Written by Jerry Fraser
April 29, 2015
Credible reports suggest that Newfoundland cod stocks are on the mend. Fishing interests would like to see a limited fishery, but others are not so sure.
In any case, no one should be surprised that a recovery is under way, thanks to a pair of critical environmental conditions: warmer seawater and a moratorium on cod fishing.
It's not likely the seascape in the far northwest Atlantic will be riddled with trawl doors splashing their way down to codfish honey holes anytime soon. The recovery will be heralded as proof that the moratorium, imposed in 1992 following the collapse of stocks to a theoretical 1 percent of earlier levels, is working.
"I'm not sure we'll just wake up one day and someone will say, 'This will be over tomorrow,'" said John Boland of Fish, Food and Allied Workers, which represents 12,000 Newfoundland fishermen. Boland spoke with Munchies, a website and digital video channel describing itself as dedicated to food and its global purpose, in December.
"I suspect we'll be more cautious this time," he said, suggesting that harvests would be increased slowly. More than 35,000 people were put out of work when the moratorium was imposed.
If the Barents Sea is any indication, circumstances may favor cod. Between Russia and Norway, more than 950,000 tons were landed in 2013. In the video below, a Norwegian trawler takes to the Barents Sea to catch, process and freeze cod during a 2014 trip.
This year's Barents Sea quota is close to 900,000 tons. (New England fishermen will be allowed 386 tons this fishing year.)
When you are catching fish at this pace it is not because you have the best fathometer or the smartest managers, although both these things may be true. It is because the fish are ass deep.
Warming seawater temperatures over the last three-plus decades are viewed as a likely factor in the abundance of cod in the Barents Sea. Interestingly, managers there have felt compelled to cut haddock quotas, not as a result of scarcity or overfishing but in response to predation by cod.
Off Newfoundland, seal predation will factor in the recovery of cod, just as surely as fishing effort and water temperature, even if there is a chorus that will deny this with its last breath.
All of which reminds us that nothing much happens of its own accord in the ocean.
Meanwhile, we'll bet on Newfie cod and wait patiently, surrounded by environmental factors like ourselves.
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Written by Melissa Wood
April 23, 2015
At least there's a name for it now. Australian researchers studying the mental health and well-being of commercial fishermen have come up with the term, modern uncertainties of fishing, to describe the challenges facing members of the industry.
Those uncertainties are on top of the traditional dangers (like accidents, physical injuries and skin cancer) commercial fishermen face, and they include the stress of navigating government bureaucracies, having no control over their livelihoods because of uncertainties about rules and quotas, and being prevented from making long-term plans in business and life. In other words, it's not possible to take on a 30-year mortgage if you're afraid your fishery will be shut down tomorrow. Sound familiar?
The problem gets worse because the researchers found that fishermen don't always seek help for what they can control. For example, they were reluctant to make doctors' appointments — especially if going to the doctor meant losing time on the water.
But the good news is, there is a way to address it. In the paper, "Not just a ﬁsherman's wife: Women's contribution to health and well-being in commercial ﬁshing," published in the Australian Journal of Rural Health, researchers concluded the best way to help is to strengthen and capitalize on the efforts of women in the industry.
Fishermen, for example, were likely to talk about the problems that were driving them crazy, and not that they were being driven crazy (and broke). As one fishermen told the researchers, "… to just get… a bunch of blokes together every now and then to talk about mental health issue just won't happen." Added another, "No, we'll sit and whinge [complain] about the ﬁsheries [government management agencies] and bank managers and things like that, but you're not going to [talk about mental health] . . . you vent your spleen and then away you go."
Though venting can be helpful, it doesn't usually lead to a solution. On the other hand, women were more likely to talk candidly about not only the problems, but also the effects those modern uncertainties had on them and their families. And they were also likely to come up with solutions, such as suggesting blood-pressure checks where fishermen land their catch and organizing community events for families facing similar issues to get together for support. In one case, a group of women obtained funding from a national health organization to bring together mental health experts and providers to address a series of suicides and attempted suicides in their community.
