National Fisherman

The Rudderpost 

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


Unsettling news out of British Columbia this week comes at the wrong time for Fraser River salmon, but perhaps just the right time for Bristol Bay. This week, the recently beleaguered Fraser River in British Columbia sees the beginning of a projected record run of sockeye salmon. Sadly, Fisheries and Oceans Canada predicts that roughly 1 million to 3 million of those projected 23 million returning fish will have to swim through the toxic runoff of a tailings pond breach from the Mount Polley mine in the next couple of weeks.

This breach also happens to coincide with the opening of public comments on EPA’s latest effort to halt Pebble Mine in the name of clean water before we run the risk of a tailings pond breech in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

2014 0807 NLAlaska salmon fisherman Natalia Povelite distributes canned pink salmon in a typhoon-stricken region of the Philippines; Global Food and Nutrition photo.We use our monthly Northern Lights column as a venue to spread the word of what’s happening in Alaska fisheries because Alaska is the source of half of the nation’s wild fish, and the state is often at the forefront of the industry. But being an industry leader is not always about the money you’re hauling in, the efficiencies you’re creating or the strides you’re making in management.

In the case of Bristol Bay, we’ve seen hundreds of small-boat fishermen band together to create a remarkable grassroots campaign that has gone to great lengths to preserve the fishery. For our September issue, Dr. Nina Schlossman writes about a massive donation of canned pink salmon to communities in the Philippines devastated by Super Typhooon Haiyan (or Yolanda). The donation provided nearly a million servings of pink salmon to more than 100,000 people. Read the full story in “Following pinks to the Philippines” on page 6 of our September issue.

To his credit, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell got the ball rolling on this project and turned to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s Global Food Aid Program to facilitate the donation. It’s a great example of what fishermen, seafood companies and governments can do to give back. Unfortunately, Parnell does not see eye to eye with fishermen when it comes to protecting the very fisheries that provide jobs in perpetuity — for Alaskans and beyond — and the ability to make these kinds of donations.

Parnell has never been supportive of Bristol Bay fishermen’s drive to protect their watershed — the home of the world’s largest sockeye run — from the threat of Pebble Mine at the federal level. In fact, he recently hired a former Pebble Partnership spokesman as his top fisheries adviser. We may soon have firsthand knowledge of how dangerous the tailings from toxic mine waste can be for a wild sockeye run. Is that likely to encourage the governor to change his tune?

The latest salvo in the battle over Pebble Mine comes from an interesting corner of Alaska fish politics. Gov. Sean Parnell’s outgoing fisheries adviser, Stephanie Moreland, is making way for new appointee Ben Mohr.

2014 0731 MohrNew Alaska fisheries adviser Ben MohrFor six years, Mohr was the public information specialist for the Pebble Partnership, the company behind Pebble Mine. Most recently he worked as a campaign manager for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, who worked as the Alaska commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and was a Pebble proponent in that role.

Parnell did not exactly win fishermen’s hearts and minds with his position in support of the Pebble Partnership and his vocal opposition to EPA’s authority. However, I’m sure many Alaskans could overlook Mohr’s history if Parnell had put him in an advisory position for any other industry or resource in the state. There are plenty in the Last Frontier who believe the state should have the authority to fulfill its permitting process (though that process is known to have considerable flaws when it comes to denying any resource extraction based on environmental concerns).

So the question is: What exactly makes Mohr an expert in fisheries or public policy for that matter? The closest he’s been is his work for a private company that fought so hard to put one of the world’s largest fisheries into a precarious position.

Given EPA’s recent actions to put the final nail in Pebble’s coffin, perhaps the governor is thumbing his nose at those who called to prevent the mine’s construction at a federal level, in a sense, going over the governor’s head. Or perhaps he simply believes Mohr is qualified for the job. It’s hard to know because the governor’s office has posted no press release on the appointment, nor has Parnell commented publicly.

