National Fisherman

The Rudderpost 

jesJes Hathaway is the editor in chief of National Fisherman magazine and NationalFisherman.com.

 

This week I was in Seattle for the tail end of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council Meeting and to help host the first of our public hearings with the Center for Sustainable Fisheries on making changes to the Magnuson Act.

We got some great feedback and enjoyed a couple of hours of discussion. But the real drama was taking place north of us in Anchorage at the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting. There the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance is getting their third shot at setnetters in Cook Inlet by proxy, with the continued campaign to divert commercial fishing quota to sport fishermen.

After the alliance failed in their attempt to create a ballot initiative to reallocate commercial quota, their next step was to file a suit in Alaska's Superior Court challenging Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell's decision.

Now the Board of Fisheries is making moves to restrict setnetters by cutting their fishing time and restricting their areas, as well.

The board adopted a fishing plan submitted by a sportfishing organization, which the Alaska Department of Fish & Game testified would make current escapement goals in the Kenai River an unlikely challenge to achieve. The local drift fleet also submitted a proposal, which the board did not discuss or deliberate, according to the Homer News.

The push, according to board chair Karl Johnstone, is to expand public (sport) access to salmon runs, despite the concern that allocating more quota for sportfishing interests is likely to result in overescapement, which in turn results in lower returns for following years.

“Our livelihood depends on a stable allocation of sockeye, and a healthy sockeye return to the Kenai and Kasilof," Arni Thompson, who represents processors and commercial fishermen as the executive director of the Alaska Salmon Alliance, told the Homer News. "So if you go too far with providing fish for all Alaskans, then you really do stand to jeopardize the healthy runs to the Kenai River. This (new plan) could start resulting immediately in some very large over-escapements.”

The meetings are expected to run over by at least two days, ending around Saturday, Feb. 15.

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As I traveled around the United States and Canada last month, toting our February issue, somehow the upcoming "Wicked Tuna" story (NF March p. 20) kept bobbing to the surface, not unlike a bluefin struggling against a hook and line.

The day I arrived in town for the Maryland Watermen's Association show, the cast of "Wicked Tuna" was leaving after a brief appearance in Ocean City on their way south for a spinoff show that will take place in North Carolina.

I am always thrilled when something in the magazine creates a good buzz. But it also puts a smile on my face to see people in this industry excited about something positive, especially people in New England.

2014 0204 CSFThe "Wicked Tuna" guys are doing well, and kudos to them. But we can't get lost in their glory and forget that the rest of Gloucester (and many other ports in the Northeast and around the country) are not only struggling but suffocating under draconian and outdated management measures.

Next week begins a series of public listening sessions sponsored by National Fisherman and the Center for Sustainable Fisheries. We will be in Seattle on Tuesday, Feb. 11, for the end of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting and to hold a half-day session at the Renaissance Hotel.

Our goal is to propose some changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that will give the regional councils some flexibility and a stronger mandate to manage fisheries holistically.

Our standard for best-available science is simply inadequate in many fisheries, and the rebuilding timeline is arbitrary. It's time to focus our collective energy to create a strong and united national fishing industry that can rely on sound data to sustain the fish, the fishermen and the backbone of all fisheries — coastal communities.

I welcome you to join us and help us make a change to ensure a fishing future. For more information, visit www.nationalfisherman.com/magnuson.

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There's an epidemic in this country that seems to be spreading faster than a virus — fights over fishing allocation. All across the country, these battles rage on. Many of them have been going for decades, and few of them seem likely to end anytime soon.

In the Gulf of Mexico, sportfishing interests are knocking on the door of snapper-grouper IFQ allocations. The Coastal Conservation Association is pushing to keep the commercial allocation at a benchmark and allow any growth above that benchmark to be weighted in favor of recreational fishing.

The problem with that shift in allocation, as I described in "How is CCA like an oil spill?," is that catch shares work by allowing the rising tide of quota to lift all boats, not just the sporty ones.

The next theater for this fight is in Houston at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting, Feb. 5 and 6.

2014 0130 SetnetThis week in Alaska, Cook Inlet setnet fishermen witnessed the predicted next step in their fight against a small minority of guided anglers and fishing-camp owners to keep their fishery from being banned.

The setnetters' opponents would like to ban the gear in urban areas and turn their quota over to sport fishermen, and that's all in the name of conservation. But how is it conservation if the quota simply falls into different hands? For more on this fight, see "Setnets unsnared for now."

But of course, these are just recent examples. And in many cases, the CCA can be found at the bottom of the heap. Let's not forget that Oregon fishermen lost their fishing grounds to sportfishing last year, and that North Carolina commercial fishermen and their supporters just barely beat back yet another fish-grab when the CCA tried to get red drum, spotted sea trout and striped bass designated as game fish.

