“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts. To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
I was first struck by its relevance to fisheries management two decades ago, when I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Spiny dogfish management was a big issue back then, with quotas being cut back in response to an apparent decline in dogfish abundance. One of the other Council members, who otherwise seemed to be a very bright and perceptive person, made a comment that could be summed up as “Who cares? They’re not good for anything, and if they disappear, maybe something more useful will take their place.”
It struck me as an amazingly ignorant comment when it was made, particularly given the context. Here we were, sitting on a panel created for the very purpose of conserving and managing the region’s marine resources and maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem, yet we had members who were not only indifferent to, but mildly supportive of, the possible demise of a significant ecosystem component.
I’ll admit that I curse dogfish as much as the next guy, when they swarm baits meant for cod, bluefish, or fluke, or when they climb all over jigs intended for black sea bass, and then try to wrap around my arm and poke a spine through my skin as I do my best to unhook them without causing any significant harm.
I don’t particularly like them, but that doesn’t mean that I wish their kind ill.
Yet, as I look back, that sort of live-and-let-live attitude had to be learned.
When I encountered my first spiny dogfish, I was maybe ten years old, fishing for cod on a party boat out of Plymouth, Massachusetts (I’d caught dogfish before, in Long Island Sound, but they were all of the smooth variety, fish with no spines and flat, dull teeth, which usually don’t come in swarms and are far less trouble to handle). Quite a few were caught by the boat’s anglers that day, and without exception, once they were unhooked by one of the mates, that mate would bend back their snout, break their spine, and toss them back into the water where, their ability to swim lost, they would flip onto their backs and drift into the depths, to eventually die.
At the time, I thought that’s just how things were done. And now that I think of it, a lot of the smooth dogfish that we caught in the Sound didn’t survive the encounter, either.
It’s just how folks dealt with “trash fish” back then. If you caught an ocean pout while fishing for cod, you stomped on its back just behind its head, and tossed it back into the sea. The skate or sea robin that was unfortunate enough to take a bait meant for flounder or fluke was quickly reeled to shore and tossed into the rocks, while the cunner hooked while fishing for blackfish was quickly unhooked, slammed against the boat’s rail, and fed to the gulls. Windowpane flounder caught off the docks while fishing for smelt were tossed into the local lobsterman’s boat, destined to be bait.
When I went south, I noted that fishermen inevitably cut the tails off stingrays before trying to remove the hook, while the cutlassfish that hit snook baits at night were always left to die on the bridge catwalks.
That was just 1960s thinking, when the term “ecosystem” was not yet in common use and a fish that wasn’t somehow useful for people was considered “trash.” The irony is that, sixty years later, most of the fish that I mentioned above—the skates and sea robins, the cunners and windowpanes, and even the dogfish—actually provide a good meal, if one knows how to clean and prepare them, but in our ignorance, we left them to rot.
Because they weren’t “any good.”
Today, most anglers know better, although some skates and sea robins still meet their ends gasping for oxygen between jetty rocks. But the question of what a fish “is for”—do they exist merely to satisfy human wants and needs (and if so, whose wants and needs)?—still remains.
That question often arises in allocation fights, when advocates from the recreational sector argue that fishing for sport provides the greatest social and economic benefits, and fish should be reserved for that purpose, while those supporting the commercial sector, and sometimes the for-hire fishery as well, maintain that fish should be utilized for food, and not treated like playthings. Some will even suggest that catch-and-release fishing, a game in which fish and angler participate, but only the angler truly consents to join, is a cruel and somewhat sadistic enterprise.
And, of course, the lines between sport, food, and commercial fishing aren’t all that cut and dried.
I love to cast plugs and bucktails around western Connecticut’s sod banks and boulders, searching for striped bass. Although I no longer live along those shores, they’re where I grew up and where I learned to fish, and I still enjoy fishing with friends there. I catch my share of legal-sized fish, but haven’t brought a striped bass home in over 30 years.
On the other hand, when I’m headed offshore, there’s always ice in the fish box. I might be fishing for sharks, which will all be released, but if a dolphin (the mahi-mahi kind, not the mammal) comes into my chum slick, I’ll do my best to invite it into the boat for dinner. When I’m trolling, the first tuna to hit (provided that it’s of legal size) comes aboard, while subsequent fish will probably be released.
So don’t ask me to decide whether a yellowfin is a “sport” or a “food” fish; it can be either or both, depending on who catches it, and their inclination at the time.
We see the same sort of thing when we try to draw a sharp line between “recreational” and “commercial” fisheries. In theory, it’s easy. As the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act tells us,
“The term ‘commercial fishing’ means fishing in which the fish harvested, either in whole or in part, are intended to enter commerce or enter commerce through sale, barter, or trade,”
“The term ‘recreational fishing’ means fishing for sport or pleasure.”