In conclusion, the paper says more must be done to build on those efforts: "To make the most of women as contributors to good health in ﬁshing, there must be a structural response that supports women both in terms of recognition for their existing work and that links them with resources for action. The knowledge and credibility of women in their local industry community plus the credibility of industry associations at state and national levels is a powerful combination."
Though it's not news that women are key to supporting healthy fishermen and fishing communities, it is nice to see a formal acknowledgement and recommendation to support their good work.
Written by Melissa Wood
April 16, 2015
Sperm whales are no fools, as you can see in the video above. Shot underwater by a camera attached to a longline, it shows the whale closing its long mouth around a longline with a blackcod attached. Though the fish the whale targets stays on the line, the tension causes another fish to pop clean off its hook: a quick and easy lunch for the whale.
Sperm and killer whales have been a problem for Gulf of Alaska longliners whose blackcod are being grabbed — sometimes from the line or shaken off, leaving no sign of the stolen catch. Now some are about to take a big step to prevent their catch from being stolen: changing their longline gear for pots. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved permitting pot fishing for blackcod in the gulf earlier this week.
The change in gear wasn't an overnight decision. Gulf fishermen have been dealing with the whales for more than three decades, according to the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project. (SEASWAP is a cooperative research project involving fishermen, scientists and fishery managers to prevent whale depredation.) The problem got worse when the fishing season was expanded in 1995, because the longer season also gave the whales more opportunities, and by 1997 reports of whale depredation of blackcod from longline gear "increased substantially."
In 2003, Sitka fisherman Sean Tracey recounted a day when a 50-foot sperm whale rested up against the 42-foot Connie M while three smaller whales picked fish off the line — grabbing a third of the blackcod catch.
"They've gotten smart. You turn on the hydraulics to operate the gear puller and it's like the dinner bell," Tracey told the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
More recently, researchers and fishermen focused on the whales' dependence on acoustics to prevent the line grabs. In 2011, as part of a $353,000 federal grant to study the amount of fish taken in the fishery, researchers tried attaching beads to lines so that a sperm whale would "hear" sablefish all along the line and be confused about where the fish actually were. Fishermen have also tried blasting heavy metal music from their boats to deter the whales.
But apparently, it's not easy to trick a whale. The problem continued, and now some see the change in gear, though drastic, as their best option to remain profitable.
Your move, whales.
Written by Jerry Fraser
April 9, 2015
The idea, I guess, is that we'll all sleep safer tonight knowing that Jorge Vargas is in jail.
Vargas, 59, of Miami, was found guilty last week of illegally possessing 267 lobsters (of which 246 were shorts), a commercial trap-puller, and sadly, no commercial license. He was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $28,680. When he gets out he's looking at five years' probation, and he's been banned from fishing the waters of the Florida Keys.
His bond in last fall's case was set at $1.4 million – a little steep, in my view, no doubt reflecting his failure to appear in a 2011 case – prompting the headline, "Undersize lobster tails lead to oversize bond for jailed Miami man."
No doubt many of you believe that Vargas got no more than he deserved for what amounts to thievery, reckless disregard for the health of the resource, and flouting rules you and I comply with as a matter of good citizenship. At the risk of provoking righteous indignation, I disagree on the jail time.
I'll grant you it's a close call. There is no question that as poachers go, Vargas is something of an overachiever. According to the Miami Herald, during the three years prior to this episode Vargas was cited on two other occasions, for possession of wrung lobster tails (332, of which 274 were shorts) and possession of stone crabs out of season.
But he's also a small-time operator, and as far as I know, there was nothing violent about what he did (unless you are a spiny lobster). Prison time is a harsh sanction – and an expensive one, from the perspective of the taxpayers. Better to have Vargas on the outside, where in theory he can work toward paying down his fine, and off the water, where I am confident he'll remain with five years in jail hanging over his head.
