The Exhausted Sea
Good fish managers, like good parents, eventually learn that one of the kindest words they can utter is "no."
Audubon July/Sept. 2003
In the Bering Sea, where fisheries have crashed in recent years, dead walleye pollock ooze out of a commercial trawler's net.
Photo by Natalie B. Fobes
The year is 1965, circa July 4. Rocked by gentle swells on a glassy sea, Robbie Troup and I are fishing from a wooden lobster boat off Rye, New Hampshire. Five miles seaward the gray backs of the Isles of Shoals breach through the morning haze like humpback whales. The dawdling offshore breeze carries the fragrance of salt marsh, clam flat, and kelp. "It's amazing what you can do with monofilament and sea worms," announces Ken, our skipper, while we boat haddock. Most of the 40 or so fish already onboard weigh more than eight pounds.
We let the cod go unless we've brought them up too fast and their air bladders stick out their throats like cadaverous thumbs. We club the mini sharks called dogfish and toss them overboard because we've been taught that there are "too many" and that they are "trash fish. "Whenever they get too thick, we haul anchor and move.
Suddenly it is June 23, 2002. I am standing on the fish pier at Chatham, Massachusetts, as the commercial fishing fleet unloads its catch. Every fish from every boat is a dogfish. Gray and skinny, they lie tangled together in wooden crates, staring with dead, reptilian eyes. Almost three decades of litigation, legislation, planning, and media flap about the worst debacle in the history of American fish management—the demise of 14 bottom species collectively called "groundfish"—hasn't fixed anything. Nine years earlier the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a tentacle of the Commerce Department, had declared haddock commercially extinct in the Gulf of Maine. The cod population has collapsed, too. Still, in its 27-year history, there has never been a time that the New England Fisheries Management Council—which, with NMFS oversight and approval, sets quotas for cod, haddock, and other groundfish—has not allowed gross overfishing.
When groundfish disappeared, dogfish expanded, feasting on the rich shoals of baitfish that were suddenly available. The response of state and federal managers and seafood promoters in the New England and mid-Atlantic states was to encourage an unsustainable fishery for dogfish, which they called an "underutilized species" and to which they assigned the consumer-friendly name "cape shark." But unlike cod, dogfish don't start spewing millions of eggs at age two. It takes females as long as humans to reach sexual maturity, and dogfish bear their young alive, producing dog-size litters of 6 to 10 pups after two-year pregnancies.
The fishery, directed at females because they're larger, got under way in the late 1980s. By 1996 annual landings had increased from about 9.9 million pounds to 60 million pounds. Four years later mature females had declined by 80 percent.
The New England and Mid-Atlantic fisheries councils, which manage federal waters (from 3 to 200 miles out), didn't even hatch a dogfish plan until 2000. And the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which manages state waters (out to three miles), procrastinated until 2002. But the states' plan had been in place only three months when, in February 2003, commission members effectively deep-sixed it after Massachusetts flimflammed them with bogus data. Despite the fact that 80 percent of the mature females had been killed off and virtually no new pups had been born during any of the past seven years, the commission rejected the recommendation of its own scientists and increased the annual dogfish quota from 4 million pounds to 8.8 million pounds. Still, there would be a chance to amend that at the commission's June 10, 2003, meeting in Crystal City, Virginia.
For four months the environmental community—led by Sonja Fordham, the Ocean Conservancy's fish conservation project manager, and Merry Camhi, assistant director of Audubon's Living Oceans Program and president of the American Elasmobranch Society—blitzed the ASMFC with letters pleading for sanity.
At the June 10 meeting the scientists on the dogfish technical team objected to the increase. Still, the motion to lower the quota failed. "And this was after the commission had watered down the amendment to have the right quota but a high limit on the number of trips," declared Fordham, who testified for the Ocean Conservancy, Audubon, and Environmental Defense.