It comes as no surprise that Mohr’s appointment was announced late last week. The closer political news falls to the weekend, the less likely it is to get a full lashing from the press.

I contacted the governor’s office, which put me through to a voicemail for his press contacts. I did not receive a call back before this went live.

This week, an Alaska Superior Court Judge overturned the state’s decision to reject a ballot initiative that proposed to ban setnets in urban areas of the state.

2014 0130 SetnetAlaska Cook Inlet setnetters make up a historic fishery and fleet. Amy Grannum photoThe group seeking the initiative represents a very small segment of the sportfishing population in the Cook Inlet area (most of the charter and recreational groups are not supportive of the initiative). But the real danger is the possibility of setting a heretofore unseen precedent that allows the reallocation of a public resource to be decided by a statewide vote (which is not allowed under the Alaska Constitution). Until now, that process has been in the hands of the state’s very well-informed fishery managers.

Judge Catherine Easter agreed with the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance that the ballot initiative simply bans a gear type. She went on to say that the initiative “eliminates the fishery in order to target a specific user group.”

So the fine line is that you can be a commercial salmon fisherman without using gillnets. Therefore, the ballot initiative is allowable because it only bans a gear type of a user group and not that user group altogether.

Yet, when you try to ban a small-boat fleet that has used the gear type for generations, you are, indeed, attempting to eliminate a historical user group.

And when you look at what’s happening in Oregon’s Columbia River, it’s plain to see that attempting to replace one gear type with another is not as easy as it may seem.

In 2012, the Coastal Conservation Association successfully wooed Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, and he proposed that the state ban salmon gillnetters from the main stem of the Columbia River with the hopes (yes, a wing and a prayer came before adequate understanding) that despite years of testing seines, they would somehow find them to be far more selective than gillnets in catching wild salmon (as opposed to those released from hatcheries).

What they have found is high mortality rates among the species they hope to conserve.

What will be the long-term result? No one can say for sure, but we will be following the first round of the official commercial seine test fishery come fall. Stay tuned.

Yesterday the Seattle Times published an opinion piece by Bruce Babbitt, former secretary of the Interior, in which Babbitt denounces the supporters of Pebble Mine, a project proposed for Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

2014 0715 NoPebble“The question of whether to build a massive copper mine in the heart of the planet’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery has a simple answer: no,” Babbit writes. “Pebble is the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place.”

This week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is likely to thumb its nose at the widespread support of Bristol Bay’s fishermen, who fear the long-term effects of toxic mining waste at the headwaters of their historic fishery.

While thousands of Bristol Bay fishermen are taking advantage of a banner fishing year and the opportunity to supply the world with half its wild salmon, the House committee’s Water Resources Subcommittee today held an oversight hearing on EPA’s 404(c) authority with no witnesses from Bristol Bay. EPA has declared Pebble a risk too great under the Clean Water Act.

Whatever you think of the EPA in general, if you’re a fisherman or enjoy eating wild fish, you most certainly should care about clean water. And for that matter, you should be concerned about these attempts at undermining federal oversight of clean water and fisheries.

Last week I wrote about Louisiana’s senators attempting to push through two bills that would strip the Gulf of Mexico management council of its authority to oversee red snapper quota, all because sport fishermen believe they are getting a raw deal and despite the fact that the council has gone above and beyond to address their concerns.

Our federal management system is far from perfect, but we risk losing all the ground we’ve recovered on our middling reputation with the public (read: seafood buyers) if we keep stripping away the government’s ability to ensure that our fleets have quota to fish and clean waters in which to catch our food.

When Gulf of Mexico red snapper was determined to be a fishery in precipitous decline, the public and federal attitude was that the commercial fishermen needed to fix it or lose everything. So they did — with an individual fishing quota program. And it really was just that: Some fishermen fixed it and some lost everything, as IFQs tend to go.