Some of you will recall the case of another Florida fisherman, John L. Yates, who in 2012 was sentenced to 30 days in prison for possession of undersized grouper, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court toss out the sentence two months ago.
The Vargas and Yates cases are dissimilar in several ways. Yates was a licensed commercial fisherman, as opposed to a rogue operator, and the issue was the composition of his catch, not the very fact of it. Moreover, the high court found that a federal law against the destruction of evidence – the grouper were tossed overboard – should not have been applied to Yates.
But in their ruling, the justices raised the issue of proportionality in sentencing, and that can be applied to Vargas' case. Prison is for people who don't belong on the street. Vargas doesn't belong on the water.
Written by Melissa Wood
March 31, 2015
On my first trip to Alaska, one thing that popped into my head was that it was like going back in time. The wilderness seemed so vast that I imagined it must have been similar to landscape of my home on the East Coast as it was first seen by early European settlers. The colonists foraged, fished and farmed that abundance for themselves. They also saw their valuable resources extracted to support their home countries, like the stands of white pines that were some of the only trees large enough to function as masts for the British Navy.
In the case of the white pine trees, they became so scarce that the British made it against the law for anyone but the king's government to cut them down. In 1772 the law led to the "Pine Tree Riot" in New Hampshire, when a mill owner in Weare was caught with illegal pines. According to a Weare Historical Society account of the riot, when the sheriff arrived to collect the fine, the mill owner and 20-plus men blackened their faces with soot, and then they beat the sheriff with switches to "their hearts' content" and crossed out any references to the illegal trees on his ledger. They beat his deputy with floorboards they pulled from the room above. That act of defiance, like the coming Boston Tea Party, was one of the events that helped set the stage for American Revolution, says the historical society.
I love stories like that because they show how much things stay the same. The problems of sharing natural resources are of course well known to fishermen, who must share their catch with each other. Often you must also share access to those resources with industries like wind power. It can be difficult to know what's right. Not everyone can be a winner in the competition for resources. So who gets to decide the winners and losers?
In Alaska, another mine proposal raises this question. The developers of the proposed Chuitna strip mine, about 45 miles west of Anchorage, would like to dig through and completely remove the upper portion of Middle Creek to reach the coal deposits beneath. It's an area that Alaska Department of Fish and Game identifies as important to salmon, according to Inletkeeper, a group rallying opposition to the mine: "PacRim's mining plan removes the entire streambed, bank-to-bank to a depth of 350 feet destroying the underlying water flow paths essential for overwinter survival of salmon eggs. This level of impact will fundamentally alter the underlying hydrology to a point where stream reconstruction is fundamentally impossible; Middle Creek will be destroyed."
PacRim, the would-be developers, make a point to note that the project would benefit local economies by creating up to 500 jobs during construction and up to 350 jobs during the life of the mine. But it's also clear that the major winners are not Alaskans. According to Inletkeeper, PacRim is a Delaware corporation owned by Texas investors. The coal they intend to extract would not go to Alaska, which does not depend heavily on coal for energy, but to China and other markets that do.
I think the answer here is simple: the long-term costs outweigh the short-term gains. In this case we can't afford to sell off Alaska's salmon resources forever to the highest bidder.
Alaskans have until April 9 to tell their governor and the state's Department of Natural Resources what they think of the project. The "riot" of opposition this time is a more civilized undertaking and includes opinions voiced by Alaskans in the media and work by organizations like Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Inletkeeper.
Written by Melissa Wood
March 24, 2015
her blog last week, so it was interesting to come across an item about it in a magazine for boat owners (i.e., recreational anglers). Calling it, “a complicated story, compounded by lawsuits and judges’ rulings” the magazine writer mentions that the red snapper fishery is the healthiest it’s ever been— so healthy that it’s worked against recreational anglers who catch their quota so quickly that their season was last year limited to nine days.I’ve been following the Gulf of Mexico red snapper controversy that Jes Hathaway wrote about in
(Of course the article fails to mention that those judges’ rulings were in favor of a suit brought by commercial fishermen against NMFS for failing to stop recreational anglers from overfishing. It also doesn’t mention that the healthy fishery is due to consistent and careful management by the commercial fleet.)
