Thursday, April 7, 2016


When I was a boy, I hadn’t lived long enough to understand change.  Things would, I thought, stay the same forever. 

It didn’t matter whether I thought of my house, my street, my town or the great body of water that stretched out from its shores, to wrap around Long Island, around continents and, eventually, the world.  Things would stay the same forever.

Time, of course, proved me wrong, and I’ve been witness to changes both good and bad.  On the water, I lived through the collapse of both cod and winter flounder, and watched summer flounder, scup and black sea bass make the long climb from depletion to abundance.

Looking back, none of it seemed to take long; in the course of one lifetime, things change a lot.

But lately, I’ve thought about some of the things that I’ll never live to see, such as Atlantic salmon returning to New England’s rivers.  

Hopefully, it will happen one day.  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service, have just completed a draft recovery plan, intended to rebuild the Gulf of Maine salmon stock, which is currently listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The hope is that, if the recovery plan works out, the stock may be upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” and eventually, if all goes well, won't need to be listed at all.

The problem is that, even if all goes well, the process will take about 75 years, so I’m not going to be around to see it.  

I’ve got some good genes in my family—my maternal grandmother almost made it to 101—but even if my life stretches out as long as hers, I’ll still fall short by 35 years.

Unless you’re still in junior high school, the odds are good that you won't live to see salmon recover, either.

That gives a pretty good idea of how far Atlantic salmon have fallen and, if you’re a fishermen, of what has been stolen not only from you, but from your kids and maybe your grandkids as well.

And the sad thing is, it didn’t take very long for the salmon to crash so very hard.  Maine’s Penobscot River supported a run of about 100,000 fish prior to it being dammed in the 1860s; between 1870 and 1890, commercial salmon harvest from the Penobscot averaged about 20,000 fish per year.  

In 2012, just 624 salmon returned to the river, all but 77 of those hatchery-raised.

Those 624 salmon represented the lowest returns since 2000, when a mere 534 fish found their way home.

Recovery in 75 years remains far from a certainty.  The same things that caused the salmon runs to collapse—dams and road crossings that blocked access to spawning streams, a decline in water and habitat quality and overfishing—remain present today.  Although fish passage is slowly being improved through dam removals and other means, it remains a major problem not only for salmon, but for all anadromous species.  And Greenland has recently refused to reduce salmon harvest in its marine waters, where Maine’s salmon spend much of their time while out at sea.

To add to the salmon’s problems, a warming ocean has already begun to change the North Atlantic ecosystem; continued warming could easily impact the ability of Atlantic salmon to feed while at sea, in the same manner that the so-called warm-water “blob” has caused Pacific salmon runs to crash.

Maybe your grandkids won’t see a restored population after all…

In fact, there are many things that they’re unlikely to see.

The northwestern Atlantic population of Atlantic halibut, the world’s largest flatfish, nosedived in the late 1800s due to severe overfishing.  More than a century later, there is no evidence suggesting that the population has begun to increase.  Things are so bad that NMFS hasn’t even set a target date for rebuilding the stock.

Then there’s the dusky shark.  

Up until about 1990, they were pretty common.  In the unenlightened ‘70s, when Jaws made too many folks think that killing a shark was a good thing to do, it wasn’t unusual to see anglers drag big ones—500 or 600 pounds, and sometimes a little more—back to the dock, hang them up for the weight and a photo, then tow them back out to sea on one final ride.  

Right up into the early 1990s, duskies frequently grabbed chunks of butterfish intended for tuna, and more than one angler out to catch a few 10-pound bluefish was surprised when a six- or seven-foot dusky picked up his bait instead.

The fish killed by anglers didn’t do the duskies much good, but the real harm was done by the longline fleet, which caused the slow-growing (they take about 20 years to become sexually mature) and slow-reproducing (they only produce pups every third year) shark to quickly decline in abundance.  

So we’re not going to be around to see that happen, either.

Atlantic salmon, halibut and dusky sharks are big and/or charismatic fish, but the smaller, unglamorous species have their troubles, too.

I continually lament the fate of winter flounder, once among the most abundant fish in our bays.  The southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock has fallen on very hard times, and is all but gone from many waters.  There are almost no young fish being recruited into the population.  No one can say when, if ever, numbers will increase again.

A similar fate has befallen Atlantic cod.  Both the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine stocks have fallen to historically low levels.  Despite managers’ best efforts, they have stubbornly refused to rebuild.

It’s a foolish position to take.

A fish population may be depleted, or even collapsed, in just a few years.  But it can take decades, perhaps centuries, to restore it to health.  

And for some, perhaps Atlantic halibut, or perhaps Atlantic salmon, restoration may never occur at all.

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