National Fisherman

The Rudderpost 

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


I’ve been hearing great things about Barton Seaver for years, most of which can be summed up with, “He’s got a really interesting perspective on the industry.”

2015 0818 SeaverChef Barton Seaver speaks at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine. Jessica Hathaway photoBut any time I go to hear a chef speak about the fishing and seafood industries, I’m a little wary, as I was last week when I attended an event at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. I presume that chefs know a good deal about seafood itself and some about the fishing industry — primarily through the lens of NGOs. But that’s not what you get with Barton.

Not only is he an engaging and eloquent speaker, it’s very clear that he thinks — a lot — about seafood, where it comes from, what it means to us historically and culturally and what it should mean if we want to keep eating it.

Some of the greatest seafood marketing minds know full well how important it is to have chefs on your side. After all, these are the people who introduce many consumers to new proteins, dishes, sauces, preparations, flavor profiles. These are the people who make the mundane magnificent and the unusual approachable.

What we hope after a consumer tries a new type of fish or preparation is that he or she will work up the courage to try making it at home. Perhaps not with the same mastery as a chef, but buy it, cook it, eat it and come back for more.

And if we look at tilapia’s meteoric rise in this country, we cannot dismiss the notion that Americans can be sold on fish. The hiccup is that while more Americans are eating tilapia — generally farm-raised in Asia — they are also getting to be more choosy about other types of protein.

Tilapia is the equivalent of store-brand family-pack chicken. You’ve seen it, a pile of wan meat squeezed onto a massive, plastic-wrapped styrofoam platter. Cheap meat has a place in the market, sure. But do you want to eat family pack and only family pack forever?

My personal experience is that happy, free-range chicken is just tastier. And I feel the same way about fish. I’ve been beating the drum of “Eat Wild First” for a long time. But what I like about Barton-Think is his ability to take it one step further. Don’t just eat wild, be wild. Try something new. So how do we get tilapia eaters to upgrade?

Seaver says you have to sell the narrative of the food. When he opened his Washington, D.C., restaurant Hook, he had established relationships with 13 commercial fishermen and told them that if they caught it, he would serve it. One of his most popular dishes was built around the bait from an otherwise unsuccessful trip.

Hook offered 78 different species of fish on the menu in just the first year, and it was a roaring success. In that one restaurant, Seaver proved that you don’t have to offer the standard top five fish.

Americans will eat interesting food if you sell it to them. Right now, all those tilapia eaters are primed for an upgrade to what American fishermen have to catch, the same way farmed salmon eaters were primed for the flavor explosion that is wild salmon. It’s up to us to sell it to them.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Northeast Fishery Science Center outreach meeting at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland. The stated agenda was to get feedback from stakeholders about the assessment process for Northeast groundfish.

2015 0806 ObserversDeckhands Mike Ragusa and Joe "Joe Ringo" Parisi on the Gloucester, Mass.-based trawler Lady Jane, which participated in cooperative research in 2005. The Northeast council is still debating whether to accept data from these ongoing collaborative research efforts.We were told in no uncertain terms during that meeting that the current assessment would not allow data gathered via cooperative research because it was considered a new data set. The lone exception, however, would be new data gathered via recreational collaborative research showing survivability rates of rec discards in Gulf of Maine cod because it includes “high-quality information.”

The presumption being, I suppose, that collaborative research conducted by federal researchers working with commercial fishermen is not of high enough quality to be permitted in the assessment of a federally managed fish.

Frankly, something stinks, and it’s not the cod.

As meeting attendee Maggie Raymond, director of the Associated Fisheries of Maine, pointed out, “Anything that could possibly result in a higher quota could not be included” in the stock assessment.

Last week, in yet another blow to the fleet struggling to survive a 75 percent quota cut, NMFS denied the council’s emergency request to suspend the fishermen-funded, fed-required observer program. Why? Perhaps because they have bought into the notion that the only way to properly assess the fish stocks is to count what gets caught.

Anyone who has ever been fishing will tell you that what you catch often has little to do with how many fish are in the water but is often a result of where you’re fishing, how your gear is set, and what the conditions are both above and below the waterline.

This is why fishermen look askance at assessments based on one or two tows on one day, set by researchers who may or may not understand the gear in an attempt to account for 20 species of commercial fish.

This is the kind of “high-quality data set” researchers are using to manage our fisheries.

