read more about the global elver trade here).

Why so secretive? Could Maine fishermen, if better organized, have demanded much more than what they were getting?

I understand the positive side of the Alibaba story. Creating new markets for seafood should help to increase demand and provide diversity so that when one market is weak, another one will (hopefully) help make up the difference and keep dock prices healthy. We should be figuring out ways to make the most of those new markets, rather than letting them make the most of us.

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DSC 0017Competitors in the 2013 Fisherman of the Year contestNational Fisherman’s Fisherman of the Year competition has emerged as one of the enduring highlights of Pacific Marine Expo.

It’s no surprise. The deck of a fishing vessel is a demanding workplace, and fishermen depend on each other to work safely and efficiently under any conditions.

That’s why the Fisherman of the Year contest challenges fishermen to display three skills their co-workers prize: the ability to put a rim-racked net back together, or to quickly splice an eye into a piece of rope, or to tie a knot – correctly – in the shadows of a moonless night. If they compete successfully at those tasks, they move on to the final event, one that demands they exhibit a skill that could someday save their life: the survival suit competition.

As many as three fishermen will line up side by side on stage to see who can properly get into a survival suit in the least time.

Safety counselors say fishermen need to be able to don an immersion suit in a minute. We have had Fishermen of the Year winners do so in less than half that time.

The winners of the net-mending, knot-tying and rope-splicing competition each earn $100. The grand prize, for winning the survival suit competition, is a personalized “Fisherman of the Year” jacket (and another $100!).

The Fishermen of the Year contest takes place Friday at 1 p.m. in the keynote area. If you can’t compete, you can watch.

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2014 1113 Coastlines FraserDSCN1310 JFraserEmergency cod closures in the Gulf of Maine cloud the future for New England groundfish harvesters. Jerry Fraser photo.For those of you across the fruited plain, here’s how it went down in New England’s cod fishery.

Beginning 20 years ago or so, NMFS cut the number of days boats could fish. Then it cut them again. Then it bought back some vessels. Along the way it discovered its stock assessments were flawed. It bought back more vessels and cut more days. 

So much for effort controls. 

In 2009 Jane Lubchenco, a college professor from the West Coast, took over the reins at NOAA and led the effort to convert New England to catch shares management. Kool-Aid drinkers with a taste for this regime believe that catch shares “rationalize” fisheries, scaling production capacity to match a desired harvest level.

As of today, the desired harvest level for cod is zero. “Thanks for playing,” fishermen have been told.

So much for output controls.

“We couldn’t be any worse off, either the resources or the people, if we had no management at all for the past 20 years,” Maggie Raymond, owner of two groundfish boats and a longtime industry activist, told Maine’s Portland Press Herald this week.

Which brings to mind Thomas (Diddy) Martin. Diddy was a first-rate welder and mechanic who worked on a lot of the fishing boats around southern York County, Maine, in the 1970s and ’80s, including mine. Diddy could make anything run but his specialty was putting scrap metal to indestructible use by fishermen who otherwise could be counted on to break anything. “This has got worms,” he’d say about whatever he was rigging. “But we’ll rube” — as in Rube Goldberg — “something together."

When we were done work we would go to a bar and argue. Diddy believed that fishery management was a waste of time. I was a champion of fishery management, which at the time had no impact on me as an inshore fisherman. I didn’t even fill out the logs.

“Diddy,” I’d say earnestly, “we’ve got to manage these fish.”

“No way!” he’d declare. “All you’ve got to do is catch them. If you can’t make any money catching dabs you’ll catch something else or go out of business.

“I’m tellin’ ya,” which he always said when he was telling us something, “The last thing you want is for the government to get involved.”

I miss you old friend. And you were right all along.

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Paul Stone's sunny demeanor among calm waters is a little deceiving. Rolled by limits in quota or outright bans, dips in price and unpredictable weather, he faces challenges undoubtedly familiar to his U.S. counterparts with a smile.

The U.K. trawl fisherman is the star of the short film, "Fishing for the Long Haul?" In a behind-the-scenes write-up, producer Jo Stewart-Smith describes going out with Paul and his two crewmen during the summer, catching squid on the 15-meter (49-foot) trawler Sparkling Star out of North Devon. Though the weather is nice, the crew spends much of their time sorting below decks, where the heat is almost unbearable. After a 24-hour trip, the cameraman staggers off the boat while the fishermen drop off their catch and head straight back out.

This is just the beginning of Stewart-Smith's newfound appreciation for the small-boat guys. The uncomfortable conditions are the least of the fishermen's worries, and the filmmaker is even more in awe of the "roller coaster ride" of the small boat fishermen's life on and off the water:

"This film has been my biggest learning curve and the biggest roller coaster ride. It's the film where the story has changed most often — in fact almost every time I speak to Paul he's facing some new obstacle, whether it's the tail end of a hurricane, a change in the quota or price, something which needs fixing on the boat or a ban on one of 'our money fish'. Yet through it all Paul has remained relentlessly cheerful and good humored, with plenty of quips to keep everyone's spirits up and optimism that next week the fishing will be better. And ironically it's rarely the fishing itself which is a problem — even the weather has been pretty kind this year."

