Why Commercial Fishing Needs No Lobby 04.2014
Unbeknownst to the bulk of the America’s-Got-Talent viewing world, there are two kinds of corals in the sea. The sort shown here are shallow water corals. They make up the underpinnings of the world’s shallow water tropical reefs. They grow in all manner of bone-hard shapes and sizes which shelter all manner of colorful fish that anyone with a snorkel can ohhh and ahhh over. They are treasure troves of biodiversity and as such when they are threatened, either through crown of thorns starfish, people walking on them, coral killing sponges, or ocean acidification everyone freaks out. However, in terms of total contribution to world marine habitat, shallow water coral reefs are just eye-candy
The workhorses of marine ecology are deep-water corals. They don’t depend directly on sunlight as a source of energy so they are not nearly as colorful or biodiverse. They also don’t have the bone-hard structure, rather deep-water coral tend to be sponges, sea fans and other considerably less noble life forms of the sort pictured here. What deep-water corals do have is tons and tons of delicious fish because deep-water corals cover enormous expanses of ocean floor. Think of the American bison roaming the Midwest prairie before sportsmen discovered the joy of using them for target practice. Moreover, because deep-water coral reefs tend to be softer, fishermen can drag nets over them and scoop up all those delicious fish with relatively little resistance or gear damage. Which is why a Filet-o-Fish sandwich costs less than a Big Mac. The world’s enormous reserve of deep-water corals, many times that of shallow coral reefs, has spawned a commercial fishing industry called draggers that has been both, a very dangerous and very thrilling business opportunity since the early 1900s. Think “Perfect Storm,” but with nets instead of fishhooks.
Which brings NBN to this week’s ecological aggravation: the Empty Oceans Act. The EOA—not its real name—is actually a handful of changes proposed to a long standing law called the Magnuson Stevens Act, which regulates commercial fishing. The MSA can almost be considered the Endangered Species Act of fisheries management: a regulatory hammer brought down on commercial fishermen according to the annual findings of the incredibly inexact science of counting how many fish are in the ocean at any given time. When the MSA says certain numbers are too low, hundreds of commercial fishermen stay home watching America’s Got Talent. Needless to say, a lot of commercial fishermen hate the MSA but none more so than those that make a living dragging nets over deep-water corals. All those delicious fish in those deep-water reefs are going the way of the American bison, so the regulators behind the MSA are dramatically cutting back on how many of those fish—pollock, haddock, cod, flounder, and several other hugely popular, and one populous, species—the draggers can take.
This is where the feckless politician come into the story. The author of the EOA is Rep. Doc Hastins (R-Washington), yet another ultra-conservative politician from a gerrymandered district surgically sculpted for ideological idiosyncrasies that kept him in office for 20 years. (Incidentally, Hastings also wants to gut the Endangered Species Act.) Does anyone think that Hastings would be proposing such legislation if the fishermen involved were dragging their nets over shallow-water coral reefs? Heck no, because everyone would see corals shattered by multi-ton nets and all the pretty fish would disappear. The entire world would be looking for Hasting’s head on a stake. However, that’s exactly what’s happening with the deep-water coral reefs which are mowed down on a regular basis by draggers.
Instead of fighting to protect these arguably ugly fish for future generations, Hastings is wringing his hand over how the MSA is threatening the jobs of the draggers doing the damage. Why is this? Because nobody can see the deep-water reefs. Out of sight, out of mind, and onto the platforms of political leaders who put short term economic/political gains over long term resource planning in order to stay in office.Which might lead one to ask how our leaders can be so reluctant to lead? The answer is that commercial fishing is the sort of iconic symbol of hard-working America that no politician dare oppose in these economic times. That’s why politicians on both sides of the aisle line up to defend these jobs, even though the entire national dragger fleet probably numbers fewer than 20,000 boats employing a few hundred thousand people almost all earning under $35,000 a year. With numbers like that it's not too surprising that draggers can't really have a congressional lobby to bribe our congressmen on their behalf. But they don’t need one. They are a symbol of America and nobody but a bunch of scientists enforcing the MSA really know the damage they do. So from a political perspective, stopping draggers is like banning baseball. Or football?
Which has NBN thinking that maybe the EOA isn’t such a bad idea. In fact, let’s repeal all the legislation protecting the ocean fish and let the draggers have at it. Empty the oceans. The fish will return in 50 years or so. Meanwhile, the industry will quickly die of its own greed and we won’t have to listen to politicians battling on its behalf every year, blithely ignoring the damage they do in order to enhance their own re-election prospects. Either that, or we have to start asking our leaders to stop people—even decent, honest Americans—from making a living at the expense of the environment we all must share. Let's face it, the EOA has a much better chance of succeeding.
The Real Battle over Catch Shares: Save Tradition or the Future? 08.24.13
Scratching around for something to write about at the end of July, NBN’s thoughts drifted to a party boat cod fishing trip we took July 30 to a place called Jeffries Ledge. We spent about $300 for $50 worth of fish and it was worth every penny. Particularly when you think that a full-day of fishing fun 25 miles out in the Atlantic was had as well. Then we got thinking about the fish we were catching and how we were catching them: by hook and line shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of other refined fellows from places like New Hampshire. That got us thinking: wouldn’t it be wonderful if party boats using hook-and-line and New Hampshirites could replace the ecologically disastrous commercial fishing industry known as bottom trawling?
