National Fisherman

Mixed Catch 

jerryJerry Fraser is NF's publisher and former editor.



2016 0526 SavingNEFisheriesVideo screenshot from "Saving New England Fisheries" courtesy PBS.I have to say, the trailer for “Saving New England Fisheries” gave me pause.

“We haven’t killed the goose that laid the golden egg yet,” a voice gravely warns as twine spills into the ocean from a gillnetter, “but if we don’t do something pretty soon it’s going to hang it up and give us jellyfish instead.”

The 57-minute documentary debuted last week on PBS stations. It might have been better titled, “Saving New England’s Cod Fishery,” but that’s not a knock on the production.

The notion of jellyfish as deep-sea cockroaches doesn’t do much for me; nor does the idea that we’re headed in that direction. In fact, it’s clear we are not. Fortunately, the documentary does not deliver on this gloomy conceit.

Not that things are peachy. Low quotas for cod, uber-consolidation resulting from catch-share mismanagement, fears about warming seawater and the productivity of the Gulf of Maine, and the specter of $700-a-day observers all loom over New England’s coastal communities.

These contingencies are not lost on the film’s producers, who put their hour to work piecing the entire troubling business together. They even found time to take us to Newfoundland, if only to underscore the historic nature of cod fishing off North America and its importance in fishing communities.

Forever, it seems, Newfoundland was cod heaven – or more correctly, cod fishermen’s heaven – and by the 1960s, nearly a millennium after Leif Erikson and his cohort first caught cod off Labrador, the Newfies were landing upward of 800,000 tons a year. It all came to an end in the early 1990s, with a crash that made headlines around the world.

“Total abuse,” says Newfoundlander Tom Best, who has fished cod since his youth. “We made a mess of it.”

Stocks flatlined, or near about, for the next 20 years. But Newfoundland may have turned the corner, if only just. “Well, the fishery is not coming back yet, but the stocks are coming back,” says George Rose, Ph.D, of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Whether Newfoundlanders believed all along that cod would come back, I cannot say. New Englanders have seen haddock and redfish rebuild, and most believe cod will as well. And we know that environmental conditions – for example, water temperature, forage availability, and predator abundance – must align with conservation efforts before that wondrous day will be at hand.

Most of this comes through in “Saving New England Fisheries,” and as a result, the documentary is a praiseworthy effort. In addition to pointing out the components of abundance, the producers grasp the nature and extent of the groundfish fishery’s ongoing mismanagement, crystallized most recently in NOAA’s plan to have fishermen pay for $700-a-day observers.

If you’re so inclined, you can find fault with the film — particularly if you’re a fisherman. Bear in mind, though, that the documentary’s intended audience consists of folks we’d like to see better informed about fishing. “Saving New England Fisheries” answers the bell.

If you can’t find it on public television, watch it here:


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Did the Environmental Protection Agency stack the deck to put the kibosh to the Pebble Mine Project in Alaska?

2016 0427 bristolbaysalmonClusters of sockeye salmon can be seen up and down Bristol Bay's rivers during spawning season. Thomas Quinn photo.Congress will resume its inquiries at a hearing tomorrow of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which will take testimony from Donald McClerran, the regional administrator for the EPA with Alaska oversight.

It seems clear Phillip North, an ecologist with the agency based in Soldotna, worked with the tribes in opposition to the project. Indeed, the inspector general says North used personal emails to carry out his mission – two years’ worth of which have turned up missing – and that this may have been illegal.

Opponents of the mine, however, argue that it is unreasonable to think that a relatively low-level EPA employee working out of his home office in Alaska could have singlehandedly torpedoed a project of the scope of Pebble.

If the project goes forward, miners would likely unearth several hundred billion dollars’ worth of copper, gold and molybdenum, but the ecological risks to the region and the Bristol Bay watershed are no less significant.