2014 0710 SnapperSeventh-generation Gulf of Mexico snapper fishermen David and Scott Floyd fish out of Pascagoula, Miss.Years later, the fishery is recovering, much to the joy of commercial fishermen who sacrificed years of fishing low quotas with the promise that as the biomass recovered, their quotas, too, would increase.

Now two pieces of legislation threaten to change all of that.

This week, Louisiana’s senators Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) are making a strong push for a drastic and disastrous change to the federal fishery management system.

At the behest of frustrated sportfishing groups — the most vocal of which is the Coastal Conservation Association — many of the gulf states’ political leaders support handing control of the federally managed red snapper fishery to the states to manage individually.

Vitter’s move is an amendment to a bill designed to renew hunting and fishing programs; Landrieu is seizing the opportunity to present the change in a bill of her own. Both senators claim the 9-day 2014 sportfishing season for snapper was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a fishery brought to its knees as a result of complicated and possibly draconian federal measures. It is, however, an unprecedented move on behalf of only one slice of the fishing stakeholders. Commercial fishermen would undoubtedly be left with the fuzzy end of the lollipop if this change takes place.

And this is after the gulf council surrendered to the CCA’s demands and voted to support significant changes in the way snapper quotas are allocated to the recreational sector. Instead of the longstanding and simplistic baseline of 49/51 for sport/commercial fleets, a preferred alternative would set a benchmark at 9.12 million pounds. Any quota above that benchmark would be allocated 75/25 for sport and commercial fishermen.

How is this fair to the commercial fishermen who worked so hard and sacrificed so much to bring the fishery back? What did the sport sector do to deserve such a windfall?

The message our politicians are sending is that when sportfishing is on the brink, the power dynamic shifts so that states opt to take control of federal fisheries. But when commercial fishing is threatened, it’s up to the fishermen to figure it out or go the way of the dodo bird.

This is quite possibly one of the worst end-runs around the fishery management system we have seen. But it’s not just a problem for the commercial guys. As long as the commercial sector gets handed the short straw quotawise, the dock price for snapper is likely to stay high and we’ll most likely continue to see seafood fraud on menus at restaurants whose purveyors can’t afford to source the premium fish.

In the end, the public will pay. They just might not see it right away.

Anyone who fears the fishing industry is losing most of its youthful energy with an aging fleet of captains and crews certainly has reasons to worry. But for each of those reasons, I can think of quite a few young and enthusiastic fishermen and industry advocates who are going all out to make sure the industry is accessible and sustainable for their generation and many to come.

2014 0703 VeerhusenBrett Veerhusen, executive director of the Seafood Harvesters of AmericaOne of those stand-outs is Brett Veerhusen, who has been a drift-gillnet skipper in Bristol Bay and advocate for his fishery in the fight against Pebble Mine. Veerhusen recently helped launch the Seafood Harvesters of America. (See my story on this new advocacy group in the Around the Coasts section of our August issue and more on the role of young people in the industry in Senior Editor Linc Bedrosian’s Mixed Catch “Shrimping fits him to a Lil T” and Associate Editor Melissa Wood’s Coastlines “The fight for the future.”)

If you follow federal fish politics, you are well aware that many valiant efforts have been made toward national fishing advocacy groups. One of the things that makes this group different is that it’s based in Washington, D.C., and aims to springboard from the success Veerhusen and his colleagues at Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay had on Capitol Hill getting congressional support for EPA’s watershed assessment to help prevent the construction of Pebble Mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

The Seafood Harvesters of America comprises more than a dozen commercial fishing associations from around the country and seeks to find and call federal attention to common ground for national issues that affect all U.S. commercial fishermen.

“Everything before has been done from a regional standpoint, a regional voice,” says Veerhusen, the association’s executive director. “We need a national voice.”

Chris Brown, the harvesters’ president and president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association, kicked off the announcement of the new group with a splash by serving on the Future of American Fisheries panel with NMFS director Eileen Sobeck during Capitol Hill Ocean Week in June. I hope Veerhusen and his board of veteran fishermen can keep our fishing industry at the table in federal discussions that affect fishermen from coast to coast. Their collaboration represents the best this industry has to offer in experience, national representation and youthful energy. I have no doubt we’ll hear more from them and from Veerhusen in the years to come.