But are the two mutually exclusive? Years ago, I used to fish in a tournament sponsored by a local club, which encouraged all entrants to donate their fish to the sponsors, who would then sell them, in a live auction, to people watching the weigh-in. Fish that weren’t sold on the dock were shipped to market, and all proceeds from the sales were donated to a well-respected charity. The anglers received nothing for their catch.
I got some of the tournament workers upset with me when I refused to donate my fish, because I didn’t hold a commercial tuna permit. They kept telling me that my permit didn’t matter, because I wasn’t selling the fish directly and, after all, the proceeds were going to charity. The argument went on for a few years, but in the end, the enforcement folks from the National Marine Fisheries Service learned about the sales, and politely informed the club that, if they continued, there would be legal consequences.
NMFS had no doubt about what commercial fishing was, but there were plenty of folks at the club who disagreed.
Things get even foggier when you think about the anglers who charter a boat and fish for bluefin tuna. Bluefin less than 73 inches long may not be sold; bluefin over 73 inches may be sent to market, provided that the boat from which they’re caught have a commercial permit. Many charter boats opt for a commercial endorsement so that they may sell their customers’ catch.
If the first fish landed is less than 73 inches in length, and the customers decide to keep it, the boat is deemed to be fishing recreationally, and no fish caught on that trip may be sold. If the first fish is over 73 inches and is retained, the boat is deemed to be fishing commercially, and no fish under 73 inches may be kept. Under such circumstances, are the anglers who chartered the boat, but may or may not receive some of the proceeds from any fish sold, commercial fishermen?
And, from a regulatory standpoint, does being a “commercial fisherman” mean more than just selling an occasional fish?
In Massachusetts, anyone who opts to pay the commerciallicense fee may sell striped bass; in New York, commercial striped bass permits are only issued to people who can prove that they earn a significant amountof their income from fishing, and even so, no new fishermen are currentlyallowed to enter the commercial bass fishery.
To the extent that a portion of the annual striped bass landings are set aside and labelled “commercial quota,” should those fish go to those who support themselves and their families, in whole or in part, through fishing, or should so-called “recremercial fishermen,” who hold down good-paying jobs, fish strictly “for sport and pleasure,” but sell a handful of fish each year to cover the cost of gas, bait, and beer, be allowed to compete with professional fishermen for a part of the commercial quota?
Again, we confront the question, what are fish—in this case, fish designated for the commercial sector—really for?
Finally, we get to one of the more difficult philosophical end ethical questions: What is a particular fish for—that is, what is its highest and best use—not only when human and ecological considerations clash, but when different human needs and uses clash as well?
Consider the alewife.
In parts of eastern Canada, they call the fish “gaspereau.” An article in Hakai magazine reports that, with the decline of Atlantic herring and mackerel, alewives are drawing more attention as an alternative lobster bait. But alewives are an important forage fish, both for larger ocean denizens and for creatures such as bald eagles once the gaspereau ascent coastal rivers to spawn. Alewife runs are often vulnerable to overfishing; many in the eastern United States have all but disappeared, while others are struggling. Canadian runs, including some that are healthy today, have also been overfished in the past.
Aside for the growing interest in alewives as lobster bait, the fish have long been targeted in a commercial food fishery that sent inexpensive, salted gaspereau to Haiti, where it provides affordable protein in one of the poorest nations in the world.
There is concern that Canadian alewife runs won’t be able to fully support all those uses without going into decline.
That raises the question of what an alewife is for.
Is the highest and best use of an alewife to fulfill its ecosystem role as a forage fish? To feed desperately poor people in Haiti? Or to provide bait in a fishery targeting a luxury food that no one must eat to survive, but also supports the fishermen who catch the lobster?
If one takes the hopefully dying view that the worth of a fish, or any other resource, is only gauged by the value that it provides for people, then the ecosystem role is discounted, but the ethical dilemma of using gaspereau to feed the poor, or using them for bait for the lobster which occasionally feed the at least semi-wealthy (while providing support for others who might be less well off) remains.
It’s a completely subjective decision. I suggest that the right answer is none of the above.
Alewives—and every other fish—are not for anything or anyone. Like any other form of life on Earth—whether a sumac tree, a box turtle, a blue whale, or a human—fish merely are. They are among the current survivors of an evolutionary process that has been ongoing for more than 3.5 billion years, and will continue for another billion years into the future. To assume that they evolved with a purpose, much less the purpose of serving a particularly prolific, tool-making primate that first walked the earth a mere 300,000 years ago, represents folly at best, and at worst a reprehensible arrogance.
Instead of trying to figure out what fish are for, and devaluing those that have no perceptible use, we should be caught up in wonder at their variety, their beauty, and their ubiquity, and thankful that they can satisfy some of our needs, so long as we remain mindful of their needs as well.