Sound familiar? The squid had disappeared when the Bristol Channel was hit with the tail-end of Hurricane Bertha (squid prefer hot weather). So, as fishermen do, Paul switched to rays. But the roller coaster took another dip down shortly after the film was completed. The ray season ended abruptly when the overall quota had been exceeded. The ban took away more than a key species. The ban on rays — a key species — also threatened to close down processing in the area.

Back to the film. While the sorry plight of another small-boat fisherman might seem depressing, Paul is all smiles on the water. I suppose this is what they mean by "in it for the long haul." If you truly are, then you must accept the bad, adapt and move forward as much as you can. Seeing his love of fishing and ability to roll with the punches makes this 5-minute film well worth watching for me. You can watch it below:

"Fishing for the Long Haul?" is part of Boat Stories, a series of short films about the working boats of North Devon. The series' other fishing films include "Lobster Potting and Berried Hens," "Salmon Netting on the Taw and Torridge" and "Life's Journey on the Torridge."


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I wouldn’t say that the Supreme Court has restored my faith in Washington. 

2014.11 grouperBut it clearly has displayed a sense of proportion in a case involving a Florida commercial fisherman.

In 2007 John L. Yates’ vessel Miss Katie was boarded by a Florida fish and wildlife officer who examined the catch and wrote Yates up for possessing undersized grouper.

The fish cop sent Yates ashore under orders to preserve the evidence.

Instead, Yates did what any number of us would have done – he told his crew to throw the undersized fish overboard.

He no doubt regrets not having one of his crewmen thrown over as well – the one who later confessed to authorities.

In their wisdom, the federales charged Yates not with a fisheries violation but with violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which arose out of the Enron scandal and was intended to prevent the destruction of “any record, document, or tangible object” that was the subject of a federal investigation.

Yates was sentenced to 30 days in prison, a sentenced that was upheld on appeal.

Justice department prosecutors allowed that they brought the charges under Sarbanes-Oxley because it carries a maximum sentence of 20 years as opposed to the fisheries statute, which would have been worth a maximum of five years.

The outrageousness of this was not lost on Justice Antonin Scalia. “What kind of mad prosecutor would try to send this guy up for 20 years?” he asked. “Who do you have out there that exercises prosecutorial discretion?”

Or common sense. It costs the taxpayers about $30,000 a year per inmate in federal prison. We’d have been on the hook for upward of $600,000 if Yates had drawn the maximum sentence, for tossing overboard a handful of fish. Does that seem proportionate to you?

Supreme Court reporters note that this case has the prosecutorial trappings of Bond vs. United States, a farce in which the feds charged a woman under a chemical weapons treaty for applying irritants to a former friend’s car, mailbox and doorknob in an effort to provoke a rash. (The ex-friend was carrying the woman’s husband’s baby, but not as a surrogate mom.)

Only in America.

The Yates case is amusing because it’s clear that the justices are convinced Sarbanes-Oxley is far too broad. There is nothing funny about prosecutors who contrive to send American citizens to prison for decades in cases that are at best, in the words of Justice Samuel Alito, “trivial matters.”

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Fish for a living and it’s easy to become jaded about “do gooders” who, sometimes naively and sometimes not, make it their business to save the ocean and all its fish from the evil predations of commercial fishermen.

2014 1030 Jonathan GonzalezJonathan Gonzalez shares what he’s learned about gillnet fishing on his website, photoBut the truth is that every now and then someone like Jonathan Gonzalez, a graphic designer in Santa Barbara, Calif., comes along and reminds us that humans are blessed with reason, and some use it.

Gonzalez suffered the laudable bias to conserve that all too often leads folks to jump to conclusions about human interactions with their environment, particularly when it comes to fishing, agriculture and so-called extractive industries.

He was no exception, at least in the beginning.

As a volunteer for the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center he came to view gillnets as curtains of death, largely as a result of sea lion bycatch, even though the sea lions were released alive. But he made his bones on sharks with the launch in 2009 of, which was dedicated to getting local restaurants to stop serving shark fin soup.

(He is perplexed to this day at the willingness of shark conservationists to grant him “expert status” for little more than advocating a position and laying out a website.)

Fortunately, the same honest intellect that led him to question gillnets and shark fishing stood him in good stead when he spoke with local fishermen and chefs, and he followed up his conversations with research. He discovered that responsible conservation, like responsible fishing, is a nuanced business.

 His story is compelling and reasserts the power of ideas. You can find it on his blog, Organic Creativity

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Page 8 of 20

Inside the Industry

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. 

Read more ...

Cummins  announced the opening of a new Alaska service location on Kodiak Island last week that will serve as a service and support location for commercial marine applications.

Read more ...
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