What the hearing will accomplish is uncertain. If it seems clear that the agency was predisposed to block the project, it is silly to lay this at the feet of a single scientist. For his part, North retired and departed to Australia (he has since returned), heightening the intrigue.

Meanwhile, Pebble and the EPA are withholding documents the other is seeking. And for all the lucre at stake, mine developers are running short of money.

Ultimately, this is a clash of an irresistible force – upward of $300 billion – and an immovable object – an intransigent federal agency. I don’t have a crystal ball, but my guess is that if the Pebble project ever goes forward, it will be with encumbrances that reduce profitability yet fail to protect the region from environmental calamity.


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I have a theory that great fishing fortunes are founded on cheap fish because, my thinking goes, there are a lot of them around. A corollary, however, is that not all cheap fish beget fortunes. In my experience, this corollary was exemplified by whiting (among others), which I fished for in my deckhand days in the early 1970s.

2026 0317 whitingWhiting on ice. New Hampshire Community Seafood photo.Nonetheless, I found riches in the images and traditions of the fishery, which today speak to a way of life that is yielding to technology, politics, and other misguided forces.

If the magic of the fishery is lost to the ages, its value endures, and today’s whiting fishermen are trying to get some small-mesh areas in the Gulf of Maine open earlier in the year.

Even if they are successful, it will not be as I remember it.

In the summer of 1973, the Portland, Maine, waterfront was a forest of orange-masted side draggers, and dozens of them cast off mornings long before dawn and steamed for 90 minutes or so to bottom known as Richmond Island, for the nearby island off Cape Elizabeth.

The skippers arranged their boats around the tow and waited for the sun to rise and send the whiting to the bottom while they watched on their fish finders. Such was the camaraderie in those days that no one set out until all the fish had settled. This was a one-tow-a-day fishery; the fleet broke up the schools and sent the fish up the water column, safely out of reach of our two-seam Yankee nets. You got ’em first set or you didn’t get ’em.

On the Minkette, which I fished with the implacable Lester Orcutt, the sideband AM radio would crackle to life and someone would say, “They’re still up over here.” Everyone recognized the voice and could see the speaker’s boat. Lester might nod in some direction and say. “Tut says they haven’t settled yet.”

A minute or two later Lester would come out on deck and we’d throw the belly rollers over. The rest of the net was already in the water. He’d go back in the wheelhouse and I’d run the net off the winch. Around us, 30 or 40 eastern-rig draggers would be in clockwise turns as the ground tackle spooled off the starboard side. Then we’d hook up the trawl doors and away we’d go; us and everybody else. Any way you turned, doors were flying off circling draggers and black smoke was pouring out of stacks. It was tight quarters, one boat passing another’s bow while a third one crossed the first one’s stern. The ocean was a maelstrom of prop wash.

Somehow it all worked, and in two hours or we’d spot someone side-to, hauling back. In an instant, it seemed, everyone was hauling back, and the race to the dock was on. The limit was 10,000 pounds per boat – set by the fish house, not the federales, because it was all they could handle with so many boats. If we were near the front of the line we were unloaded by noon; if we had gear problems or otherwise got screwed up and were among the last boats in it might be 6 or even 7 p.m. before I got home. I learned to play cribbage sitting around the dock on summer afternoons with other deckhands waiting to unload.

We got a nickel for the whiting, of which the lumpers who unloaded us split a penny, so the boat got $400 or so a trip. Lester didn’t take a captain’s share, so I was making about $100 a day, which in 1973 was indeed a fortune to a 20-year-old knucklehead. The 10,000-pound sets that characterized our days were the most automatic fishing I’ve ever seen. One time we came up short – as I recall, the bull rope had gotten around the twine setting out, and we lost a bag. As luck would have it, Carl Smith on the Li Lo had an extra bag. He steamed over and we took it aboard.

We let him beat us to the dock.

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It’s common for people who get heartburn from time to time to rely on over-the-counter drugs for relief. Doctors seem to be OK with this because chronic heartburn can lead to health problems down the road that cannot be treated with antacids.

