National Fisherman

Mixed Catch 

jerryJerry Fraser is NF's publisher and former editor.



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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Maine fishermen are wrapping up year two of a pilot project to test electronic monitoring systems, the Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute reports. The pilot project aims to develop an accurate, more cost-effective and safer alternative to using human observers at sea.

"We need to get better information on catch and discards into the management process if we are going to rebuild our groundfish populations and sustain our fishing businesses," says Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association, one of the pilot project partners. "It's clear to me these electronic monitoring systems can help make that happen."

2015 430 Mixed Catch Electronic monitoringIMG 6645Boats participating in a pilot project to develop an electronic monitoring program for the New England groundfish fleet are outfitted with digital cameras and other equipment used to collect data on discards at sea. Gulf of Maine Research Institute photo. The Maine group is part of a collaborative research team led by GMRI, The Nature Conservancy, and Ecotrust Canada. Project participants are testing a new suite of electronic equipment that could replace human observers.

It's expensive using human observers — roughly $500 to $800 a day, GMRI says. NMFS currently covers the cost of processing the data collected at sea and associated administrative expenses. But proposed regulations would limit NMFS funding for the at-sea costs, which would likely be transferred to fishermen come this fall, GMRI says, unless a recent budget amendment the Senate passed provides at-sea monitoring funds.

In the project's second year, seven participating fishermen collected data on over 150 days. GMRI and Ecotrust Canada technicians have equipped participating boats with an electronic monitoring control box that uses open source software for data collection, as well as digital cameras, GPS, hydraulic pressure sensors and powerful removable hard drives that store the data collected for later analysis.

According to GMRI, preliminary results indicate a strong correlation between the numbers and species of fish being discarded that are recorded in captains' logbooks and what the video footage captures. In the new 2015 fishing year, additional analysis will be conducted to identify ways of improving accuracy and precision.

The goal is to design a project this year that will support implementation of an electronic monitoring program in 2016 — a year earlier than the May 2017 date NMFS originally announced in 2014, says Jessica Gribbon Joyce, GMRI's program manager.

So far, the project is showing promise. "Using the electronic monitoring system really didn't add too much extra work to our fishing day, and I think it is something that fishermen will get behind if it can give us a safer alternative to taking human observers on our boats," says Troy Bichrest, a project participant who fishes out of Cundy's Harbor.

It's good to hear progress is being made on the monitoring project; I remember fishermen's shock and anger at the January 2013 New England Fishery Management Council meeting when drastic cod and yellowtail flounder cuts were announced along with the news that fishermen would now be responsible for bearing half the monitoring costs, too, because the agency's budget no longer had funds to assume the full total.

Fortunately, NMFS did ultimately continue paying the monitoring costs, but fishermen knew they would eventually have to bear them. If all continues to go well with the pilot program this year, then perhaps by 2016 an electronic monitoring program that is accurate and less expensive will ease that burden.

You can click here to read the final report from the second year of the project, which provides more detailed results and improvements being made for the 2015 fishing year.

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NMFS is trumpeting good news in its 2014 Status of U.S. Fisheries report it released last week. The number of U.S. fish stocks listed as overfished or subject to overfishing has reached an all-time low since the agency began tracking fish stock status in 1997, the report says. NMFS tracks 469 managed stocks and stock complexes.

Six stocks have been removed from the overfishing list, which contains stocks whose annual catch rate is deemed too high. South Atlantic snowy grouper, North Atlantic albacore, Gulf of Maine haddock, South Atlantic gag grouper, the Gulf of Mexico jacks complex and western Atlantic bluefin tuna have been freed from the overfishing list. That means of the 308 stocks whose overfishing status is known, just 26, or 8 percent, are on the overfishing list.

Dig a little deeper into the report and you'll find that while six stocks were removed, four were added to the list — Gulf of Mexico greater amberjack and gray triggerfish, Puerto Rico scups and porgies complex and the Puerto Rico wrasses complex, whose status was previously unknown.

Two stocks that made it off the overfishing list, Gulf of Mexico gag grouper and North Atlantic albacore, were also removed from the overfished list of stocks whose population size is too low, whether because of fishing or other causes. Of the 228 stocks whose overfished status is known, 37 are on the overfished list. Happily, no stocks were added to the list.

In fact, Gulf of Mexico gag grouper scored the hat trick, as its population has rebuilt to target levels. Gulf of Maine/Cape hatteras butterfish and Mid-Atlantic Coast golden tilefish were likewise declared rebuilt, the report says. The addition of the three fish stocks brings the total number of rebuilt U.S. marine fish stocks to 37 since 2000.

You can check out a synopsis of the report in the NMFS video below and read the full report here

It's good to hear that U.S. fish stocks overall are healthy and are being fished sustainably. That can only raise the profile of U.S. seafood in global markets.

Yet here in New England, it's the inability of key groundfish species like Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod and Cape Cod/Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank yellowtail flounder to escape either the overfished or overfishing lists that are crippling the dwindling Northeast groundfish fleet.

Yet fishing effort clearly isn't causing that status. You need only look at The Loud Hailer announcement on our home page to gauge the dissatisfaction the region's fishermen have with a management system that they feel is failing them.

The good news is that there are bright and innovative minds and fishermen who are willing to roll up their sleeves to find ways to improve data collection and find answers to the groundfish industry problems. If the agency is truly willing to work with the industry to find those answers, then maybe in the future NMFS will really have some good news to trumpet in its annual stock assessment report.


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NF has always understood that U.S. commercial fishermen are remarkable people, but we made formal recognition of the work they do on and off the water when the magazine began the Highliner Award program in 1975. Now the general public has an opportunity to learn why the nation’s fishermen are special, too.