But let’s assume the observers are not there to contribute to assessment research and only to account for bycatch. If you want to count bycatch, you’d be better off creating incentives for fishermen to land bycatch, count it at the dock and then donate it to food banks and schools (everyone in the community wins here). Then spend some money analyzing where and why it was caught and then adjust gear, fishing zones and fishing times to reduce the amount of bycatch. Or better yet, incentivize fishermen to communicate at sea (which many of them already do in order to avoid catching the choke species that can end your fishing year with one bad set) in order to avoid bycatch.

It seems that at many opportunities, we are throwing practical approaches out the window. And we are hurting much more than just the fishing families as a result. We are strangling shoreside processors, gear suppliers, retail businesses, and yes, the appeal of the New England working waterfront, which many tourists spend thousands of dollars to experience every summer.

About a month ago, I watched a video that documented the reunion of a Burmese fisherman and his family after he had been forced into seafood slavery 22 years prior.

2015 0728 SeafoodSlavesEscaped and freed seafood slave Myint Nang is reunited with his family in Burma.Myint Nang left his home in 1993 in search of decent wages in Thailand. At just 18 years old, he was the head of the household, having lost his father to the fishing industry three years before.

Once he was over the border and finally on a fishing boat where he hoped to make enough money to send home to his family, Myint reports that the captain of the Thai fishing boat said, “You Burmese are never going home. You were sold, and no one is ever coming to rescue you,” according to the Associated Press.

The workers onboard were beaten, starved and shackled. Once back on land, Myint escaped into the Indonesian jungle, like many before him. He worked for five years as a farm laborer. But he missed his family so much, he went back to fishing with a promise from a captain that he would return Burmese fishermen to their home country in exchange for work. Another promise broken. Myint made another narrow escape.

Years later, a friend told him that an AP report on seafood slavery had spurred the Indonesian government to repatriate former slaves that had escaped to the nation’s islands. To date, more than 800 former slaves have been returned to their homelands.

I hope all of our readers have been following the stories on slave labor in the seafood industry. There was a time that I thought eating wild U.S. seafood relieved me of culpability in this disgusting business. But the chances are that most of us buy products from the illegal seafood trade.

According to yesterday’s New York Times article, “the United States is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand, more than doubling since 2009 and last year totaling more than $190 million. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American.”

That’s right, our pets eat more seafood than we do.

We’ve recently made strides toward preventing illegal fishing off and near our shores. But we have to demand more oversight of seafood imports. We can help solve this problem, not just by serving as good examples of sustainable and relatively safe fisheries but by leaning on the Thai government to oversee its industry or risk trade with American companies.

I am always entranced by a boat under sail. It reminds me of how far we’ve come and sometimes of what we’ve lost in the art of boating. The beauty of those vessels belies the toil that took place on and below their decks to keep them running, the hard-boiled disposition of the men who sailed them with no safety gear, no electronics, no hope of rescue if things went awry.

2015 0714 HermioneA replica of the historic French frigate Hermione sails under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Jay Fleming photoA replica of the historic French frigate Hermione (air-mee-own) is closing out her American tour of ports along the U.S. East Coast. Today she marks Bastille Day (the French Fourth of July, if you will) in Castine, Maine. She travels next to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

In 1780, Louis XVI sent the Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic aboard Hermione to announce the commitment of the French fleets in assisting our fledgling military to victory against what was then the world’s most robust naval force.

“Our Marquis,” as he was known, played a pivotal role in securing American independence from England. Against the wishes of his own French government, the marquis, just 19 in 1777, secretly sailed to our shores and volunteered to help President Washington defeat the British navy. He returned home the next year and dedicated himself to lobbying on behalf of the American cause.

Lafayette returned to these shores with great fanfare, as does the replica of the ship today. It may serve as a reminder that even the toughest and most munitioned enemy may be defeated with the right allies.

Fishing photographer Jay Fleming captured her glory in Chesapeake Bay among modern-day fishing boats and passing under the ultramodern Bay Bridge. She may not be a fishing boat, but I believe she serves as a reminder that times weren’t necessarily simpler back then. They were just different.

But the spirit of fishing industry was founded in the same spirit that Lafayette had in striking out on his own and following his own passion. I know plenty of fishermen who would say they’d rather risk their own lives at sea so long as it was up to them to make their own way and create their own livelihood.

The country our founders fought so hard to establish nearly 250 years ago was once the most magnificent blend of independence, innovation and foresight. I hope we will continue to foster our historic industry with those founding principals. The boats and crews may be different, but the drive is the same — to be free to make our own way in the world without the oversight of a distant and disconnected sovereign.