20160210 mixedcatch docksResearchers are now starting to look at the carbon footprint of fishing fleets and how fishing is contributing to warming trends.In recent days, however, reports have emerged of research that suggests there may be an elevated risk of chronic kidney disease associated with heartburn palliatives known as PPIs.

As a result, folks who suffer from indigestion find themselves in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

Welcome to the club! Fishermen produce protein, often at a low cost in dollars, that feeds people the world over, yet there is little tolerance in this country for any impacts from fishing, and it is the policy of our government to eliminate fishermen.

Along these same lines, researchers are now starting to look at the carbon footprint of fishing. And if you’re inclined to respond “Seriously?” given the comparatively measly tonnage of the world’s motorized fishing fleet, you’re missing the point: Researchers think in terms of the amount of fuel it takes to produce a ton of fish.

For example, Science two years ago declared Peruvian anchovies the least fuel-intensive industrial fishery, at 2.1 gallons of fuel per ton of fish. Less credible is the journal’s assertion that it takes 746 gallons of fuel to produce a ton of sole.

Is cleaner fuel the answer? Perhaps. But it’s not that simple. Last week, Science reported that Elliott Campbell and Brandi McKuin, researchers at the University of California, Merced, had determined that the impacts of so-called short-term pollutants emitted by diesel engines (as opposed to carbon dioxide, whose impacts are long term) had not been entirely understood.

To wit, the warming effects of black carbon – soot – had been underestimated by an order of magnitude. Fortunately, one is tempted to say, the impacts of black carbon are mitigated by sulfur dioxide emissions.

But wouldn’t you know it? Sulfur dioxide poses numerous risks to human health and is a component of acid rain, even as it tends to cool the atmosphere.

The International Maritime Organization has imposed limits on sulfur emissions along the coasts of North America, among other places. As a result, the nominally cleaner fuel we burn or will be required to burn will contribute to global warming.

Science noted that “in areas where sulfur-rich fuels are regulated, the researchers find a significant extra warming effect over 20 years. They find that fishing for large pelagic animals — species like tuna or swordfish — warms the climate, pound for pound, as much as raising pork.”

It’s enough to give a fella heartburn.

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It’s clear, cold and windy today. Winter is on us in Maine. What a pain in the neck – the world’s biggest inconvenience. I don’t own a snowmobile and I don’t ski or skate, and every time I make plans for the weekend, it snows.

I didn’t always feel this way.

Jerry FV Hard Times 81Jerry headed out in his lobster boat dragger Hard Times, in winter of 1981.When I was fishing, I loved winter. Inshore dragging typically was slow in the fall, although some years migrating cod (you could tell by their white bellies that they weren’t locals) would come along to feed on herring spawn in Wells Bay, and occasionally we’d have some luck with them.

The gannets found the cod for us. They’d ride their six-foot wings and circle high over the ocean off Bald Head Cliff, as much as 100 feet high, looking for the herring. They’d tuck their wings in and down they’d go, great white falling swords. The herring would be down 15 fathoms or more – the water was about 17 fathoms deep – no problem for these birds. By and by the cod would move along, and we’d go back to trying to scratch up a few flounders on the open bottom further outside, waiting for winter.

The cold water typically brought flounders northeast of Boon Island. Cod and haddock passed through as they saw fit, as well as Maine shrimp (more correctly known as northern shrimp, or Pandalus borealis), according to their cycle.

Maine shrimp show up for a few years, then they don’t. It’s been that way since the 1950s that I know of, and probably much longer. Needless to say, many a crocodile tear has been shed fretting over the health of shrimp in the Gulf of Maine, but I haven’t used up too many tissues, myself. I believe northern shrimp hereabouts are driven by water temperature and by their abundance in the larger biomass of them far to the north.

