Sunday, October 2, 2016


The crisis that faces New England’s commercial fishing fleet did not come on suddenly.  It was not the proverbial lightning bolt out of the blue, that brought devastation in the moment that it was first perceived.  It did not spread through the fleet as a plague does, when a pathogen explodes within a vulnerable population.

Instead, it came as a cancer, slowly growing and gnawing away at the body of the fleet over many years.  And like so many cancers, it did not come completely unbidden; the fleet, through its actions, undermined its own health and created the conditions that malignancy needed to thrive.

When we see the news coming out of New England today, stories that tell of the collapse of Georges Bank cod and slashed quotas for yellowtail flounder, we tend to think that this problem is something new, a creation of this 21st Century or, if you believe some fishermen’s stories, an unanticipated consequence of the conservation mandates that lie at the center of federal fisheries law.

That isn’t so.

Recently, a short film called “Draggerman’s Haul” appeared on YouTube.  The film is an elegy to Stonington, Connecticut’s dying commercial fishing fleet.

But even though the film didn’t appear on YouTube until this year, it is not a recent production.  “Draggerman’s Haul” was filmed in 1975, a full year before the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was signed into law.

That was forty years ago, yet if you close your eyes as the film plays, and just listen to the fishermen’s words, it would be easy to believe that the film was shot just yesterday.

Declining stocks were already a concern.  One captain says that

“Now, 200 horsepower in a dragger, to catch the same amount of fish we caught with 5 horsepower in 1920.  Figure it out.  Forty times as much power, see, that’s how the fishing’s gone.  And if they keep building bigger boats with more power, it’s just a big circle. 
“Spawning season for most fish is in March and early April, and if they’d only have sense enough to make a regulation, to tie up for two months in March and one month in April [sic], that would save the fish.  If you went down to New Bedford or Boston or Gloucester, and see all the fish brought in, in March and April, with big spawns [i.e., roe sacs] on them bulging out, and if that hadn’t happened, there’d still be plenty of fish.  But they had no restrictions, you know; every man wants to go out and fish…
When the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (the original, badly flawed version of Magnuson-Stevens) was originally passed, it gave much lip service to conservation, but contained no language requiring that the spawning stock of New England groundfish or anything else, be protected. 

A fisherman noted that

“You’ve got to make a few regulations.  You’re got to, not really, as one man says, replace it with bigger gear like the Russians.  That would be, I think that would be a mistake.  It’s investing too much more money, it’s ganging up on the fish again.  It’s more modern equipment, and I don’t think that’s the answer.  I think the answer is to push the Russians a little farther offshore if you can.”
In fact, the 1976 law’s primary purpose was to push foreign vessels, which had been fishing as close as 12 miles off the coast of the United States, off grounds claimed by American fishermen.  But other federal programs provided financing for purchasing new or upgrading existing fishing vessels.  

With foreign fleets pushed 200 miles offshore, fishermen quickly took advantage of the opportunities such programs offered.  Soon, an overcapitalized, under-regulated fleet, which included many larger, more powerful boats, was soon pursuing the declining fish stocks off New England.

Today, many fish stocks are still suffering as a result.

Yet even in 1975, fishermen knew that you couldn’t blame the foreign fleets—the “Russians”—for all of the problems they faced in New England’s waters.  As one observed,

“If you’re going to push the 200 mile limit, to stop the foreigners from coming in, you’ve only made half a step.  You still have the stuff that fishermen right here in this country are using, the small twine, and hurting themselves…
“Now we have these industrial fish plants in Point Judith [Rhode Island], New Bedford [Massachusetts], we had them on Long Island [New York], and you have them up and down the coast.  They use it for fish meal, they use it for fertilizer, they use it for cat and dog food. Now we use that, in order to catch that fish, we have to use the small mesh also.  So we’re killing as much or more of that small stuff ourselves, as what the foreigners are, but the people here just don’t look at it that way…
“You figure an inch-and-a-half mesh, there is cases where they use one-inch, and you’ve got to be killing that small stuff, whether it’s edible fish or not.  It all goes into the hold, into these plants to be processed, for this purpose. 
Another fisherman confirmed that

“Baby flounders and cod and haddock got killed, went to market, millions of them, tens of millions, they didn’t live to grow up…I don’t know if legislation is coming too late…”
Virtually all of those industrial processing plants have shut down, and New York State even passed a law that makes it illegal to “render food fish into fertilizer.”   Virtually all food fish are subject to size and landings limits that make industrial processing impossible.

Still, the largest commercial fishery on the east coast, Atlantic menhaden, which saw over 380 million pounds of fish landed in 2014, is an industrial fishery that processes one of the coast’s most important forage species into fish meal, animal feeds and other products at a single plant in Reedville, Virginia.

Small-mesh fisheries also continue in the northeast, and continue to do damage.

Such offshore bycatch only adds to the difficulties that anadromous species, such as river herring and shad, faced and still face in their natal rivers.  As one fisherman in the film said,

“At the time that they approach the mouth of a river to go up it for spawning, if the pollution in the river is bad enough, they will eventually—the ones that do go up it will die—and pretty soon there’s none to return, so they don’t return to the river because the cycle’s been broken.”
That was said forty years ago, but managers only began to seriously address the problems of New England’s river herring and shad in the past decade, with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission not placing its first real restrictions on the shad fishery until 2010; problems in the states’ river herring fisheries weren’t fully addressed until 2012, two years later.

To be fair, prior to passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, nothing that ASMFC could have done would have given anadromous fish too much help; pollution was just too prevalent in many New England rivers.  However, water quality had generally improved enough over the following couple of decades that ASMFC could have made a meaningful difference prior to 2010. 

It seems, all too often, that making a meaningful difference is hard, even though, if we had listened to the quiet voices in “Draggerman’s Haul,” when they first were recorded nearly two generations ago, New England’s fisheries would be in much better shape than they are today.

Anyone interested in those fisheries would do well to click on the link near the top of this essay, and watch “Draggerman’s Haul” for themselves.

When they do, they should pay particular heed to the opening caption:

“A hungry world is looking to the sea as well as the land for food.  This film is made in the hope that food will be there when we need it.”
That could have been written today.

NOTE:  While writing the above essay, I quoted a number of times from fishermen speaking in “Draggerman’s Haul”.  I have tried hard to accurately reflect what they said, but at times, someone’s speech was a little bit garbled, and in transcribing it, I may have misheard what was said.  In any event, such errors will be minor and will not distort the meaning of what the speaker said.  However, I still urge everyone to click on the link and see the full “Draggerman’s Haul” for themselves.

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