It's critical for fishermen all over the country to be aware that they are not alone in these fights. Perhaps it will give every corner of the industry some momentum to keep battling. But it's not just fishermen who should care about these fights. We already import more than 90 percent of our seafood. If these fish grabs continue, the choices for consumers will continue to dwindle. Moving quota away from commercial fishermen takes American fish away from the overwhelming majority of American consumers. What happens to the fishermen floats downstream.

Photo: Alaska's Cook Inlet setnetters prefer fishing over fighting; Amy Grannum

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What do you do when the already frigid winter temps take another dip into sub-zero territory? Head north of course! I’m on the road to Moncton, New Brunswick, for the Fish Canada Workboat Canada show.

I love catching up with our friends in the Maritimes and seeing what the region brings to the table for new gear, processing and boats. The new products showcase has a wide range of entries — gloves, immersion suits, buoys, engines and more — to tempt all the fishermen who will doubtless be gearing up over the weekend.

I’ll be manning the National Fisherman booth — 325 — Friday and Saturday at the Moncton Coliseum. Come on by, and take advantage of a few show specials!

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By the time you read this, I'll have touched down in Ocean City, Md., ready for Friday's start of the 40th annual Maryland Watermen's Show — aka, the East Coast Commercial Fishermen's and 
Aquaculture Trade Exposition.

This is the first fishing show of 2014, and as always, it promises to be a fun one.

Among other boats, gear and equipment, Eugene Evans of Evans Boats in Crisfield will have on display a 1969-built wooden boat that he recently wrapped in fiberglass for Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. The expo's schedule offers a full slate of aquaculture and commercial fishing seminars, cooking demos, equipment, boats and of course the annual Waterman of the Year competition.

See more videos of last year's competition on our YouTube channel.

But like many industry gatherings, some of the most memorable traditions of the Maryland Watermen's Show take place off the show floor. I'm looking forward to catching up with many of the folks I only get to see once a year down in Ocean City, taking a slice of cake at the Fontainebleau bar and packing in as much Chesapeake seafood as I possibly can in a matter of days. Though I'm sure we'll all be missing the late Larry Simns, former president of the association and an NF Highliner, the show goes on in his honor.

If you're on the Delmarva this weekend, swing on by the Ocean City Convention Center and visit us in booth 309.

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Earlier this week, Alaska's Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell handed down a decision that a petition to ban urban setnets was in violation of the state constitution and therefore would not appear on a ballot.

2013 SetnetsunsaredAs in most cases of attempted gear bans, this initiative was created under the guise of conservation but was in reality a fish grab. The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance — backed by longtime sportfishing proponent Bob Penney — submitted the initiative in an effort to put commercial setnet quota into the hands of guided anglers. The basis of their claim is that setnets take fish indiscriminately, including the worrisome king salmon.

However, setnetters who would be affected by the ban harvest only 13 percent of the late-run king salmon in the Kenai River. Compounding the lack of urgency for a ban is the fact that Kenai kings are not a stock of concern under the state's rigorous management policies.

The ballot initiative, which would have benefited Alaska lodge owners, was not supported by most sportfishing groups. In fact, the Kenai Area Fishermen's Coalition (comprising mostly unguided anglers) submitted a letter to Treadwell opposing the initiative and claiming that it would damage critical relationships between sport and commercial interests.

According to many sources, Penney has suggested that he would like to reduce commercial fishing in favor of recreational fishing in Cook Inlet, which is the area that would have been immediately affected by the ban.

However, Alaska's Constitution does not allow resource reallocation to take place by voter initiative. Rather, the state prefers to leave those decisions to fishery managers, as it should. The riskiest effect of this initiative, however, is that it sets a precedent for single user groups to target allocation on a statewide basis.

This fish fight has been going on for decades, and most certainly is not over now. Cook Inlet setnetters are prepared for the long haul, as should be commercial fishermen across that state and the rest of the country.

Photo: Cook Inlet setnetters in Kasilof cruise to the beach in front of Redoubt. Photo by Amy Grannum

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As Lori French wrote for NF's February Dock Talk, fishermen have seemingly endless expressions for bad weather. The popularity of stories like "A Perfect Storm" would have us believe the biggest risks of fishing take place in bad weather. When in fact, the scariest prospect a fisherman can face is falling overboard. And if no one is around to see him fall, what are his chances of being rescued?

New York Times writer Paul Tough's retelling of Montauk, N.Y., fisherman John Aldridge's survival has caused more than a ripple of controversy in the fishing industry. The story itself of Aldridge's slip off the deck and subsequent (and miraculous) rescue is gripping and inspiring. But what exactly does it inspire? Fear? Hope? An impetus for change?