Bottom trawlers on both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico target the same delicious sorts of species being brought aboard the boat NBN went out on: the slow-growing, flaky white meat varieties collectively known as bottom fish. The sorts of species that, very regrettably, birthed fishcakes and fishsticks, turning the best eating fish in the ocean into low-budget menu items enjoyed by kings and clowns alike. We say very regrettably, because to meet the mass demand for fish they created, the bottom-trawling industry literally clear-cuts the ocean floor with weighted nets and tons of gear. These things are like underwater lawn mowers with dull blades. NBN has always felt that the bottom trawling industry should convert these great boats they have to taking hook-and-line fishermen out. But, we’ve written about all that before.
Trawler in Action
Then we got to thinking about Gloucester Times reporter Richard Gaines. NBN was viciously critical of Gaines a few years back, because he relentlessly pleaded the plight of the bottom trawlers from Gloucester, who faced losing their livelihoods to a federal commercial fishing regulation called Catch Shares. Now that Catch Shares have been the law of the land for 2.5 years, NBN thought a good column might come out of determining if the ichthyologic Armageddon Gaines ranted about in the GT for three years ever came about. Nope. The only news to report about Catch Shares and Richard Gaines, is that the former is alive and well and the latter is not. Gaines died in June at age 69.
Ocean floor before trawlers rake over them.
So now NBN is supposed to say nice things about Gaines, as did every other newspaper in the region upon word of his death. That’s not easy after NBN wrote so many nasty things about his coverage of a subject much dearer to us than the profession we once shared with Gaines. Yet, it is hard not to applaud anyone who, according to the many odes by other reporters, dedicated his life to fighting for the underdog, and Gloucester’s bottom trawlers were the clear underdogs in the battle over Catch Shares. But there is an even bigger underdog that Gaines fought against in what turned out to be his last battle, which NBN can’t look past. Look at the video alongside the paragraph below. Then consider Gaines was recognized as the “Friend of the Fisherman” in 2010. True journalists are not supposed to be applauded by any side in a story they are covering. But then, we also have to consider that Gaines dogged journalism uncovered some incredible abuses by federal fisheries agencies and administrators that leave little doubt the commercial fishermen in New England suffered from some degree of government persecution.Gaines' coverage of tis persecution is a hall mark of great journalism. As usual, it's not black-and-white.
Sorry folks, NBN advocates for the environment and Gaines fought for the rights of poor fishermen at the expense of even poorer ocean-floor ecosystems. Week in and week out, while the Catch Share policy was under debate, Gaines coverage in the GT was so slanted as to be advocacy. He didn’t even pay lip-service the ever-growing mountain of evidence that bottom trawling ruins the ocean-floor ecosystems that the fish being caught depend on for sustenance. Never a word, and Gaines wrote reams of copy every day. That’s an embarrassment to journalism. Despite Gainers disgustingly biased coverage, Catch Shares went into effect and now we’re hearing about the return of the once scarce Atlantic halibut and we’re hearing little about the policy’s effect on the commercial fishing fleet.
Small boats were hurt bad by Catch Shares
You have to be a real bastard to not be sympathetic to the cause Gaines championed. These mom-and-pop bottom fishing boats, already reeling from ever increasing limitations on their catch, have been crippled by catch shares. They are being forced to sell their “shares” of the catch they were allocated under the new policy to corporate-owned mega trawlers. Those corporate trawlers are every bit as destructive as the smaller boats, only more so. However, the corporate boats are less vulnerable to often dramatic annual changes in fishing regulations and that makes them much easier to regulate. That’s the real, if unspoken, reason Catch Shares was adopted. The regulatory agencies are no longer as vulnerable to the anguished cries of small-boat fishermen losing their livelihoods and family traditions to strangling regulations implemented by unfeeling government agencies. A tradition may be lost but a future is being saved.
Record Atlantic halibut: 2013
More important, perhaps crucial, is Catch Shares opens the door to dramatically cutting back, or even shutting down, the bottom trawling industry as a whole. This industry has got to go, folks. The oceans can no longer withstand it and it’s not just the trawlers’ fault. It is a sad coincidence of technology and opportunity that created the bottom trawling industry 100 years ago. It's an even sadder coincidence that world demand for fish is growing at the same time pollution and global warming are throwing ocean ecosystems into upheaval. Now that the inability of those ecosystems to keep pace with all these pressures is swiftly becoming painfully apparent, something has to give and it has to be the nation's bottom trawling fleet. Trawlers cause too much damage for too little return and fixing the other problems will take decades and incomprehensible amounts of cash. Two things this country’s environmental efforts have in very short supply.
You can catch a lot of fish with rod and reel
Gaines fought vehemently against these sad eventualities and that was dangerously irresponsible for a journalist. So forgive NBN for being less than sad at the clearly sad death of someone who defended the little guy against big government ineptness and corporate greed. Yes, it is possible Gaines fought the good fight all the rest of his journalism life, NBN just doesn't know. We do know what he did in Gloucester, and that is indefensible. As more and more human pressure is brought to bear on natural resources those resources must be protected, even when it comes at the expense of hard-working Americans. Yet, it appears that in taking up his last fight Gaines got blinded by the romance of the story and forgot who the real little guy in this war is. Fishermen are not the only ones losing their jobs to the dramatic changes sweeping every facet of life these days. A lot of industries have had to reinvent themselves. Journalism for one. Why can’t commercial fishing? After all, there is more than one way to catch a fish.