National Fisherman

The Rudderpost 

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

 

I haven’t shopped at Walmart in decades. However, if I did make a habit of going there, I’d be on a break with the retailer over their short-sighted policy to refuse Alaska salmon on the grounds that it no longer carries the Marine Stewardship Council blue label.

Pburg salmonSeafood leaders from Alaska met with decision-makers at Walmart last week, and reportedly, the retail giant seems open to revising its policy. But why is this all coming up now? Alaska announced it was dropping MSC certification two years ago in favor of Responsible Fisheries Management standards, as developed by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute even previewed the decision with a press tour of some of their biggest buyers, Walmart included.

While I don’t like Walmart, there’s no denying that the retailer is where it is today because its leaders have vision. And it’s a successful vision by many accounts (depending on your definition of success). That's why I’m surprised that those same leaders didn’t get the message in 2011 that Alaska salmon is leading the charge to the post-MSC American seafood industry. Clearly nothing about Alaska salmon management has changed. And if one follows the history of MSC, its approval of Alaska salmon was as helpful to the ecolabel as it was to Alaska.

Now that MSC is the big name in global fishery certification, Alaska would like to part ways, amicably. They seem to have outgrown each other. But the megacorporations who partnered with MSC (and NGOs) to send the ecolabel to the next level aren’t too keen to see the future of sustainable seafood without their big blue anchor.

Here’s the thing about anchors: They serve you well in a storm. But when the weather clears, you have to reel them in to get to the next destination.

The skies are blue and clear over Alaska as well as the rest of this country’s wild fisheries, which are managed for sustainability year-round, coast to coast. If Walmart wants to be the great American retailer, it can start by selling great American seafood, any and all of it.

Photo: Boxes of salmon hoisted at the docks in Petersburg, Alaska, 1915; Frank and Frances Carpenter collection, Library of Congress

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We've all heard it before: We're fishing down the food chain. The oceans will be empty by 2048. Our problems could be solved with an end to (insert gear type) fishing.

But fishermen know the truth because they see it every day. There may not be as many monster fish out there as there were when any commercial fishery began, but they are still out there. In our October issue, columnist Roger Fitzgerald offers proof in the form of Pacific cod "bucketheads" in his story "Bye-bye to big fish?" on page 10. And some of our Facebook fans have offered up photographic evidence of their own.*

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A study released today suggests that curtailing fishing does not always solve the problems of stock recovery. Again, this is something fishermen and fisheries researchers have known for many years.

The study was headed by the National Research Council (part of the National Academies of Science) and members of the organization's committee that evaluates the effectiveness of Magnuson's stock rebuilding plans.

I saw committee member and University of Washington Professor André Punt speak at the Managing Our Nation's Fisheries conference in D.C. this spring. He presented some of this groundbreaking data, which shows that the 10-year rebuilding timeline is a good tool, albeit an arbitrary one. Punt et al help make the case for building in some flexibility to Magnuson guidelines, so as to protect fishing communities, especially those with small-boat fisheries.

Like any business, the smaller your operation, the more vulnerable you are to downturns. Unless we want to convert our fisheries to the Walmart model, we have to find a soft place for small-boat fleets to land when their stock goes soft.

Once we decide to make it a priority to preserve our working waterfronts and historic fishing communities, we open up endless opportunities. But until we decide to put our fleets first (or at least tied with the resource), our only choice will be to watch small towns shut down. As Fitz says in his story, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

*To view the slideshow in high-resolution, visit our Flickr page.

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Alaska news is all atwitter today over a state fair pumpkin disqualification that edged out what would have been a record-breaking entry somewhere between 1,290 and 1,420 pounds. That's a lot of pumpkin pie. Record holder J.D. Megchelsen's specimen was brought down by a thumb-sized hole that violated the fair's requirement for "structurally sound produce." The win went to Dale Marshall of Anchorage with a 1,182-pounder.

Not to be outdone by prize-winning produce, Southeast salmon fleets are causing a stir with their own Alaska whopper. The region's gillnetters, trollers and seiners are looking at a new record for pink salmon landings. They've caught 80 million pinks so far, and the season still has a few openings left. The previous record was 77.8 million, set in 1999. The seine fleet was fishing on limits for the first time in years because even the area's state-of-the-art processors could not handle the rush. The big pink numbers could even push the fleet over the record for all five species, which is just shy of 98 million.

13 08 28 HumpyI have to wonder what effect these numbers will have on the doomsday predictions about the effects of the Fukushima nuclear spill. Certainly, it's not good to wonder how much contamination there really is coming from the Daiichi reactor. But the fact is, when it comes to contamination, no seafood eaten in this country is tested more than our own domestic supply. And there is little doubt that scientists across the country are dedicated to studying the effects of the leak on anadromous fish. If you want to feel secure in your seafood source, eat American.

