Sunday, June 4, 2017
THE LAST BUFFALO HUNT: TAKING A NEW LOOK AT AN OLD CLICHE
During the summer of 1989, Dr. Carl Safina, an ecologist by trade, was fishing for tuna near the wreck of the Bacardi, about 56 miles SSE of Fire Island Inlet.
Both bluefin and big yellowfin tuna had set up on the the wreck that summer, in the sort of numbers that drew boats from ports in New York, New Jersey and even Rhode Island.
So many boats were there that, as a vessel began to near the Bacardi, the fleet would begin to emerge.
If you approached in a mid-sized center console, as I did, and stood close to sea level, you didn’t see anything until you were three or four miles out. At that point, the flying bridges and towers of the biggest sportfishing boats began to break the regular line that split the sea from the sky.
As you got a little closer, the bridges of smaller fishing boats became visible, too. There weren’t just a couple; from two miles out, the boats’ upper works filled maybe 30 degrees of horizon, maybe a little more. But that, too, didn’t give a real feeling for what was going on.
It wasn’t until you got within a mile or two of the wreck that you truly appreciated the size of the fleet. It was only then that all the boats’ hulls climbed above the horizon, and the fleet could be seen as a whole.
Sixty-foot sportfishermen were anchored up alongside twenty-foot outboards that probably should never have wandered so far from the beach. It was hard to make out individual boats, for the fleet was so dense that individual vessels overlapped and merged into a seeming city build on the skin of the sea.
On a good day, they were all catching fish. Not just one or two fish, but a lot of them.
There were a lot of good days.
One fishermen I knew was a schoolteacher, so in the summer he could fish every day. He was a long-haired ex-hippie sort of guy, who said that he favored conservation, and was the tagging chairman of our fishing club. But when the Bacardi run happened, and he learned how much people were willing to pay him for fish, all of that went by the wayside. He started bringing home as many as half-a-dozen tuna per day, pocketing the cash and going out again the next day if he could.
And if the promise of fish-turned-to-gold could seduce such a well-meaning angler, it’s not hard to guess how other offshore hands, who had long ago figured out that they could turn their into a payday, reacted. They killed as much as they could, with so many fish hitting the market that sometimes the buyers couldn’t take any more. When that happened, so-called offshore “sportsmen,” blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes, dumped magnificent tuna in the marshes to feed the gulls and the crabs, and felt not a bit of regret.
It happened that, as July faded into August that year, Dr. Safina found himself at the Bacardi, listening to anglers talking over their VHF radios as they waited for fish to appear. As he described in to a reporter for The New York Times,
“People were getting ridiculous amounts [of tuna]. Somebody got on the radio and said, ‘Guys, maybe we should leave some for tomorrow.’ Another guy came on and said, ‘Hey, they didn’t leave any buffalo for me.’”
Those words stuck with Dr. Safina, and in his future work, he often used the phrase “The last buffalo hunt” to evoke images of what people were doing to populations of big pelagic species such as bluefin tuna. The phrase caught on, was used by others, and has since become a cliché in fishery management debates.
But when the phrase is used, it is always used with reference to the fish, and maybe that makes it a bit less effective than it ought to be. We should use it, instead, with reference to fishermen.
Because when we stop to think about it, the buffalo made out a lot better than the buffalo hunters did, in the long run.
By 1902, the numbers of wild buffalo (more properly, American bison) dwindled down to an estimated 25, all living in Yellowstone National Park. About 700 other, semi-domestic animals existed as part of private herds.
At that point, there were no more buffalo hunters at all.
Today, the Yellowstone bison population numbers about 5,500, comprised of two separate herds. They are the only herds in the United States that can trace their ancestors back to prehistoric times. However, a free-ranging herd has been established in Utah, which has become large enough to allow very limited hunting, and other, smaller populations are scattered across lands belonging to the federal government and to private conservation organizations.
Thus, while we’ll never again see the vast herds, that may have totaled as many as 60 million buffalo, thundering across America’s grasslands, the buffalo’s future is secure, at least for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, professional buffalo hunters have become extinct.