It’s the time of year when I want nothing more than to be on the water. And of course I say that as a non-fisherman. I’m just one of the many recreational users of our waterways. (Hence, my fair-weather friendship.)

2015 0630 eNews SurfactantNavy boats anchored along the shoreline during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill clean-up efforts in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.I write often about conflicts among user groups, and naturally many fishing groups keep a hairy eyeball on the oil industry. The threat of oil spills, as we’ve seen most recently in California, is daunting for those who make their living harvesting the ocean’s creatures.

Mishaps, after all, are guaranteed. Humans make mistakes. So we must assume when we allow oil and gas exploration and drilling in a fishing rich area that there will be leaks and spills — ideally not catastrophic ones.

But if anyone can understand what it’s like to be maligned, it’s commercial fishermen. Fleets and individual boat owners all over the country have made great strides to improve their selectivity, fuel consumption, onboard safety, product quality and overall sustainability. And yet, there is plenty of negative press about how commercial fishing has depleted resources to the point of no return.

The solution, we chant on a seemingly endless loop, is gear and tech improvement. And I say that’s just the kind of commitment we’d like to see from the oil and gas sector.

Enter: sugar-based surfactant. According to Maritime Executive magazine, researchers at the City College of New York have developed a biodegradable agent that can clean up water-based light crude oil spills.

If you’ve followed the Deepwater Horizon spill coverage, you’re likely familiar with Corexit, the chemical surfactant that sank the gushing oil to the seabed. We will never know what the results would have been without Corexit. But we may also never know the damage these patches of oil have caused to marine ecosystems, as much of the coagulated oil remains on the sea floor.

A biodegradable surfactant could be the first step in harmonious coexistence for the oil and fishing industries, not only in politics but in practice.

Caption: Navy boats anchored along the shoreline during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill clean-up efforts in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

These days, most emergency management rulings come in the form of a fishery closure. This week, however, Alaska salmon managers have declared an early opening of the setnet fishery on Cook Inlet’s Kasilof River — for the third time in three years as sockeye swarm the area, reaching escapement goals early.

2015 0623 SetnetAlaska Cook Inlet setnetters make up a historic fishery and fleet. Amy Grannum photoThe Department of Fish and Game counts the salmon heading upstream. Once they reach an optimum threshold for spawning (escapement), managers open the fishery to some mix of commercial, subsistence and recreational fishing. The risk of holding off opening the fishery is that too many fish spawning can lead to boom and bust cycles of fish. Managers count the fish to try to minimize fluctuations in biomass.

But this opening is not without controversy. For decades, anti-setnet activists have been targeting local setnetters, claiming that their bycatch of king salmon — a prize sport fish — is too high to justify the use of setnets for sockeye. Recently, the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance submitted 43,000 signatures to bring a setnet ban to the state ballot in an effort to eliminate setnetting in urban areas. It could be on ballots as early as August 2016.

However, Area Management Biologist Pat Shields tells the Peninsula Clarion the king salmon running with the sockeye at this stage are not the same salmon that would be returning the the Kenai River, where recreational king salmon fishing has been closed.

He also noted that managers are careful to balance the commercial fishery’s needs with the needs of competing interests.

“We could have fished (Sunday),” he told the Clarion. “We have the escapement right now to fish (Sunday). We’re aware of king salmon concerns, so we’re delaying that by a day. If we didn’t have any concerns for king salmon ... we probably would fish all of the hours that we could.

The ongoing battle over Marine Stewardship Council certification of Alaska salmon erupted anew with a letter from Rob Zuanich on behalf of the Alaska Salmon Processors Association to Stefanie Moreland, representing the major processors — Trident, Peter Pan, Icicle, Ocean Beauty, North Pacific and Leader Creek.

2015 0602 MSCAlaska's salmon fishermen are waiting for resolution between the major processors and the MSC client group. Jessica Hathaway photoThe ASPA is a group of smaller processors who account for about 15 percent of Alaska’s salmon harvest. The major processors make up the rest. In 2012, the big processors acted together in deciding to take a leap away from MSC and strike out on their own. Now they want back in, but according to the letter, the effort is too little too late.

When the big processors decided to move away from MSC, one of the reasons was because the expense of keeping the ecolabel was burdensome and at the time perceived as potentially unnecessary for the seafood powerhouse that is Alaska salmon. After all, the relationship started when MSC asked the big Alaska processors to carry the ecolabel to help MSC gain international recognition. And that it did.