In yet more big news yesterday from the Last Frontier, Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy visited the state to talk about climate change and embark on a fact-finding mission for the proposed Pebble Mine site in Bristol Bay.

The EPA's final report on the mine is expected this fall, and the Pebble Partnership, the mine's parent company, is expected to release a mine plan soon. The biggest criticism among proponents of the mine is that the EPA launched an investigation of Bristol Bay under the Clean Water Act before a mine plan was made public.

Reportedly, Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively was pleased to see a representative of EPA touch down on the site. Though it's hard to imagine that a visit to Bristol Bay could change anyone's mind about preserving its natural beauty and productivity as the source of the world's largest wild salmon run.

In Alaska, you go big or go home. In the case of Pebble Mine, let's hope it's both.

Photo: Pink (humpy) salmon, U.S. Fish & Wildlife

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According to Alaska Fish Radio, Sodexo is reportedly retracting its policy to supply only Marine Stewardship Council approved seafood.

The flap on this policy came when politicians and the public alike realized that meant the food supplier would not be offering a large swath of sustainable American seafood for its federal contracts (including the federal parks service and the armed forces) and would instead turn to a global supply of seafood sporting the MSC's blue label.

I wrote about this contradiction last week in "Persistent myths," and am thrilled to see that Sodexo has come to its senses.

Kudos also to Alaska Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, who pressed Sodexo to rethink their stance.

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Yesterday someone forwarded me an article from People magazine titled "The best fish to buy," by fitness and health food guru Harley Pasternak in which he lauds the consumption of farmed seafood over wild. Among the benefits he touts is a reduced likelihood of contamination from mercury and PCBs, which he claims are not as much of a risk in a "controlled, farmed environment."

I'm not sure who exactly got to Pasternak, but he's bought what they're selling hook, line and sinker. Most of his "facts" are credited to Oceana. The remainder of his piece continues the fear-mongering about wild fish by citing statistics about species substitution. The last time I checked, buying farmed wasn't a protection against substitution.

What this article does in essence is continue to scare people away from eating seafood, despite Pasternak's initial claim that it's a healthy source of protein. If you believe even half of what he says about seafood, you'd never bother to touch the stuff again. This is People magazine's health and fitness guru. I suppose I should lower my standards for People, but I am not sure that's possible. What scares me is their reach. Articles like this undo all the hard work of fishermen, their families and their associations who have been battling the persistent myths about American seafood.

In other news of the apparently powerful, misguided and misinformed, our federal government continues their food-service contracts with Sodexo USA, despite the company's refusal to buy Alaska seafood. Why? Because Alaska seafood is certified through Responsible Fishery Management based on the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization standards. Sodexo buys only Marine Stewardship Council-certified seafood. (I wonder what certifications they accept for chicken, beef and pork.)

The big question is why is the federal government choosing one independent certifier over another when neither of them is an agent of this government? If anything, they should be deferring to the UN's FAO standards because the United States is a member of that organization.

I would hope our federal agencies would take this moment to reconsider their contracts with Sodexo USA if the company is going to refuse to supply them with fish from their own country and instead defer to globally sourced fish simply because it has an MSC label (popularized by McDonald's and Walmart).

Has no one in our government spoken with Sodexo to inform them that FAO standards are A-OK? I can't imagine being torn if I had to weigh my options between being on Team Walmart versus Team Alaska. Someone send me a Last Frontier t-shirt!

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I read the news today, oh boy. The finfish aquaculture world is singing the praises of researchers in Maryland who believe they have successfully manipulated the omnivorous cobia to create a captive vegetarian.

The study's results are being hailed as a win for aquaculture and conservation. But what of nutrition?

I'm no fan of most finfish aquaculture. It's not a protein I would choose because I prefer to keep my ingredients simple and as natural as possible. I do not dispute that it may have a place at the larger seafood table, but only inasmuch as the farms are clean and environmentally friendly.

Cobia fingerlingsThe vegetarian cobia has a grain-based food supply (you guessed it — wheat, corn and soy!) that is, as of now, about 15 percent more expensive than the fishmeal alternative. The goal in the cobia's conversion was not necessarily to create a less expensive fish but to develop a product that eats less fish than it produces — hence, its praise as an environmental win.

I can't help but wonder how far off this beast is nutritionally from the Frankenfish, if only because its food is very likely to be genetically modified versions of wheat, corn and soy. I'm also wary of diet manipulation.