After the buffalo declined to the point where hunting them was no longer a viable occupation, some of the hunters assisted the United States Army, which was trying to force the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains onto government-established reservations. With the buffalo gone, the native population had little choice but to succumb to the Army’s use of force and abandon their traditional lifestyle, which left the former buffalo hunters out of work again.
One former hunter, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, found fortune and fame by creating a “Wild West” show, which recreated the days of the buffalo hunts and warfare on the Great Plains.
But well before the 20th Century dawned, Cody’s Wild West show, the last gasp of the buffalo hunters, was gone.
Which brings us to the “buffalo hunts” of today.
In 1992, after decades of overfishing and a collapse of the cod population, the Canadian government closed down the cod fishery on Newfoundland’s east coast. Such
“closure ended almost 500 years of fishing activity in Newfoundland and Labrador, where it put about 50,000 people out of work. Fish plants closed, boats remained docked, and hundreds of coastal communities that had depended on the fishery for generations watched their economic and cultural mainstay disappear overnight.”
As a result, there were no cod fishermen anymore.
“To help displaced workers adjust to port-moratorium society, the federal government introduced a variety of financial aid, retirement, and retraining programs. At the same time, a burgeoning shellfish industry absorbed some unemployed workers, while others found work in a growing tourism sector. Nevertheless, unemployment levels have remained high since the moratorium, and resulting in heavy reliance on government aid and in increased out-migration—in the 10 years following the moratorium, the province’s population dropped by a record 10 per cent.”
“the market is flooded with shellfish, and some harvesters are reporting the size and number of some shellfish species are shrinking. Although the government has reduced quotas for crab and other shellfish, some fishing people and scientists worry the stocks are being depleted beyond their ability to recover.”
Newfoundland’s cod fishermen are, from an occupational standpoint, as extinct as the buffalo hunters, and if the worst fears about the shellfishing industry prove to be true, its shellfishermen could follow.
But the cod, like the buffalo, may see better days.
“The [cod] stock in the 2J, 3K and 3L regions has increased to an estimated 538,000 tonnes of fish—the highest since 1992, when an economically devastating moratorium on cod was introduced in response to collapsing stocks…
“The fishing zones are off the coast of Labrador as well as the northeast coast of Newfoundland.
“Despite the positive finding, the stock has only reached 34 percent of the level needed to escape the ‘critical’ zone.”
So, although Newfoundland's cod may one day recover, Newfoundland's cod fisherman are already gone.
Thus, perhaps it’s time for fishermen to start taking the phrase “last buffalo hunt” a little more personally.
It’s not really about the fish’s survival. It’s about theirs.
The same events that shut down Newfoundland’s cod fishery are playing out up in New England. A 2014 stock assessment of Gulf of Maine cod indicated that abundance was extremely low—at best, just 4% of the level denoting a healthy population. The Georges Bank cod stock is in even worse shape; the 2014 assessment update of that stock found that it languished at just 1% of target abundance.
That leaves fishermen with only two choices: They can try to rebuild the cod stocks, accepting that it will take some time and pain to restore them to sustainable levels, or they can engage in their own last buffalo hunt, and drive the fish down to commercial extinction.
Note that I wrote “commercial” extinction, and not extinction per se.
Commercial extinction occurs when fish become so scarce that, as a practical matter, they can no longer support a commercial fishery. As a practical matter, it’s the point where the fishermen become extinct.
The fish, like the buffalo, might bounce back after that.
New England cod are closing in on that critical point right now. So are winter flounder in southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Other species, such as tautog, are somewhat better off, but still not doing that well, and their future remains in doubt. The same is true of many runs of salmon on the Pacific coast.
If they become commercially and recreationally extinct, they’ll take big segments of the commercial and recreational fishing industries with them. You just can't have a fishing industry without fish.
So it’s time for commercial and recreational fishermen, and the commercial and recreational fishing industries, to make a choice.
They can work to conserve our fish stocks, or can ride off on their last buffalo hunt.
If they choose the latter, they ought to know that once the hunt is over, they'll be the ones who do not survive.