Many Maine fishermen, including some of my mentors, love catching shrimp and do well at it. It is an affinity I never shared. My own career as a shrimper began on deck long before the invention of the bycatch (and deckhand)-liberating Nordmore grate. My peers and I spent endless hours on deck picking baby flounders, cigarette whiting and brittle stars out of the shrimp. It was, someone observed, like picking fly turds out of black pepper.

Winter also meant lots of wind, and as a result, high prices. We couldn’t get out as often or stay as long as we did in the good weather, but most trips were worth it. I carried two nets, even on my little lobster boat dragger Hard Times, one for hard bottom and one for soft. When we got bored grinding around for flounders we’d put the roller net on and chase cod in hopes of a bag so full it would pop out of the ocean.

This was before four-seam nets were widely used. The cod we stalked haunted very bony bottom, so rim-racks were not uncommon, and eventually mending nets in the frigid weather would nibble away at our patience and good nature and we’d go back fishing for flounder on kindlier bottom.

Fishing kept us engaged in those days because there was always something to look forward to. We didn’t get rich, but we got to go fishing.

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Legend has it that when the Pilgrims arrived here in 1620, the cod were so thick off Massachusetts they had to swim with their backs out of water. The point being, of course, that greedy white men showed up and wrecked it for everybody.

Common sense is somewhat at odds with this notion, given that the Atlantic Ocean had been around for 130 million years by the time Mayflower arrived on Massachusetts Bay –enough time, one would otherwise think, to render the ocean so full of fish as to be unnavigable.

Fisherman with an Atlantic cod. NOAA file photo.Fisherman with an Atlantic cod. NOAA file photo.Evidence implicit in the modern recovery of cod stocks, to say nothing of the fullness of time, confirms that cod, like other fish, cycle up and down depending on environmental conditions. Indeed, if the Pilgrims had arrived 100 or 200 years earlier it is entirely possible, if not likely, that they would not have found a single cod within 100 miles of Plymouth, Mass.

Recently I referenced the tremendous recovery of cod and haddock in the Barents Sea, off Russia and Norway. We now hear that the recovery of Newfoundland’s iconic northern cod, whose stocks “crashed” in 1994 (never to recover, the doomsayers told us), is under way and explosive.

Research published Oct. 27 in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences by Dr. George Rose of the Center for Fisheries Ecosystems Research at Memorial University of Newfoundland documents the stock’s rebound over the last 10 years from “a biomass of a few percent of its former size to several hundred thousand tons and growing” and calls it “arguably the most important comeback of any fish stock worldwide.”

 I would not argue the point.

Rose documented the recovery in size, abundance, and fish condition first in one region and then in two more and noted a wide size range of fish, as well as strong recruitment from all three regions. “We are now at the third and final step,” of rebuilding, he wrote: “the production of widespread and strong recruitment.”

Rose cited a couple of key factors in the recovery. One is the increase in stocks of capelin, a forage fish of the smelt family about which we’ve heard little for decades (so left for dead were they). The increase has paralleled warming seawater temperatures. He also emphasized the importance of reduced fishing effort.

“The important take-away from this study is that with favorable environmental conditions, in this case the increase in capelin as a key food for this stock, and a severe reduction of fishing, even the most decimated fish stocks have the potential to recover.” As Rose has noted, there is no doubt that human behavior is an environmental condition that can be modified to benefit stocks. But just as his work makes clear that fishing practices modify the trajectory of marine biomasses, it also points out that at either extreme, the abundance of a fish stock is beyond our jurisdiction.

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You don’t have to attend too many council meetings before you’ll hear commercial fishing described as the world’s oldest profession.

A more land-bound view bestows that distinction on prostitution. An online sage recently suggested this compromise: fishing is the world’s oldest profession, but prostitution is women’s oldest profession.

I’ll leave advancement of that argument to others.

