National Fisherman's Melissa Wood shares her stories as a writer and editor covering the U.S. fishing industry.
Thursday, 09 May 2013
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?”
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.Add a comment
Thursday, 25 April 2013
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.
The 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.
Tuesday, 23 April 2013
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.Add a comment
Tuesday, 16 April 2013
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 CommitteeAdd a comment
Thursday, 11 April 2013
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.
Thursday, 04 April 2013
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."
For 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
Tuesday, 26 March 2013
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 begin 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.
Tuesday, 19 March 2013
Salt of the Sea: Stories Told by the Fishermen of Point Judith
By Cindy Follett Guldemond
Fowler Road Press, 2012
Paperback, 210 pages, $22
What's the worst thing you've ever caught in your net? You probably can't beat Rhode Island fisherman Leon "Buddy" Champlin who hauled up a torpedo:
"In 1947, the boat was blown up. We picked up a torpedo in the net. We were steaming and pulling it behind the boat, going two to three miles an hour. It was heavy. We were trying to get it up to the surface so we could pull it in. I was looking for it to come up, and just as it got to the surface, it blew up. Bent the stern of the boat up and sheared off sixteen five-eighths bolts, which left the engine sitting in the bilge."
Buddy is one of the fishermen interviewed for the book "Salt of the Sea: Stories told by the Fishermen of Point Judith" by Cindy Follett Guldemond.
These stories come direct from the people who lived them. Guildemond, who grew up in a fishing family in Point Judith, interviews 28 elderly fishermen from her community. She also includes a section of old photos and of the true "old timers" who fished these waters from around the turn of the last century.
The sea has plenty of bombs it can throw, and these fishermen have seen it all. From decades on the water they share stories about surviving hurricanes, sinkings, run-ins with the law and being run through the middle by a Norwegian steamer.
Besides drama, the book also provides a look at what it was like to be a fisherman back in the 30s, 40s, 50s. Back then electronics included a short-wave radio at best. You had no facilities, no heat in the wheelhouse, and certainly no fish-finders. The fishermen interviewed here were dedicated professionals who knew what they were doing.
In her introduction, Guldemond said growing up in Point Judith, she always idolized the fishermen, who included her father and now three brothers. "Above all I loved hearing the stories they told when they returned from the sea. Having talked about recording their stories for the past twenty years, I finally raised my nerve and did it."
She should be commended for doing so. If you like stories about fishing, check out this book.
Tuesday, 12 March 2013
If you ever want to take a look at the seafood industry at a global level, come to Boston.
For the last three days I've been at the International Boston Seafood Show, which I cover in my role as assistant editor for SeaFood Business (both NF and SeaFood Business are published by the same company).*
This show is huge. Held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center from Sunday through today, the annual event had more than 1,000 exhibiting companies from 46 countries. It was expected to attract more than 19,000 buyers and sellers of seafood.
The U.S. guys are here too — and they're doing business. I saw exhibitors from all coasts displaying their products on the show floor.
U.S. producers were also here to talk about the latest efforts of the National Seafood Marketing Coalition during a luncheon session on Sunday.
Those involved believe that marketing is the only way U.S. seafood will recover market share lost to imports (91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, according to NOAA). The marketing would tout the unique products from the different U.S. regions, raising them above cheaper imports.
The bill to create this didn't gain traction after being introduced last summer by Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. Bruce Schactler, the coalition's executive director and Kodiak fisherman who works with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said it will be introduced again and soon.
Marketing can also help create markets for under-utilized species. I saw Bruce again on the show floor today. One of his goals for the show is developing a market for herring.
"Most of Alaska herring is used in the Japanese roe market. We're trying to branch off and get Alaska herring into the world food market," said Bruce. "In Europe they eat it for breakfast."
Those efforts using herring in the Global Food Aid Program. Alaska salmon is the only protein that comes out of the U.S. for world hunger aid. From what Bruce was telling me, it sounds like the program has already made some big differences sending canned herring to malnourished people in Liberia.
The show also gives a much different perspective on this industry than that from the docks. I asked Corey Arnold, a Bristol Bay fisherman from Portland, Ore., who was attending the show what he would tell other fishermen about his experience here.
Corey said he was surprised by the number of aquaculture companies here, and the number of breaded fish products. It's a much different world than when you live on the coast and are used to fresh fish.
"The rest of the world is used to eating fish out of a box," he said.
But seafood's global reach can ultimately mean good news for U.S. fishermen who may find a higher price for their quality product in high-end, overseas markets. Speaking at the national marketing coalition session, Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, pointed out that soon 50 percent of the world's middle class will be in China.