As such, it seems reasonable that the state of Alaska might have the notion that it is big enough to compete with MSC. Alaska salmon is a pristine brand recognized the world over that could seemingly rely on its history and products to make inroads into European markets where MSC has had a stranglehold on access.

It’s understandable that at that point the small processors may have felt left behind in the wake of major international business decisions. The string of organizations potentially taking over for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as MSC client for the salmon fishery resulted in the loss of critical time to complete the assessment for 2013. The smaller processors lost a summer season with MSC because of the political battle they fought against the major processors who were pushing for all Alaska salmon to forge ahead without MSC. And in retrospect, it’s clear that the ASPA members made the right move for their businesses to keep their label with MSC.

Now that the major processors want back in, the ASPA has their chance to wield a little power, and that they have by putting off allowing the major processors to join their client group until after the summer (read: money-making) season is over, as Zuanich explained in his letter.

The letter also claims the big salmon processors stepped away from MSC and urged other associations to stand down as its client. The motive being that if all Alaska salmon withdrew from the European marketplace, perhaps the market itself would accept the group’s choice of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Responsible Fisheries Management label to fill the void of wild salmon.

But the bottom line is the bottom line: The big companies have the capital to withstand a few iffy seasons while establishing a new ecolabel; the small ones may not. The big companies simply can’t expect the small processors to manage the risk in the same way. So could they have done something to sweeten the pot for the small companies? Perhaps. Would that have been a good business move? In retrospect, perhaps. At the time, I doubt that seemed like an sensible option.

Now MSC is entering the fray in an attempt to mediate and bring the major processors onboard for the season.

In the world of Alaska salmon politics, it doesn’t get better than a ringside seat at this fight.

This intricate dance illustrates that while Alaska is a seafood giant renowned for its salmon industry, there are many political factors at play within that single fishery.

If nothing else, it has gotten salmon fishermen charged up for a season that is predicted to break records, and with the prospect of a stronghold in MSC-dominated European markets, all the more reason to be (tentatively) excited about boat prices and Christmas bonuses.

If you’re planning on a winter trip to Hawaii or Arizona, I recommend you book your tickets now. I suspect most Alaska Air flights to sunny winter havens will be sold out by the end of summer.

I admit I had the wind knocked out of my sails late last week when I read that President Obama has opted to dismiss out of hand Alaska Rep. Don Young’s Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization draft, reportedly based on the advice of his staff.

2015 0526 MagnusonSen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was one of many bipartisan speakers at the 2012 D.C. rally to reform Magnuson. Jessica Hathaway photoAfter the industry mustered support for the bill that could possibly be a Hail Mary pass for the Northeast groundfish fleet, I was excited to see it get widespread support (though Senate approval was uncertain), because that means more people understand the inordinate amount of pain under which New England fishing ports and fleets are operating right now (not to mention the forecast for harbors all along the Eastern Seaboard).

According the White House statement, the objection is to “arbitrary and unnecessary requirements that would harm the environment and the economy.” The problem is that as management now stands, arbitrary and unnecessary requirements are harming the economy and the industry, and quite possibly the environment, too.

What all those opposed to Young’s bill say is that there’s already flexibility in the Magnuson Act. And yet, the powers that be in the Northeast refuse to use that flexibility, and there is no way to hold them accountable for that choice.

So our fleets are caught in the middle, and those who wield the power to change the future have nothing to lose from the collapse of our infrastructure.

The fishermen stand to lose everything. And the public stands to lose access to healthy, local fish when the small-boat fleet gives out after a 95 percent cut in quota.

It looks more and more like we will have to lose it to know the value of what we’ve lost. And then what?

What we will get if we keep tightening the vise on our small-boat fleet is the little guys selling out the the big guys and total ownership of the resource by a handful of large corporations. If what we want is to establish and maintain sustainability in fisheries, it seems to me that the last thing we want to do is put the entirety of the ownership of fisheries in the hands of powerful corporations who have the legal prowess to write their own rules.

If you agree, please contact your representatives and tell them you want to help save small-boat fleets across the country by passing H.R. 1335.

There are no guarantees in life. Even if you despise the green movement for some reasons, you may find yourself working with environmentalists to protect your own backyard.

2015 0519 PebbleSeveral Alaska-based groups continue to fight Pebble Mine, including is the case with some of the opponents of Pebble Mine.

A Wall Street Journal article last week was yet another attempt to damn the process at EPA by clutching pearls at the idea that an environmental activist was involved in fighting Pebble Mine at the early stages.