As former Coast Guardsman Mario Vittone wrote in his piece for gCaptain this week ("Trying very hard to die"), there seems to be a widespread acknowledgment of the dangers of fishing, yet very little effort to reduce the risk of those dangers. In fact, just a generation ago, fishermen widely accepted that if anything went wrong at sea, they would be lost. They didn't carry life rafts or EPIRBs or expect the Coast Guard to come to their rescue.

So in the grand scheme, the industry has come pretty far. That doesn't mean we don't have work to do. But changing a culture does not happen quickly. It happens slowly over generations. Fishermen are often born into the fishing industry. They fish because their fathers and grandfathers went fishing. That makes the culture of the industry not just pervasive from a community perspective but also nearly genetic. So even a small generational shift can require a lot of momentum.

The mistake Vittone and others make is comparing fishing to other maritime industries because they face similar risks by the virtue of being at sea. This is too simplistic a comparison to help solve the safety problem, and it makes fishermen easy to dismiss as cavalier and ignorant, essentially saying, they're the only ones who take these risks, so they must not care.

What makes the commercial fishing industry unique is that it is so varied. Commercial fishing boats have crews of 1 to 100 (and more). There are boat owners, fleet owners, greenhorns, deckhands; those who fish from the shore and those who fish hundreds of miles from shore; those who fish in warm waters year-round, and those who fish in cold water year-round. And, perhaps most importantly, you have those who fish with safety at the forefront and those who do not. But the dividing line is not necessarily education (though that does play a role). Economics is often a barrier, as well.

These variances make it nearly impossible to recommend a standard of safety to individual fishermen — except the use of a personal locator beacon and perhaps inflatable work vests. The one thing all boat-bound fishermen have in common is the low probability of surviving a fall overboard. If we really want to change the culture of safety in fishing, maybe we should find a way to subsidize or incentivize personal safety gear.

Many fishermen in this country are fishing right out straight, scraping to make ends meet. Those are the people most at risk for taking shortcuts and not investing in PLBs and flotation equipment. And honestly, can we blame them? Imagine asking a McDonald's cashier to invest $250 in protective gear on the slight chance that there's a grease fire in the kitchen behind them.

I don't make these comparisons to offer excuses. I make them to help people understand that resistance to change in the industry is not just cultural, it's economic as well. Many fishermen wonder what their future in fishing is literally from day to day. How can we expect them to make an investment in a murky future?

We ought to focus on clearing the air, rather than clouding the conversation with comparisons to other maritime industries. Most fishermen don't see themselves as a subsection of mariners. They see themselves as fishermen. If we want to continue the forward momentum of safety at sea, we have to make it easier for fishermen to understand the risks of not using safety gear and the benefits of investing in it.

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Ask 10 people to define a sustainable fishery, and you're likely to get 10 different answers. Some define it as one that is harvested at a sustainable rate, such that the fish population does not decline over time as a result of fishing practices. How lovely would it be if we understood so much about the oceans that we could actually tell with little doubt when the effects of biomass change were strictly the result of fishing or some other factor?

When it comes to U.S. fisheries, overall we're doing well, despite the lack of a consistent definition of what exactly it is that we're striving to achieve. But where we're failing, we're failing in a tremendously damaging way.

The Center for Sustainable Fisheries — led by Dr. Brian Rothschild, former Rep. Barney Frank and former New Bedford, Mass., Mayor Scott Lang — is seeking to reverse those damages by rewriting the National Standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The aim is to focus on improving data and finding a better balance between sustaining fish populations and the communities that depend on those resources.

In New England, entire communities of fishermen are on the precipice (or beyond) as a result of poorly managed groundfish and shrimp stocks. People who don't understand all the intricacies of the groundfish fishery like to blame the fishermen for overfishing and call it a day.

But the fishery has been federally managed for decades, and in those decades, it has declined steadily. Also in those decades, many other fisheries have recovered from population depletion — as a result of management changes, habitat improvement, climatic shifts and in some cases dumb luck.

New England groundfish stands as an icon for fisheries management failures. We clearly did not fully understand the effects of the fleets foreign trawlers on our stocks before we kicked them to the curb nearly 40 years ago. We clearly did not understand the effects of improved fishing technology and federally incentivized fish-boat-building loans that encouraged any Tom, Dick or Harry to build a boat and go fishing. We most certainly did not understand the nature of spiny dogfish — cod's top competitor for resources — when we protected it from so-called overfishing and sent its numbers soaring to unmanageable highs, meanwhile strangling the market for the now Marine Stewardship Council-certified fishery.