Last week I read an opinion piece in Forbes about the blogger known as the Food Babe (Quackmail: Why You Shouldn't Fall For The Internet's Newest Fool, The Food Babe). Reportedly, the health-food advocate and activist also known as Vani Hari sent Anheuser-Busch InBev scrambling with a demand that the company publish the ingredients for its beer.

Once upon a time, I appreciated the Food Babe’s advocacy for transparency in food production. After all, I like to know what’s in my food. Unfortunately, like many efforts that begin altruistically and with a clear and admirable vision, it seems Hari’s alter ego might have taken a turn toward sensationalism to raise awareness (read: money) for her cause.

2014 0626 MPAsThe Pacific Island region and monuments as they currently stand; NMFS photoWhat happens next is that the cause gets lost in the noise. Food Babe’s drumbeat to the release of the ingredient list was clearly intended to scare her audience into action. They use plane deicer! Did you know that? What she (and legitimate journalists) failed to report is that propylene glycol is used not to give the beer its je ne sais quoi. It’s used to cool the product and is listed with the ingredients because the law requires manufacturers to list all products used throughout the production process. But it gets even better: Did the Food Babe’s vegan and strict vegetarian followers know that Anheuser uses fish bladders in their beer?! Who would do such a thing? Well the answer is: the Founding Fathers.

According to Forbes contributor Trevor Butterworth, dried fish bladders, called isinglass, have been used to filter beer, wine and liquor for centuries. So the fact that beer makers use isinglass is not news to anyone who knows something about the beer-making industry, it’s certainly not exclusive to big manufacturers and it’s not a process invented to speed product to modern beer drinkers. What has changed in this case is not our beer consumption but our cultural consumption. A single blogger who has developed a good following can create sensationalist news about harmless business practices by renaming a process or product in order to scare consumers.

The real danger, Butterworth says, is when news outlets take the activists’ word for it and don’t get the inside scoop on what they’re reporting. Once you have the complicity of a press corps that is too busy feeding the 24-hour cycle to investigate their stories, then you have easy access to the public. Before you know it, you’ve created the next big Internet rumor. All those reporters had to do was call someone in the industry and ask them about the ingredients listed.

Seafood industry folks should not be surprised by this story. It happens in this business seemingly every day. Big environmental groups that started with a beautiful vision of a healthier, safer planet often get caught up in the never-ending drive for fundraising that requires sensational news to spur their audience to action (whether that be signing petitions, checks or both).

The fishing industry has proved an easy target for these groups, largely because it’s misunderstood or simply unknown to the majority of the American population. We eat seafood, but what we know about it is limited by what we see in the case or on the menu.

But what’s more devastating is when sensationalism gets such a broad audience that it begins to affect policy. That’s what’s happening with (among many other things) the expansion of marine protected areas.

Last week President Obama proposed an expansion of the central Pacific protected area that would create the world’s largest marine sanctuary and double the global area of ocean that is protected. The administration also finalized a rule allowing the public to nominate new marine sanctuaries off of our coasts and in the Great Lakes. His proposal was lauded by people in and out of the know. For those who don’t know much about fishing, it sounds like a no-brainer: The ocean is a big place. Why not earmark just these small parts of it to protect habitat and maintain abundance in the ocean? It’s less than 2 percent of the ocean, after all. And if you call it a sanctuary, well then, who could object without looking like a raving lunatic?

The problem is that while the ocean is a vast place, there are only so many productive fishing spots. You can’t just drop your gear at any random spot in the ocean and pull up a good commercial catch. There’s a reason fishermen haul all the way off to Georges Bank to bring back your supper. They don’t all just love steaming offshore at $4 to $5 a gallon for diesel. They go because that’s where the fish are. There’s also a reason that people in the industry take handed down knowledge and experience very seriously. People who forage the wild will tell you they have their secret spots that are always productive, or tells for locations that ought to be productive. And of course, they take what they need and leave some to keep the spot viable.

