National Fisherman

Mixed Catch 

jerryJerry Fraser is NF's publisher and former editor.



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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Just what we needed! Another seafood label! The latest is Smart Catch, and it will certify restaurants that commit to serving seafood that meets the label’s sustainability standards.

In particular, Smart Catch is emphasizing “storied fish,” which is to say, fish whose provenance will make for interesting presentation to diners. From this, one infers that fish caught locally, or perhaps fresh overnighted from some interesting place, are likely candidates for celebration, as opposed to those that are, say, flash frozen, shipped to China, processed, refrozen, and shipped back to a container port for distribution and re-thawing prior to deep frying.

SmartCatch logoIn its essence, I like the idea. Ideally, dining should be an experience, and having a knowledgeable server or even chef relate the stories (or as Smart Catch likes to say, tales) lurking beneath the surface of the menu certainly qualifies as experience.

Trouble is, we already have a zillion seafood labels. (Don’t believe me? Check out

Smart Catch is the brainchild, we are told, of Paul Allen, a guy whose prolificity of brainchildren includes computer operating systems, a rock and roll museum, professional sports teams and numerous scientific and philanthropic endeavors.

This invests in it a certain cache and, assuming Allen’s ongoing commitment, staying power.

I wasn’t much on seafood labels in the beginning and nothing in the intervening years has changed my mind. But I do see in Smart Catch a potential mechanism for advancing diners’ interest in seafood as well as the cause of locally caught fish.

It depends, of course, on whether the tale actually tells us something about the fish, who caught it and where, or is a bromide such as “We don’t serve trawl-caught fish.”

This one could go either way.

You know which way I’m leaning.

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If you want to know what’s wrong with seafood certification, look no further than the dust-up over Alaska salmon, which are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, depending on who catches them.

2014 0401 PinksMSC-certified Alaska salmon. Jessica Hathaway photoAs the “launch customer” for the MSC, Alaska salmon received pro bono certification. Given that the fishery conjures up images of jumping fish, wild bears and snow-capped mountains, most of the bono went to the MSC, in the form of green street cred for a fledgling NGO.

Eventually, a number of fishing interests in Alaska created their own sustainability label, obviating the no longer pro bono MSC label, and parted company with the MSC.

But markets, as I like to say, are a force of nature, and the MSC label has become something of a sine qua non in many quarters, particularly overseas but also in the United States, home to the world’s largest company, WalMart, which is committed to ecolabeled seafood.

Now that the players who walked away from MSC want to rejoin those who stayed, we have a situation in which one fish wears the MSC label while his equally sustainable brother does not.

Although this doesn’t serve the interests of fishermen or consumers, one can argue that the MSC has elevated the standards for sustainability. But it has also created an environment in which biologically singular fisheries have had to be certified for multiple harvesting interests. Practicing sustainability is one thing. Paying for apparent sustainability is something else.

I am not a fan of ecolabels and never have been. There is no data I am aware of that proves that fish with the MSC label are more likely to thrive as a species than those without. In this country, catch limits are set so conservatively that no one should have second thoughts about eating seafood.

But all the world’s a stage, so fisheries pay to play. The fact that seafood producers in Alaska feel they need the imprimatur of the MSC label does not bode well for those elsewhere who oppose ecolabels as a matter of principle.

If salmon interests feel compelled to throw in with the MSC, the likelihood of their being joined in a boycott by other fisheries seems pretty slight. However, it should be pointed out that the MSC holds the franchise not on sustainability, but on selling the idea of it.

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As a neophyte reporter I learned to ask myself, “What’s wrong with this picture?” The objective wasn’t to get a “scoop,” though of course scoops are energizing. The objective was an understanding of what was going on.

2015 0528 SOSI went fishing for quite a few years, and as a journalist I have been covering commercial fishing for quite a few more. Yet when it comes to New England’s groundfish fishery, an industry I should know like the back of my hand, I continue to ask myself, “How did we get in this mess?”

One must begin with the guiding light of federal management today, which is that ideally, you will have fewer and fewer fishermen chasing more and more fish.

Even if you accept this dubious premise, no one has come up with an acceptable means of managing the forced march of fishermen out of the industry, other than disaster relief, which is more disaster than relief.

In addition, almost no one has much faith in management’s ability to account for groundfish, particularly cod. NOAA’s dire assessment of cod stocks does not stand up when compared with the observations of fishermen. Of course, there are facile explanations of why this is so. We’ve recently been assured that “it’s the last few cod schooling up, that’s why they’re catching them,” but this is a notion, not an observation, and not an especially sensible one.

Fishery management needs to be held accountable for its failures. Every year, in its Status of Stocks report, NOAA crows about how it continues to reduce overfishing and offers up a shrinking list of overfished species as testimony to a job well done. What it doesn’t go on about is its inability to consider the impacts of its policies on fishing communities, as required by law. By rights, NOAA should include in its report a list of licensees, crews and vessels that have exited fisheries since the previous volume.

In this way the public would begin to get the picture of what is wrong with fishery management in this country and derive new insights into what is going on in our coastal communities.

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It’s mid-May, which means the bluefin tuna fishermen around here are getting ready. Perkins Cove, Maine, my home port, has produced more than its share of world-class tuna harpooners. I am not one of them.