2015 1014 mixedcatchThis image was made by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and shows the underside of heavily deformed Arctic sea ice. In the center one can see a orientation marker, colored back and white. It is one meter long. Alfred Wegener Institute photo.What I will say is that part of the appeal of fishing is that it is a nexus of old and new. We can say with certainty that it is among the oldest professions. The hooks, nets, and traps we use have existed since the dawn of time and in their elements have changed little since.

And yet we would be out of business without modern technology. It enhances our ability to find and catch fish at the same time it nourishes our understanding of marine life and the ecosystems that support it.

For example, reported Tuesday that researchers using what they describe as a surface and under-ice trawl found juvenile polar cod in vast abundance directly under the ice throughout the Eurasian Basin. The thicker the ice, the more fish they caught.

According to the journal Polar Biology, which published the study in August, polar cod, upon which numerous Arctic species depend for sustenance, were known to reside under the ice. What was not known was the extent of juvenile abundance and its correlation with the thickness of the ice. And while the abstract described the fish as in “good condition and well fed,” looming over the report are the consequences of a diminishing ice pack.

All this thanks to a one-off net the size of an automobile designed to float along the bottom of the ice.

Scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, the University of Hamburg and the Dutch research institute IMARES used satellite data and computer models to determine where to set the trawl.

For a scientist on deck aboard a research icebreaker churning across the Arctic, it is difficult, I should think, to contemplate much beyond the timelessness of the sea and sky before you. Yet the reason you are there, of course, is that there is nothing timeless about the view.

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If you’ve been eating a couple of pounds of salmon or tuna a week, or gobbling fish-oil supplements as insurance against cardiovascular destruction brought on by your mainline diet of pizza, cigarettes, and General Tso’s chicken, there’s a new study out that may lead you to consider some lifestyle changes.

Because unless you’re Inuit, the study, published in the journal Science and reported in The New York Times and elsewhere last Friday, suggests that you may be whistling past the coronary bypass unit.

2015 0924 FishOilA 1970s study linking fish oil to heart health fueled a multimillion-dollar menhaden fishery on the East and Gulf coasts. Robert K. Brigham/NOAA photoFour decades ago Danish researchers attempted to explain why Inuit people, for whom whales, seals and fish are staples of a high-fat diet, are not prone to heart disease. The answer: omega-3 fatty acids found in numerous fish species help prevent arrhythmias and increase good cholesterol while reducing bad cholesterol, blood clotting, and triglycerides.

A fat lot of good it will do you. The benefits of omega-3 accrue to Inuits because their ancestors evolved “genetic adaptions for metabolizing omega-3,” in the words of the Times. For those of you who vaguely recall studying Charles Darwin, this is what he meant by natural selection.

“As such,” the study finds, the Inuits “have probably adapted to the cold Arctic climate and to their traditional diet, which has a high content of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids derived from seafood and a content of omega-6 PUFAs that is lower than in Danish controls,” a reference to the 1976 study that spawned the omega-3/fish oil boom.

Think the research is bad news? Think again. The study doesn’t change anything; it simply informs us about how our bodies work. What could be worse than leading ourselves down the primrose path where our health is concerned?

The larger point of the study, says Rasmus Nielsen, leader of the research and a professor of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley, as quoted at, is that different populations have adapted to specific diets.

Regardless of our non-Inuit genetic predisposition to benefit from omega-3 fatty acids (25 percent of Chinese and about 2 percent of Europeans have the gene variant found in almost every Inuit in the study), the health benefits of eating fish are almost too numerous to mention. So there are now more, not fewer, reasons to eat fish.

Still, it’s possible that even without the benefits of omega-3, the average Inuit has a healthier diet than many of us. There’s no way to prove this, of course, but it’s something to think about next time you’re at the county fair.

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Advocates for the environment are claiming the low ground as they prepare to make the case for a national monument around Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine.

2015 0908 Mixedcatch cashesledgeMap showing Cashes Ledge. Conservation Law Foundation photo.Josh Block, press secretary for New England’s Conservation Law Foundation, says such a designation would ensure that “this area remains permanently protected from harmful commercial extraction, such as oil and gas drilling, commercial fishing and other resource exploration activities.”