"We have to be ready to get to those markets," he said.
*Full disclosure: Our parent company, Diversified Business Communications, also produces the Boston show.Add a comment
Wednesday, 06 March 2013
For fishermen hoping to make some extra money selling fresh seafood, there’s a simple way to find a good location.
“Go west until you find some community that is reasonably populated and ask yourself, ‘Where can I buy fresh seafood?’ If you can’t find a place you’ve got a location,” said Bernie Feeney a/k/a “The Lobster Guy.”
Feeney, a Boston lobsterman who sells lobster — and now other products — from his truck was part of the session, “How Else Can Fishermen Make a Buck? Spin-Off Businesses — From Idea to Implementation” at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum on Saturday.
This type of information couldn’t be timelier in New England, where groundfish quota cuts could end careers on the water. How bad is it? National Fisherman’s Contributing Editor Kirk Moore explains the current situation for these fleets in his story, “Ground down,” on page 24 of our April issue.
Times are tough for lobstermen too, who saw their prices drop while bait and fuel prices won’t stop rising. At the forum, Feeney and Clive Farrin, who takes passengers on lobster boat tours, talked about how they’re using side businesses to stay afloat.
He sells seafood by the roadside
Feeney lives in Whitman, Mass., which is about an hour from his home port in Boston — far enough from the coast to make seafood a hot commodity. Though he still goes out for lobster six days a week, he decided to try selling his catch to make more money after lobster prices dropped four years ago.
Massachusetts’ laws favor enterprising lobstermen, who can choose from two types of permits. One allows them to sell directly to restaurants. With the second they can sell lobsters from the back of their trucks.
Town officials helped Feeney figure out additional permits that he needed. The building inspector also gave him a tip on a prime location, and he sells from a large parking lot of an empty restaurant for sale on a state highway.
“The Lobster Guy,” who is also president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen Association, is there every Friday and Saturday afternoon from 3 to 7 — and customers are too. On a holiday weekend, he counted 38 people in line when he arrived and was sold out in 45 minutes. When he missed a Saturday because of a hurricane he got phone calls.
“Friday and Saturday are the best time to sell. I make more money in eight hours than my boat does in six days,” he said.
One of the first lessons Feeney learned was not to just sell what he caught. He now buys more from his dealer than he sells, unloading what he can’t sell direct and picking up a few hundred pounds of selects each week.
Another key to Feeney’s success is that he listens to his customers. After selling just lobster and scallops the first year, he expanded his product line to include stuffed quahogs, lobster bisques, chowder, crab cakes and rib-eye steaks. The idea to carry steaks came after a customer commented that he was only buying seafood for his family — if he had a good steak he’d buy it.
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” said Feeney, who now stops at a Boston butcher on his way from the dock. “I have people who come just for rib-eye steaks and scallops. They don’t buy lobsters.”
He’s also pretty savvy in marketing his catch. Soft shells are “new shells,” and you can get a deal if you buy them in bulk. “When the boat price is $3 a pound and I’m selling 13 pounds for $52, I’m doing pretty good,” he said.
Taking tourists out for lobster
Clive Farrin, a Maine lobsterman, takes tourists on the F/V Sea Swallow out of Boothbay Harbor. His tours, called “Go Lobstering,” have become so popular that they’ve rated as a top 20 activity — nationwide — on the popular website Trip Advisor.
He got started after his stern man pointed to another lobsterman who was taking out tourists and questioned why they didn’t do that as well?
“It helps with cash flow when prices are down,” said Farrin.
Farrin is limited to six passengers per one-hour trip and requires everyone under 12 to wear life jackets. He also understands that some people really want to get their hands dirty and actually catch some lobster. He said his Class 2 license covers an additional person without a permit.
Farrin has added personal injury insurance, which costs about $700-$800 a year, and a “walk and plank policy” to insure the space between the dock and the boat.
While tiny lobsters or big ones with eggs may be especially interesting to his passengers, he’s learned not to hold onto them. Instead, he encourages a quick photo session before they’re thrown over.
He’s lucky enough to have a stern man who’s great with kids, who also positions himself to create a barrier between passengers and the rope that hauls the traps.
When passengers ask what would happen if they get caught in the rope, “I tell them it depends how good you can swim if you’ve got 50 pounds tied to one leg,” said Farrin.
Learn more about Feeney and Farrin’s businesses:
In addition, Maine Sea Grant has published a fisheries and tourism fact sheet, which you can view here:Add a comment
Page 8 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.