2015 0514 BluefinBetter bluefin days fishing for a story on the Bettina H. with skipper Tim Virgin. Jerry Fraser photoI went tuna fishing in my youth, but I went only a handful of times when I owned the Hard Times. The summer Little Joe and I tried it, around 1981, the dabs hung on until August, and we probably averaged 80 cents a pound and 1,200 pounds a day. We’d leave at 5 a.m., make three, three-hour tows and be in by supper time – not that we always went straight home – down only about 50 gallons of fuel.

So after a few days of joy-riding around the ocean looking for bluefin, Joe and I took the tuna stand off and went back to dragging flounders and earning a paycheck.

I’d seen the tuna movie before. Several years earlier I was whiting fishing with Lester Orcutt aboard the Minkette when, sadly, the tuna bug bit us. The Japanese had a longliner in the northwest Atlantic, the Tatsumi Maru, and they were catching a lot of bluefin, which they froze at sea and unloaded in Portland for shipment to Japan.

They must have been selling to Willard and Daggett because Phil Willard offered us some of their gear to try, and the next thing I knew our net and doors were on the hard. We ran the towing warps off in shoal water in front of Biddeford Pool and replaced them with longlines. Phil also supplied us with snap-on gangions, which a lot of longliners did not have in those days, and glass floats, so our gear was finestkind, as we say in Maine.

My recollection is that our bait was not. I believe Lester had frozen some whiting once he made the decision to try the tuna. In any case, the bait likely would not have made much difference. The Tatsumi Maru was fishing 60 miles of gear, we were probably fishing two. They could stumble onto a bunch here and there, we had to find feeding tuna.

We didn’t. What we found were feeding bluedogs, and we found them only because they found our bait, as did the birds that dove on our gear as soon as I snapped the gangions on and flung them over the side. I guess the lesson is that not everything in nature is as fussy about what it eats as the bluefin tuna is.

After two weeks we gave Phil back his longlines and loaded the dragging gear back on. There was a lobster bait shortage that year, so for the rest of the summer and into the fall we went port to port selling bait at $20 a drum. We fished on the beach and loaded the boat every day, and Lester paid me 25 percent.

Who needed tuna?

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Our Moment of Youth column, which you'll find on page 10 in the June issue, makes me smile. This month's author is Monique Coombs, who holds various roles in the fishing industry, is married to a Maine lobsterman and lives on Orrs Island, Maine. Today she can't imagine not being a part of an industry she clearly loves. But when she was growing up, it didn't even occur to her that she'd become so fully immersed in the fishing life.

"I think I got lucky. That's how I ended up living near the water and married to a fisherman," she writes. "Seriously. Just plain luck." I can relate.

2015 0507 MomentOfYouth bigBack in November of 1994, I answered a help-wanted ad I saw in the Maine Sunday Telegram; a magazine called National Fisherman was looking for a copy editor. As luck would have it, Jim Fullilove, the magazine's editor and publisher brought me in for an interview.

I got my hands on some copies of the magazine, and instantly liked what I was reading. Mind you, I knew precious little about the fishing industry. But I was captivated by the stories, and felt like I could and wanted to learn about the industry.

Thankfully, the magazine hired me. And so began my journey with NF, starting in our Rockland, Maine, office, which sat at the end of Tillson Avenue, right on the water. If National Fisherman was a trade magazine, it wasn't like one I'd ever seen. It had a great mix of news and feature stories about life at sea and a lively boats and gear section, all of which appealed to fishermen and general interest readers alike. You could find it on magazine racks in bookstores and in the supermarket! You couldn't say the same for your garden-variety trade magazine.

That great mix of stories is still found in NF today. And that's because publisher Jerry Fraser, editor-in-chief Jes Hathaway, Boats & Gear editor Mike Crowley and art director Laura Dobson are passionate about the industry and are really committed to bringing commercial fishing to life in the pages of each issue. So are longtime contributors like Kirk Moore, Hoyt Childers, Charlie Ess, Larry Chowning and Susan Chambers.

And because they are so committed to delivering a great magazine to you every month, I feel like this is a good time for me to step away from the magazine. I have new adventures, both personal and professional, that I want to tackle, and now is the time to do it.

But I will tell anyone who asks in no uncertain terms that this is the best job I've ever had. I have been extremely fortunate to write and edit (and blog) for National Fisherman, and equally fortunate to get to learn about this historic industry and meet you, the amazing men and women who take to the water each day to bring back a delicious and nutritious protein source for the rest of us to enjoy. Fishing is a tough way to make a living, and you choose to do it anyway because you love the fishing life.

Monique Coombs says she is lucky to have discovered that life.

So am I.

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Page 1 of 32

Inside the Industry

The anti-mining group Salmon Beyond Borders expressed disappointment and dismay last week at Alaska Governor Bill Walker’s announcement that he has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

This came just days after his administration asked members of his newly-formed Transboundary Rivers Citizens Advisory Work Group to provide comment on a Draft Statement of Cooperation associated with Transboundary mining.


NMFS recently released a draft action plan for fish discard and release mortality science, creating a list of actions that they hope can better inform fisheries.

We know that fishermen have to deal with bycatch by discarding or releasing unwanted catch overboard, but there is a data gap regarding how those fish survive.

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