As editor and publisher of National Fisherman, Jerry Fraser says, one principle always came to his mind amid the ceaseless debates over management, gear types, the ocean environment and the future of fisheries.
“I don’t say you shouldn’t be careful, and I don’t say fishery management doesn’t work,” says Fraser, 67, who retired in 2019 after nearly a half-century career in fishing and journalism.
“Fishery management shouldn’t be preoccupied with making it easy. It should make it equitable,” says Fraser. “It’s a tough racket. There’s no argument that’s going to satisfy everyone.”
During a stormy new era of enforced consolidation, transferable quotas and catch share systems, Fraser says he looked for the balance of preserving fisheries and fishing communities.
“You can make a lot of economic arguments against keeping small farms,” he says. “If you make a priority of preserving this industry, we would come out in a different place.”
Fraser’s own life took different turns, from a New York City kid to beginner fisherman during summers in Maine, two threads that wound together to form his adult working life.
His father, C. Gerald Fraser, was a longtime New York Times reporter, and mother Geraldine was a school psychologist who also wrote freelance fiction for magazines. After they divorced, Geraldine’s writing helped maintain the family’s summers away on the Maine coast, which she saw as essential.
“I had bad hay fever as a child. My mother didn’t want to keep us in the city,” said Fraser. During the summers around Ogunquit, Maine, “I gravitated to Perkins Cove,” he said. “I had this natural interest in boats.”
At the tiny harbor, he and other boys “were all known as cove rats,” said Fraser. He got to know one fisherman, Red Bridges. “I started fishing with Red, and he paid me a buck a day.”
Working his way up during those years, Fraser fished with Sonny McIntire — a 2016 NF Highliner, and his father, Carl. After high school, Fraser became a deckhand on Sonny’s dragger.
“Sonny instilled in you this reverence for the ocean and fish and how you catch them,” said Fraser. “That’s how this kid from New York City got into fishing.”
Fraser was accepted to Stanford University. But like many a young person who had tried fishing first, that’s where he went instead, working on lobster, tuna, gillnet boats and draggers. The industry atmosphere made a deep impression on him.
“When I was fishing out of Portland, it was like a dream come true,” said Fraser. “There was a real camaraderie.” Crews working on Eastern-rig draggers coordinated with each other when fishing for whiting, he recalled.
“We would have 30, 40 boats doing tows. Nobody would set until the fish went down” in their daily move through the water column, he said. In those days before cell phones, “for the most part you couldn’t be too secretive” and most captains shared information — and fish, like the time captain Carl Smith “came over and gave us a cod end” to help make up his boat’s 10,000-pound limit, Fraser recalled.
At age 26, he bought the Hard Times, a 37-foot Jonesport-style lobster boat that he gradually re-rigged for nets and learned how to fish better. In those years with a bigger fleet around, a younger fisherman could feel safer knowing there would be help if his old boat had trouble. Fraser was also absorbing the deeper beliefs and understandings that keep people in commercial fishing: “These guys have a passion for what they do and the intrinsic value of catching fish and feeding people.”
The writing impulse was still there, too. In his mid-30s Fraser started writing a column for the York County Coast Star weekly newspaper in Kennebunk, but resisted offers to work as a reporter. He finally gave it a try, found it fascinating, and went on to a series of newspaper jobs that took him to Florida Today in the early 1990s and then the Boston Globe from 1993 to 1997.
Writing and editing copy at the Globe was another dream job, except for commuting five days a week from Maine to Boston: “After four winters of that, it got to be a real drag.”
In spring 1997 Fraser saw an advertisement in the Maine Sunday Telegram newspaper seeking a senior editor for National Fisherman. A couple of months later, he got the job. He took over as editor in chief and associate publisher in 1999.
Over the next decade the New England groundfish fleet was steered by NMFS toward the catch-share system, a new iteration of quota ownership that had struggled through its East Coast introduction with the surf clam and ocean quahog fishery in the 1990s. Fraser remains a skeptic.
“We don’t know where the bottom is,” he says of New England fishermen’s future. As editor of NF, Fraser engaged public debate among the industry and NMFS administrator William Hogarth.
“He believed the solution was catch shares. I didn’t and still don’t,” said Fraser. “But I’m not sure I had a better decision,” he added. “Now they’re kind of locked in, by dint of catch history.”
Amid mounting political fights among commercial and recreational fishermen and environmental advocates, “I made up my mind we weren’t going to pick fisheries,” said Fraser. Presented with arguments to ban some fishing method or gear, Fraser would often respond that “it won’t stop there.”
Fraser handed off the editing reins of the magazine in 2010, but stayed on as publisher of NF and WorkBoat magazines until 2019. In his years of at-sea interviews and working with fishermen, scientists, writers and photographers around the U.S. coasts, Fraser marveled at the diversity of fishing and how critical it was to have deep contacts.
“You can’t know everything about all the fisheries, so you depend on your correspondents and the fishermen. That made it very difficult, especially in the beginning,” he said. “We are the national magazine covering the industry. That’s what made me feel I really had to do a good job. We had to get it right the first time.”
That the fishing industry is fighting through the covid-19 crisis and still feeding the public proves its worth just like small family farms, Fraser says.
“We’re a free people, and we should have some things we like.”