Grass-fed beef is purported to have the same Omega-3s as wild fish. How can that be, when beef is a notorious source of cholesterol? Well the answer is that grain-fed cattle does not eat a diet typical of that species. The grain-fed cow no doubt produces a delicious and mouthwateringly marbled steak. But that flavor and satisfaction comes at a price. (Though considerably lower than the $330,000 Stem-Cell Hamburger.)

Will we find out in 20 years that there is a similar downside to eating vegetarian cobia? I can't say for certain. But do I wonder enough to avoid the manipulated fish? Absolutely.

If there's one sure-fire way to eat fish with conservation in mind, it's to eat wild American seafood. Plucked from open waters, as nature intended. It also happens to be delicious.

Photo: Cobia fingerlings in captivity; NOAA

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I read a story yesterday about how fishermen in California are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for illegally abandoning an agreement to maintain an "otter-free zone" in Southern California.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Jim Curland of the Friends of the Sea Otter claims that the shellfish industry flourished when the fur trade wiped out sea otters, which are a voracious predator of shellfish.

Times writer Louis Sahagan editorializes the effect sea otters have on shellfish populations by referring to the creatures as "furry, button-nose marine mammals" before quoting Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood's claim that they're “ravaging fragile nearby fisheries and destroying local economies." It leaves the reader dubious of the destructive capability of those fuzzy-wuzzy critters.

Yes, it's true: Sea otters are much more adorable than pinchy-prickly crabs. That shouldn't matter, but it always does in the court of public opinion.

But what is worse is that this NGO is claiming that the biomass of crabs was artificially high because the sea otter population was devastated by the fur trade, and therefore, the fishermen should not expect to be able to make their living by marginalizing the crabs' predators. But what side are these groups on when the biomass is artificially low (as a result of climate change, habitat destruction, poor water quality, etc.)? Most often, they just defer to calling it overfishing.

Part of the problem is that in determining the ideal biomass of a species, we look at the high points, which may or may not have been artificially high. And then we aim to get all species to that high-water mark at the same time. We're aiming for the 100-year flood every year.

What we are missing is the fact that fish eat fish, humans eat fish, and marine mammals eat fish, too.  When one species is high, invariably, at least one other species is low. Untangling the complex web of predator and prey is no simple task. It may even be impossible.

The question is: Can we move beyond calling a low biomass "overfished"? Can't we just recognize that this is what fish populations do? If so, then we also have to recognize that supporting healthy fishing communities is going to depend on supporting healthy fishing portfolios — making it possible for fishermen to buy and use permits in various fisheries so they can avoid the pitfalls of boom and bust by moving from a low-biomass fishery to a high-biomass fishery, as needed.

Let's not fool ourselves by imagining that this is a new concept. This is what fishermen used to do before there was a management system in place. Why fish for a fish that's hard to find?

I'm not advocating for an end to management. That would be like calling for an end to the Internet because you're afraid of being hacked. It ain't gonna happen. That ship has sailed.

But what we need to do is learn to move with the data and make better use of the data available to us. Overwhelmingly, the information shows that the ocean is not and will never be a place of perfect balance — with or without human influence. But what we can do is make it a more malleable place to make a living.

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Jason Crosby had me at Milkbone. I was perusing his many videos of commercial fishing in Alaska and on the West Coast (get a taste at NF.com), when I ran across a Sitka sac roe short set to arguably the biggest single from an Atlanta band named Follow For Now, a group I did indeed follow as an Atlanta teenager in the 1990s.

I am more intrigued by Jason's project of rebuilding a 93-year-old wooden seiner with every new thing I learn about it. Not only did he start fishing on the boat when he was 13, but he has familial connections to the people who built the Genius at Skansie's shipyard in Gig Harbor, Wash.

Fisherman and filmmaker Jason CrosbyFate, it would seem, brought the Genius back to the family when Jason bought her at auction last year. But anyone who has been in this industry for even a short time knows how small it really is. We are all connected, whether it be by boats or by the people who work them. It should be no surprise that this Puget Sound fisherman moved to my East Coast hometown to study music and documentary filmmaking and ended up moving back home to fish and film, buy an heirloom boat and have his story end up on my desk. We even have kids the same age. That's the way it works in fishing. Everything ebbs and flows, but we're all members of a larger family.

The Genius has been out of the Crosby/Skansie family for less than two decades, but the amount of work she will need to be seaworthy again truly makes her a labor of love. It is quite possibly the kind of project only family would understand.

Jason is lovingly documenting the resurrection of the Genius in Port Townsend, Wash., with video shorts that are sure to enthrall boat enthusiasts of all ages. The once-rote work of wooden boat repair has somewhat of a cult following now, largely because it's not well understood these days. Jason's work could change some of that. He hopes to blend his video shorts with family interviews and create a full documentary.