The truth, of course, is that where Cashes is concerned there is only one activity on Block’s mind or anyone else’s, and that is commercial fishing. The Cashes monument would encompass about 530 square miles, a mere a teacup in the Gulf of Maine, but one that generations of New England fishermen have found productive.

The fact is, exploration for oil and gas on Cashes, or for that matter, anywhere else in the Gulf of Maine, is unlikely. “There’s no resource potential,” says the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.”

And Block might have pointed out that Cashes is not threatened by fishermen, given that the area has been closed to fishing, other than for lobsters, since 2002.

The move for a national monument at Cashes gives the lie, yet again, to cant about fishermen being rewarded tomorrow for their sacrifice today.

In the latter years of the 20th century, we observed a decline in New England haddock and cod. We reduced effort and haddock came back, but cod has lagged. How much of the recovery of haddock should be attributed to fishery management, and how much to environmental factors?

To that point, in the Barents Sea fished by Norway and Russia, cod and haddock have soared together in abundance, and stocks have migrated in a northerly direction. Why there and not here?

(Lest you think otherwise, there are doomsayers who decry even this, ruing the displacement of snails and sculpins and mourning a declining harp seal population. Yes indeed, seals! Tell that to the Newfoundlanders!)

Fish behavior changes, but it’s hard to predict. Permanently closing Cashes Ledge solely to protect fish habitat, which is what we’re talking about, will accomplish nothing the closure of the last 13 years hasn’t accomplished, other than it will forever and needlessly shut the door on productive grounds that for centuries sustained New Englanders and the communities from which they sailed.

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In something of a “man bites dog” story, NMFS last week increased by 40 tons the bluefin tuna quota for harpoon tuna fishermen. The harpoon fleet, which comprises vessels that fish exclusively by means of harpoon, is relatively small  perhaps a few dozen boats  so the increase could potentially go a long way.

Emphasis on “potentially.” I have long compared tuna fishing with deer hunting, in that far more vessels chase bluefin than land them. (And as in deer hunting, most guys are back at it next season, whether they’ve been successful or not.)

2015 0810 mixedcatch bluefinSonny McIntyre poised in the pulpit, harpoon in hand and bluefin in sight.This is doubly so in the harpoon fishery, which is as addictive to many of its practitioners as it is unlikely to be remunerative. In order to face the prospect of going to market, a bluefin must first rise to the surface of ocean – just where is almost impossible to know. It must then be seen, which presumes there’s someone afloat within range to see it, and if observed it must then be “ironed” with a pole thrown from a vessel’s pulpit, a slim platform that in many cases extends further forward of the boat’s center of gravity than the boat is long.

Most bluefin vessels have a daily catch limit. The harpoon fleet’s seasonal quota recognizes that “stick boats” can only do business under ideal sea conditions.

Even so, the harpooner’s lot is analogous to that of most any other fisherman. The fish are elusive, the weather is uncertain, the days are long, and the business model is dubious.

But it’s bucolic and artisanal (fuel bills notwithstanding) and there’s no fishery quite like it. In National Fisherman’s September cover story fisherman/author Corky Decker, who got his start in Maine before heading first to Alaska and then to the western tropical Pacific, takes us back to where tuna harpooning began, and to the family who propelled it to prominence off northern New England.

For more photos from the September cover story, check out the Sorting Table.

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Inside the Industry

Ray Hilborn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, recently received the 2016 International Fisheries Science Prize at the World Fisheries Congress in Busan, South Korea.

The award was given to Hilborn by the World Council of Fisheries Societies’ International Fisheries Science Prize Committee in recognition of his 40-year career of “highly diversified research and publication in support of global fisheries science and conservation.”


Legislators from Connecticut and Massachusetts complained about the current “out-of-date allocation formula” in black sea bass, summer flounder and scup fisheries in a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce earlier this week.

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