Busch beer has selected Wanchese, N.C., fisherman Dewey Hemilright as one of six people making up the Busch Heroes program’s class of 2015. The program honors hardworking men and women who “earn it” every day.

According to Busch, it developed the program in 2014 to recognize people “who truly go above and beyond, not only in their day job, but also by making a difference in their community when the workday is complete.”

Hemilright, who we named a Highliner in 2012, certainly qualifies for the Busch program. He fishes aboard the 42-foot Tar Baby, longlining for tunas and swordfish in the fall, gillnetting for spiny dogfish and targeting croaker and bluefish until April, then longlining for dolphin and tilefish in the summer.

But Hemilright also puts in plenty of time off the water as an industry advocate and educator. He’s a member of the Mid-Alantic Fishery Management Council, the Dare County Commission for Working Watermen, North Carolina Watermen United, the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association and the North Carolina Fisheries Association.

And for about 10 years, he’s participated in Provider Pals, a program that matches schools with professionals who work with natural resources. Hemilright visits classrooms throughout the country to talk with students about what it’s like to be a commercial fisherman.

Hemilright and his fellow Busch Heroes will be featured in print ads, on retail displays and region-specific billboards. Hemilright is also a subject of the short video below that Busch promotes on its Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Even a short video piece like this one can only help to raise the profile of America’s commercial fishermen. Hemilright and plenty of commercial harvesters all over the country work hard and do their best to educate people about the job they love. There are plenty of heroes in the U.S. fishing industry to go around.

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Trying to predict what will happen in the future is tricky business (just ask any weatherman). That doesn't stop any of us — including your favorite commercial fishing magazine — from doing it, though, does it? An interesting example of prognostications for the lobster industry, made in 1965, appears in the Fishing Back When column, found on page 4, in our May issue

Fifty years ago, NF Managing Editor David Getchell wrote an article about what the lobster industry would look like in the future. For example, Getchell predicted that lobster boat hulls would be made of plastic — fiberglass reinforced plastic, that is.

2015 407 NF May15 FishingBackWhen"The days of wood lobster boats are numbered," Getchell wrote. "It's only a matter of time before someone makes a mold of a Maine lobster launch hull and begins turning out fiberglass lobster boats in quantity."

Getchell also saw promise in a British manufacturer's plastic igloo-shaped traps, which were said to be durable, lightweight (about 25 pounds per piece), and take up far less room on deck than the wooden traps used back then did; however it wasn't known if the new plastic traps would out-fish the traditional ones.
Alas, the plastic traps didn't gain favor here. However, Getchell did note that vinyl-coated wire traps that weighed half as much yet fished as well as the wooden variety, were making inroads. Other predictions Getchell made came to pass, too. Hand hauling of traps gave way to hydraulically powered haulers, and diesel power replaced gas engines.

Not bad, Mr. Getchell, not bad. Getchell understood innovations were coming to the lobster industry. "Like it or not, and many of us don't, changes in huge measure are in store for the lobster industry," he wrote. "If it is to survive as a profitable commercial fishery, lobstermen must face up to the future — and the sooner the better."

The spirit of innovation that sparked changes in the lobster industry remains with us today in a variety of fisheries. And in the May issue's Dock Talk column on page 10, you'll learn how a robust yet user-friendly electronic data collection system is designed and being used to help Northeast scallopers avoid yellowtail flounder bycatch.

Then you can turn to page 32 to find out about ideas Alaska salmon harvesters have for chilling and processing their catch aboard the boat. Wrangell, Alaska, fisherman Tanner Smith's new 49-foot combination boat, Netted Dreams, is outfitted to be able either freeze his salmon or chill them in a refrigerated seawater hold, or do both. And Bill Webber Jr. of Cordova, Alaska, is designing bleeding and heading systems for processing salmon onboard gillnetters.

It may still be awhile yet before someone develops the personal jet packs and flying cars that were supposed to be a hallmark of the 21st century. But clearly the spirit of innovation is alive and well within the fishing community today.

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2015 331 Book Cover2.5 gpf
Poems and Thoughts on Fishing and Life
By Rob Seitz
Rob Seitz, 2013
Softcover, 40 pp., $10.00

You get a lot of bang for the buck out of Rob Seitz's poetry collection, "2.5 gpf." Seitz, a veteran performer at the annual FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, Ore., offers up a short but engaging collection of poems about life and fishing that will make you laugh and think a little, too.

Seitz has been a commercial fisherman for 30 years. The Soldotna, Alaska, native began drift gillnetting with his grandfather, Larry Lancashire, on Cook Inlet in 1982. Ten years later he was in Astoria, Ore., starting a career as a trawler/dragger skipper. Since 2011, he's been trawling out of Morro Bay, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Tiffani, and their two children.

He began his writing career after winning the onsite poetry competition at the FisherPoets Gathering in 1998. He's collected 14 of his poems written over the past 10 years, and added his thoughts about each one and what inspired them. The notes about each poem provide insight into them and offer glimpses of his life on the water and at home.

Now, it doesn't take very long to read through the book. It took me maybe an hour to read it cover to cover. Yet I feel like Seitz's book will stay with me far longer. If you're unfamiliar with his poems, check out his page on the Inthetote website, which features work and information for a variety of FisherPoet Gathering peformers.

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Page 2 of 33

Inside the Industry

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.


The Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance recently announced that the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation has awarded the organization a Hollings Grant to reduce whale entanglements in Alaska salmon fisheries by increasing the use of acoustic whale pingers to minimize entanglements in fishing gear.


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