But the main point of the story may be an issue that both recreational and commercial fishermen can agree on: the need for better management of the United States’ saltwater recreational fishermen. That was also recognized by NOAA, which last month announced a new saltwater recreational fishing policy, “to 1) support and maintain sustainable saltwater recreational fisheries resources, including healthy marine and estuarine habitats; 2) promote saltwater recreational fishing for the social, cultural, and economic benefit of the nation; and, 3) enable enduring participation in, and enjoyment of, saltwater recreational fisheries through science-based conservation and management.” You can watch a short video about it below:
Though the two sides are often at odds, the recreational community’s concerns may sound familiar to their commercial counterparts, including public access, stewardship of the resource, better science and better communication between government agencies and the recreational fishermen.
They too have jobs that depend on a healthy resource, but that industry has also suffered in ways that the commercial fleet hasn’t. When the economy took a slide about 5 years ago, people stopped buying boats. Now that the economy is getting better, there will be more anglers on the water. Let’s hope that better all-around management helps prevent situations (and costly court battles) like red snapper in the gulf.
Here’s also hoping that the goal of better communication helps make those “complicated” fishery management stories a little easier to understand when sacrifices need to be made.Add a comment
Written by Melissa Wood
March 19, 2015
Old soldiers never die, but old boats do. After the Avalon was built in 1929 at the Skansie shipyard in Gig Harbor, Wash., the 66-foot purse seiner fished out of that port for the next 65 years, according to a recent Kitsap Sun article on her fate. Though she hadn't been active as a fishing boat since 1995, Avalon's most recent owner planned to restore her to fishing, but the ailing boat sank after she ran aground while being towed in the Hood River Canal in September.
That was pretty much the end for Avalon. Raised in October, she was declared derelict by the state Department of Natural Resources after her owner couldn't come up with a salvage plan, and she was towed to Port Townsend to be taken apart and put in the dumpster.
But fortunately her end is not quite so bleak. In recognition of her historic significance (Avalon's original build was mostly intact), the DNR contracted Gig Harbor BoatShop to take the boat apart and document every piece, which it did, earlier this month. The documentation was the first of its kind by the DNR, and it's an important step. Many old boats weren't built from plans or line drawings. When they're gone, no record of them remains.
Avalon has been documented in our pages too. A dig into the National Fisherman archives uncovers the 2003 story, "An era of their ways," by Lee Makovich. The article looks back on the golden age of Puget Sound's purse seine salmon fishery, sparked by the introduction of the gasoline engine. Before then, salmon fishermen rowed their small purse-seiners out to fishing grounds. Because of the long distances sometimes required to travel, sometimes groups of fishermen would collectively hire a tugboat to tow their boats to the grounds, splitting the costs among them.
Gasoline engines changed that. Boats got bigger and they could go farther, so they did. The 66-foot Avalon was first skippered by Andrew Skansie and then by his son, the late Antone Skansie, who worked for 54 years in the salmon business before retiring in 1990. Fishermen like Antone made the most of their boats' abilities. In the story, Skansie remembers fishing nonstop: He'd fish five days a week at Salmon Banks, unload his day's catch Friday evening then power out to Cape Flattery to fish for the weekend. On Sunday night he'd unload his catch at Neah Bay then ride all night back to Salmon Banks to start fishing again on Monday morning.
"Sure it was a tough life," Skansie said. "But that's how you made money those days."
Those days are over. Avalon may be gone too, but at least she won't be forgotten.
To find out more about the Avalon documentation project, read the Kitsap Sun story here.
Written by Melissa Wood
March 12, 2015
Oysters aren't that smart, and that's good. Since Maine has no wild source of seed, it has to be produced in the lab. Chris Davis, a partner in the Maine-based Pemaquid Oyster Co., explains they trick oysters into spawning early by taking them out of the water around this time of year and putting them in warmer water.