This is also how we can and do manage our commercial fisheries. Sure, closing certain areas is part of that process, but we don’t need to close them indefinitely. If we decide to close off all productive habitat to fishing, then soon there will be no more places to go fishing. That is, unless you want to fish recreationally, which is naturally exempted from the area that George W. Bush created and Obama proposes to expand.

But that’s a story for another day.

This week the Conservation Law Foundation’s Peter Shelley published a vitriolic response to the midwater trawl fleet’s herring quota overrun in Northeast Area 1B earlier this month, calling it the pathological behavior of bad fishermen.

2014 0618 HerringShelley accuses the fleet of blatant — and apparently compulsive — disregard for the rules, saying that "this was inexcusable and intolerable behavior for a modern fishing fleet." The only problem is, it appears they followed the rules. NMFS claims that agency staff simply couldn’t keep up with the daily landings in order to call the closure before the quota was overshot. Well if the professional fish counters can’t keep up, then how do we expect the fishermen themselves to do a better job at it?

No one is arguing that it's a good idea or a sign of effective management to exceed any quota by 60 percent. So what should the solution be? Shelley contends it’s up to the fleet to somehow conjure data on everyone else’s catches so they can tally and self-monitor.

I’m not sure what fishery management fantasy he is imagining, but I’m quite sure few conservationists would approve of self-monitored fisheries. The fact is, the managers are the people who keep track of the quotas as compared with the landings. They are the people who let the fleet know it’s time to stop fishing. That is their job.

Until then, fishermen will fish.

It could be that the managers are having a hard time tallying daily numbers on the herring fleet. The fleet is quite small, but the numbers are big. The solution to that problem, however, is not to blame the fishermen for the flaws of the management system. Rather, we should look to find solutions that help the managers keep a count on the landings so we can avoid this happening again.

You can call the fishermen bad names and throw up your hands if it suits you. But it doesn’t do much toward creating solutions to the problem. If anything, it creates more of a divide where we need to build bridges.

Photo: Herring caught and counted as part of a management trawl survey; NOAA

This week the FDA and EPA released a joint revised recommendation on the amount of seafood pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume weekly. Since 2004, federal officials have recommended a weekly maximum amount of two servings (8 ounces) of low-mercury seafood for pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as for children.

2014 0611 PaellaThe new recommendation advises these people to eat a minimum of two weekly servings and a maximum of 12 ounces (about three servings). That’s a pretty narrow window that unfortunately will likely still serve to scare people away from seafood, when the effort is to reverse that trend.

“For years many women have limited or avoided eating fish during pregnancy or feeding fish to their young children,” said Stephen Ostroff, the FDA’s acting chief scientist. Officials believe this is because they were warning women to limit consumption. As long as they’re recommending a maximum, many moms will simply continue to avoid it just to be safe.

The problem is that in this case, playing it safe means offering less (or none) of some of the best food to your family. My question is, what is the real risk of pregnant women eating more than 12 ounces of low-mercury seafood every week? Is it worse than the risks to pregnant women who are eating more than 12 ounces of feedlot beef, pork or chicken?

This subject is near and dear to my heart as a mother and a mom-to-be. When I was pregnant with my 4-year-old, I craved tuna, and I ate it in all forms: canned albacore, canned chunk light, lightly seared sushi grade yellowfin, or grilled to a perfect medium if I didn’t know the source as well.

People often ask me if I was worried about the mercury. My answer is no. The reason is that even though I craved tuna and ate it once or twice a week, I also ate a lot of other proteins, including a variety of seafood — salmon, shrimp, lobster, hake, scallops and haddock are the top few that come to mind. (And though I am biased, I’m pretty sure my boy is perfect and one of the smartest preschoolers I know. And to this day, he plows through salmon, cod, calimari, tuna salad, steamed clams, you name it.)