“Where is the transparency?” the mine’s defenders ask, and rightly so. While I admit that this is not a shocking development, it presents evidence contrary to EPA’s claim that they were merely responding to the requests of Native tribes and local fishermen.

I’ve talked to people in those groups, and I can say without a shred of doubt that they want to keep Pebble Mine far away from their livelihood and source of subsistence for all the right reasons (that is, not political ones).

But if EPA has been lacking transparency, they ought to have their feet held to the fire on this point. What they should not be demonized for is the claim that the mine owners were overlooked and ignored when EPA came knocking.

The pro-Pebble people would have us believe EPA shut them down before they had the chance to file a plan. And yet, they spent more than a decade pouring resources into the idea of building this mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. What were they doing for those 10 years? Research, development, marketing. All without a plan? Does that seem like the kind of business blunder a multibillion-dollar mining company would make?

You can only legitimately complain so long that EPA blocked you before you could file a plan before you actually file a plan. We are going on the second decade. How long does it take?

So go for it, Pebble. File your plan. Have your say.

Or is it possible that the bigger priority is to prolong the legal fight until the whole region is so bankrupt they won’t be able to fight anymore?

Maybe sometimes environmental activists are the bad guys, the ill-informed. (See: Oceana’s fleet of interns crafting off-base PR at an alarming rate.) And maybe sometimes the international mining companies who have no stake in the local culture, longevity of the region’s most significant source of employment and subsistence are actually rapacious industrialists.

Maybe. Sometimes.

I will admit, my first instinct when writing about Oceana’s latest press release was to crack wise about how Kate Mara knows the dangers of drift gillnets because a frightening experience with an entanglement led to her tragic haircut.

2015 0512 MaraOceanaActress Kate Mara has attached her name to Oceana's latest misinformed and misguided campaign. Oceana photoBut that ’do wasn’t the first thing I noticed in the email. I skimmed right past the celebrity eye candy and noticed that the release contains numerous errors, as most of us have come to expect from Oceana.

It’s interesting to me that a group can spend so much time courting celebrities to be the face of their cause and not even bother to google whether it’s legal to use gillnets in Washington and Oregon.* They say, “Washington State prohibits drift gillnets and Oregon does not allow fishermen in the state to use them.” (You can also watch Mara's video on YouTube.)

For more on the drift gillnet fisheries in these states, check out our Cover Story excerpt “Up and down in Puget Sound” by Matt Marinkovich, who gillnets for chum — or keta — salmon in Washington. See also the Yearbook section in our April 2013 issue. Columbia River (Oregon) gillnetter Larry Telen graces the cover.

While it’s true that Oregon’s former Gov. John Kitzhaber (who resigned amid scandal recently) made an effort to restrict gillnets on the Columbia River, his alternative of allowing commercial seining isn’t panning out quite as planned.

The reason being that gillnets can indeed be a highly selective gear type if used properly (the right size mesh, appropriate length and depth of the net, timing of the fishery, and even adding lights or pingers to the nets to deter bycatch).

What I have learned from reading Oceana’s marketing materials is that there’s almost always a better solution to the problems they claim to want to resolve.

Just today I read a great story about Massachusetts’ South Shore lobstermen solving their own whale entanglement woes with more than 1,000 personal hours of research and development. Ask a fisherman to help you solve a problem, and in most cases, you’ll get a pretty useful solution that saves jobs, reduces bycatch and keeps fresh fish on your plate.

National Fisherman has long celebrated fishermen who devote their own free time to these kinds of projects. Their friendly faces and calloused hands carry considerably more substance than a celebrity with a glamour shot and an empty cause.

*For the record, I googled Ms. Mara. I recognized her from "Brokeback Mountain," but I haven't had the opportunity to binge on the Netflix series "House of Cards." Suffice it to say her IMDB entry is far more impressive than her ability to choose a cause.

Page 5 of 39

Inside the Industry

The American Fisheries Society is honoring recently retired Florida Institute of Oceanography director Bill Hogarth with the Carl R. Sullivan Fishery Conservation Award — one of the nation's premier awards in fisheries science - in recognition of his long career and leadership in preserving some of the world's most threatened species, advocating for environmental protections and leading Florida's scientific response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Read more ...

The Marine Stewardship Council has appointed Eric Critchlow as the new U.S. Program Director. Critchlow will be based in the MSC US headquarters in Seattle. He is a former vice president of Lusamerica Foods and has over 35 years in the seafood industry.

Read more ...
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