I can't wait to see both finished projects. Read the full feature by freelance writer and seiner deckhand Sierra Golden in our September issue on page 26. But if you would like to take a more personal stake in the success of the Genius, visit Jason's fund-raising site.

Photo by Cathryn Coats: Fisherman and filmmaker Jason Crosby stands near the bow of the Genius in Port Townsend, Wash.

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In an upcoming episode of Andrew Zimmern's show Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, the eclectic epicurean host visits Bayou LaBatre, Ala., a well-known Gulf Coast fishing town, and its surrounds.

In one segment, he interviews Dustin Mizell, a Gulf Shores charter boat operator who has established a niche for sport-fishermen to bowfish skates and rays at night. (He encourages his clients to use a variety of tools in what Mizell calls his Blood Box to process their catch. Every fisherman knows how to jury rig, but this guy has the notion branded. Now that's the spark of marketing genius.)

When I think of skates, I think of the Northeast trawl fishery. When I imagine Gulf Coast recreational fishing, I envision snappers and groupers, of course.

This show illustrates how members of all fishing sectors can capitalize on underutilized species. When rec fishermen go to the Gulf Coast, they want to bring home a gorgeous red snapper. But wouldn't it be just as exciting to try something off the wall like spearing skates and rays? There's a big push in New England to help the commercial groundfish fleet by increasing the demand (and therefore, price) of the less popular (but plenty populous) fish in the multispecies complex.

Regional advocacy groups have been working with white-table restaurateurs and chefs to promote so-called trash-fish dinners (for more thoughts on that, be sure to visit the Lobsters on the Fly blog, penned by the eloquent and delightfully wry Monique Coombs), making use of once-discarded or under-marketed species.

Once upon a time, monkfish and lobster were in the "trash fish" category. Skate wings have been sold as mock scallops (both legitimately and fraudulently). You never know when you're going to strike a hot iron when it comes to food marketing. Imagine the progress we could make if the recreational and commercial segments were working toward the same goals and developing the same markets.

But in the meantime, can we come up with a better term than "trash fish"? Hidden gems? Secret seafood? Market-free fish?

As an industry, we've been far more inclined to use the collection of tools in the jury-rigger's Blood Box rather than stepping outside of our comfort zone to reach the consumer at white-tablecloth restaurants. And in many ways, it has worked for us. Where would the "Deadliest Catch" be without an edge? But when it comes to seafood — the resulting product, not just the image of fishing — we've let processors, chefs and retailers do the marketing work for us.

It's possible that we can walk a fine line between exposing customers to the Blood Box and cleaning off our hands to delve into the world of white tablecloths, but it's going to take some careful handling either way.

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We get chatting about fish — what we like, where we buy, how we cook it — quite often in the office.

Yesterday, we mused on what people buy when they're far from the source. Are they limited to what they find in their local grocery store? And why do so many people continue to declare that they're intimidated by seafood? Knowing the difference between a halibut steak and a salmon fillet is no more complicated than knowing how to cook a flank steak versus a few strips of bacon.

I have a theory that our global market (while offering a plethora of delights) has largely served to confuse people with endless choices. It seems there's at least one new species on the shelf every week.

Help may be coming courtesy of NMFS.

Today the agency opens a two-day symposium in Oakland, Calif., — Eat Local, Think Global — that focuses on eating U.S. seafood (all of which is managed for sustainability). It's a simple message for retailers and fishermen, alike, to bring to the consumers: Eat American Fish.

According to the symposium's website: "At home, some U.S. fisheries continue to battle the perception that they are not sustainably harvested. This has created mounting frustration in the domestic fishing industry and is serving to undermine domestic market access."

There is a lot of energy around this theme right now. Fishermen, fleets, community supported fisheries, marketing groups and the government are all on the bandwagon of marketing and selling U.S. wild.

If you are a fishing industry stakeholder selling or marketing seafood, I want to hear your story. Please send an email to jhathaway@divcom.com with the subject line Selling Seafood.

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Page 6 of 31

National Fisherman Live

National Fisherman Live: 7/17/14

In this episode, National Fisherman's Boats & Gear Editor Michael Crowley talks with Mike Hillers about the Simrad PX Multisensor.

 

National Fisherman Live: 7/8/14

In this episode:

  • Obama proposes initiative on tracking fish
  • Council retains haddock bycatch limit
  • Columbia River salmon plan challenged
  • Virginia approves reduction in blue crab harvest
  • Ala. shrimpers hope to net some jumbo profits

 

Inside the Industry

PORTLAND, Maine – The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative has appointed Matt Jacobson as its new executive director.
 
 Read more...

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will convene its Red Snapper Advisory Panel Wednesday, July 30, 2014, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the council office — 2203 N. Lois Avenue, Suite 1100, in Tampa, Fla. 

Read more...

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