We did not understand how significantly any one of these factors would hamstring the New England groundfish fishery. And now we're asking entire fishing communities to pay for our failures by effectively shutting down their source of livelihood. And why? Because we have clear data that shows the state of the stocks? No, that we don't have. If we did, the shuttering would be a bitter but tolerable pill to swallow. All we have is our best guess and a draconian federal law that says since the management system didn't find a way to turn around decades of damage in the span of 10 years, then the fishing communities have to pay for the lack of results.

Those same communities that followed the rules year in and year out, watching the slow contrition with little source of hope, now find that they're paying a terrible price despite their efforts to do the right thing.

And yet, even with a declared federal disaster, there is little sympathy for the region's fishermen. Many of them have relied on the winter Northern shrimp fishery to make up a little for the lack of access to groundfish. But this year, that fishery has been shut down entirely, largely because warming waters have hampered reproduction.

Sustaining New England's historic fishing communities will have to come from the first definition of the word: capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.

In times of great need, we have to support our fishing communities, either from above or below. I hope efforts to sustain all of America's fishing fleets will lead to some changes in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that can strike a better balance and establish the groundwork for a truly sustainable industry.

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For those of you who love fishing, being in the backwoods and men with beards, Animal Planet is prepared to help you ring in the New Year with glee.

Beginning on Thursday, Jan. 2, "Cold River Cash" will follow three teams of Maine elver (baby eel) fishermen through eight episodes as they bring new meaning to the term "making bank."

2013 1226 CRCAs NF Assistant Editor Melissa Wood found when she visited the northeast corner of the state during the same season the show was being filmed, there is a lot of money to be made in elvers. And there's a good bit of lawlessness, too. With a fishery that takes place overnight on Maine's rural riverbanks, and a catch that yields as much as $2,000 a pound, the elver fishery is known for poaching, robbery and warden raids.

This season's teams are the Maineiacs, from Scarborough — Lee Leavitt, his son Jason Leavitt and Jason's brother-in-law Mike Bradley; the Eelinators, from Brunswick — brothers Dana and Chris Hole and their friend, Ken Cornelison (the three brought in $600,000 during one eel season); and the Grinders, from Hebron — brothers Chad and Justin Jordan.

If you can't wait until Jan. 2, check out Melissa's slide show of her elver adventure, and an excerpt from her feature in the magazine.

Happy New Year, and happy fishing!

Photo: Justin Jordan, Lester Toothaker and Chad Jordan of Team Grinders as seen on Cold River Cash; Animal Planet/David Johnson

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This week, Coast Guard Petty Officer Third Class Travis Obendorf died after he was injured while assisting a disabled fishing boat in Alaska's Bering Sea near Amak Island.

I write often about the sacrifices fishermen make for their work and the fact that they put their lives on the line every day to bring food to our tables. Members of the Coast Guard put their lives on the line to bring fishermen home when no one else can.

2013 12319 AlaskaMistObendorf was serving on the Coast Guard cutter Waesche, which was helping to evacuate nonessential crew of the 166-foot catcher-processor Alaska Mist on Nov. 11 before the cutter towed the fishing boat to safety. Obendorf was injured during the evacuation and was air-lifted first to Anchorage and later transferred to Seattle, where he died after surgery and surrounded by his family.

“Petty Officer Obendorf’s selfless actions directly contributed to rescuing five mariners in distress. His willingness to assist others, even amidst the dangerous environment of the Bering Sea, truly embodies the Coast Guard’s core values,” said Waesche’s commanding officer, Capt. John McKinley. “Travis will be sadly missed.”

My thoughts are with Travis Obendorf's family and friends as they navigate a difficult passage this Christmas and new year. Many thanks to the Coast Guard for making the ocean a safer place to work.

Photo: Coast Guard cutter Waesche crew evacuates nonessential crew members from the disabled catcher-processor Alaska Mist on the Bering Sea near Amak Island, Alaska, Nov. 11; U.S. Coast Guard

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National Fisherman Live

National Fisherman Live: 4/22/14

  • OSU study targets commercial fishing injuries
  • Delaware's native mud crab making recovery
  • Alaska salmon catch projected to drop 47 percent
  • West Coast groundfish fishery bill passes
  • Maine's scallop season strongest in years

Brian Rothschild of the Center for Sustainable Fisheries on revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Inside the Industry

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is currently soliciting applicants for open advisory panel seats as well as applications from scientists interested in serving on its Scientific and Statistical Committee.

Read more...

The North Carolina Fisheries Association (NCFA), a nonprofit trade association representing commercial fishermen, seafood dealers and processors, recently announced a new leadership team. Incorporated in 1952, its administrative office is in Bayboro, N.C.

Read more...

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