Consumer advocacy groups are criticizing the government for not being specific enough about what kinds of fish specifically people should be eating. The avoid list amounts to the four species highest in methylmercury: Gulf of Mexico tilefish, king mackerel, swordfish and shark. After all, the purpose of the revision is to be *less* specific. I applaud the government on its step back from policing seafood consumption. We have become too reliant on lists and strict guidelines rather than using our own local markets and common sense to eat what’s available seasonally and locally. The difference between seafood and other forms of protein is that the options are so varied by region and even state to state that a recommendation for everyone to eat specific types of fish would be ludicrous.

Pregnant women are not that different than the rest of us. Yes, we have a few more rules to follow, and a short list of foods to avoid, again, just in case. But fish should never be one of them, nor should it be for the population at large. We should all be eating a variety of local (American if that’s the closest you can get), wild seafood. We should all be just as worried (if not more so) about what’s in our pork sausage (likely produced by a Chinese conglomerate) as the level of mercury in the fish we’re eating. But where do you find federal guidelines for consumption of chicken, beef and pork, and when was the last time you saw a headline about it?

I suppose the first step is to encourage Americans to eat more home-cooked meals, less processed and less fast food. Sure, we all need shortcuts from time to time. But if we rely on them a little less, then we might find that we’re healthier, happier and have more energy to complete the never-ending to-do lists of modern living.

Next, we should spread the word to our fellow citizens about what’s available locally and in season. The chances are, you won’t find it at Walmart or Super Target. But do you really want to buy your food from the same place that sells televisions and tires? It’s time to re-expand our horizons. Get out of the big-box and big-brother mindset, and discover what’s available from your community. Support what you love about the place where you’ve chosen to raise your children, for the health of your community as well as the health of your family.

Photo: Paella offers a delicious variety of seafood in a one-dish meal; Sandstein

2014 0605 Eric AmberI met Eric and Amber Petersen from Muskegon, Mich., at the 2010 NF Profitable Harvest conference, and I’ve been in touch with them ever since. I loved their family fishing story so much that I asked freelance writer Dan Denov to go out with the Petersen brothers on their Lake Michigan whitefish trap net boats. (Click here to read that cover story from March 2012.)

Back then, Amber was scratching it out at the local farmers market, selling whitefish and slowly expanding her roster to include other local and wild fish. In the last four years, Amber has created a rapidly expanding local business with a new storefront in Muskegon, where she sells wild fish from all over the country, as well as smoked and prepared fish dips and sausages.

I jumped at the chance to meet up with her last September to see her new store and processing facility, as well as the dock from which the family has been launching commercial fishing boats since 1927. (Read the full story on page 21 of our July issue, or check out my slideshow of the ship-to-shore business.)

When I got talking to the rest of the NF staff about small-scale and local marketing efforts, the idea for our July issue special section began to grow. While the stories we have to share (starting on page 20) are just a small sampling of seafood marketing efforts across the country, they are representative of the range — family businesses, gear-type associations, state and national seafood promotion boards, small businesses that focus strictly on sourcing and selling local and wild seafood, and even an app that helps locals connect with fishermen and their catch.

The fact is, fishermen and seafood enthusiasts from coast to coast are plugging away at fresh ideas that might improve public access to wild American fish. Our federal government is supposed to be setting aside funds for grants toward exactly these kinds of businesses, but most of that money instead goes toward fishery assessments and research.

The Saltonstall-Kennedy Act of 1939 and its 1954 revisions (read about them in a story from the May 1954 issue of Maine Coast Fisherman) earmarked federal funds for seafood marketing grants. The National Seafood Marketing Coalition is working toward federal legislation that will reclaim a portion of those grant dollars. I hope they can pave the way for ventures like those featured in our July issue to get grants that will help them launch marketing efforts to put more local seafood onto American plates.

Page 9 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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