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Maine fisherman Terry Alexander works to revive redfish

Acadian redfish is one species of "trash fish" that New England chefs are increasingly offering on their menus. Image via NOAA FishWatch.

This post was originally published as part of NOAA’s Voices from the Waterfront series on November 7th, 2012.

Terry Alexander is a fourth generation fisherman from Harpswell, Maine. In addition to serving as a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, Alexander is president of the Sustainable Harvest Sector and owns two vessels, the F/V Jocka, a dragger used to fish for cod, haddock, and other groundfish, and the F/V Rachel T, which gillnets groundfish.

Alexander has teamed up with other fishermen, scientists, and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to help revive redfish fishing in New England. After reaching a low in the late 1980s, the redfish population has recovered quickly.  In 2008, the population exceeded NMFS’s estimate of a sustainable level for the first time since records began, and biomass has continued to rise since then. Redfish catch has also been increasing, from just 250 metric tons in 1997 to 2015 metric tons in 2011.

NOAA’s Monica Allen caught up with Terry Alexander to learn more about the redfish revival and how sector management is working for him.

How did you get interested in fishing?

I worked on the deck with my father until I was 16 when I started fishing full time. Then I worked different boats in Cundy’s Harbor. Our family has always been fishing around here. But I’m the last. My daughters aren’t interested in it.

Why are you working to revive redfish fishing?

Redfish used to be a staple of New England fishing in the 1950s. Fishermen used to sell them to the government for schools, prisons, and in the military. Then the stock went down and now they’ve rebounded to be one of the more abundant fish in the Gulf of Maine. We’re trying to get access to fish them.

If they’re abundant, why can’t you fish them?

They’re a fairly small fish so the mesh size of our groundfish nets—6 and a half inches wide—won’t catch them. We need a smaller mesh.

How are you helping revive redfish fishing?

About a year ago, we formed Rednet, a collaborative research project to revive the fishery and help market redfish. We’ve made experimental fishing trips to test smaller mesh nets and found we can catch them fast with 4 and a half inch mesh nets and get little bycatch (unintended catch).Redfish are kind of loners that swim in huge schools and keep themselves separate from other ones. It’s a really slow growing fish that matures late so we have to be real careful not to fish it down, but we have really conservative quotas. And we’re not able to catch even 20 percent of the quota.

What’s the next step for restoring fishermen’s chance to catch redfish?

The New England Fishery Management Council passed a motion to recommend a smaller mesh net and now NOAA has proposed a rule to allow the smaller mesh. We’re waiting for this to be fully approved.

How is sector management working for you after two years with this groundfish management program?

We get a lot of negative press about sectors, but it’s the system we have and we can’t go back to the old system of getting a number of days-at-sea to fish. I like the idea that with sectors we have a quota to work, and we can fish it the way we want. If we had to go back, we’d have two days at sea because the quota is so low. The sectors make us fish smarter, target fish that we have to target and not fish that we shouldn’t be targeting. A main hurdle these days is to make our boats more efficient so we can go out and catch the quota fast and not send so much fuel up the smokestack.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in fishing in 35 years?

It was the wild west when I started. You could fish where you wanted, when you wanted. Today, we have some fish stocks that haven’t had a good year class (the number of fish born in a single year) in 20 years. The water is definitely warmer than I ever remember it. We’re seeing fish from the Mid-Atlantic moving up and our fish moving toward Canada.

What’s redfish like to eat?

It’s red when we catch it. When cooked, it’s a white flaky fish that tastes more like a reef fish than what we have up here. I like to marinate it in lime juice and grill it. We’re working on marketing it. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has a program called Out of the Blue and worked with a bunch of restaurants preparing redfish in all sorts of ways. It went really well.



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