There's further manipulating of the young. Once the larvae are ready to move from a swimming state to settle on the bottom, they cement themselves onto ground-up oyster shells the exact size of the larvae. The shells are ground up that small so that only one larva will fit on each one, producing single-oyster reefs instead of the big clumps you see in the wild. This way they grow a perfect looking shell that can be beautifully served as a half-shell on ice in the high-end restaurants for which these oysters are intended.
Davis spoke on behalf of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, during a session on aquaculture for fishermen at the Maine Fishermen's Forum last weekend in Rockport. Some have already made the transition to aquaculture: National Fisherman has profiled people like waterman Johnny Shockley, a third-generation fisherman who grows oysters in Chesapeake Bay and sells them through his company Hooper Island Aquaculture in Fishing Creek, Md.
On the plus side, aquaculture can help sustain jobs on the water and be a way to commercially harvest native species whose populations are diminished in the wild. I learned about an interesting project at the forum when Chris Warner talked about his Heal Eddy soft-shell clam restoration project in Georgetown, Maine.
Maine's clams have been hit hard by invasive green crabs. Warner is tackling the problem by leasing from the town flats that were already sub-populated, planting them with soft-shell clam seeds and then covering those flats with nets to protect the clams from crabs. Since the project is in part a research project, he hasn't maximized his 2.3 acres but is testing out different net mesh sizes and what will happen in open areas between nets. It takes about three years for the clams to grow out, and Warner expects to have exclusive rights to that harvest.
And there's the problem. Many local harvesters don't like the idea of part of the flats becoming privatized, even though those flats were depleted before Warner seeded them. His project faces extinction this November if the town doesn't grant an extension, which he might not get because of public opposition. He says this cultural problem is a bigger problem than the technical challenge of fighting off green crabs.
But maybe projects like this are the only way to fight those invasive predators? Warner would like to see others follow his lead. In Maine you can lease up to 25 percent of the flats. He said 2 acres could support 120 nets, and he estimates a profit of $680 per net.
It's also risky, depends on the market and requires an initial investment of labor and money and then a further investment in time, checking on the nets every week. It also requires waiting about three years for that first harvest. But Warner says he imagines if you maximized 2 acres you could make the equivalent of 12 months in three months (that's also an estimate, of course).
Such an undertaking, said Warner, requires "fire in the belly, skin the in the game" and the acceptance of a delayed reward. Aquaculture is a whole different mentality from fishing.
"When you transition to farming you are now the manager of a small plot on the ocean in which you make an investment. You have to think about how to take care of the animals," said Dick Clime of Coastal Enterprises, who spoke about the business aspects of aquaculture at the forum.
But aquaculture also looks like a big part of the future of working on the water. Right now the U.S. imports 95 percent of its seafood. But if we were to maximize all U.S. wild fisheries, we'd only be able to meet demand for four months, according to Sebastian Belle of the Maine Aquaculture Association. Isn't local aquaculture a better choice than imported you-know-what?
What do you think about aquaculture efforts in your area? Is it something you're interested in? Can more be done to help fishermen make that transition if they want to? Or, like the clammers in Georgetown, do you see it as a threat to life on the open ocean range?
Written by Jerry Fraser
March 5, 2015
Dawn M. Martin was appointed executive director of SeaWeb in 2004 and became president and chairwoman of the board in 2006. Before joining SeaWeb she worked for Oceana, served in the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton Administration and was with the American Oceans Campaign. SeaWeb was created by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 1995 and was originally called the Marine Conservation Initiative.
Q: What do you view as the takeaway from SeaWeb’s 2015 Seafood Summit?
As there were several important takeaways from the summit this year, I will mention two that have been repeated quite often during the last few days.
The first takeaway would be the focus on collaboration aimed at solving problems, rather than just talking about them and/or pointing fingers. This year the discussions really emphasized the need to make sure that we had the right people in the room to advance key issues.
Historically, one group that has been underrepresented in these discussions has been the producers, both the wild capture fishing communities and the fish farmers.
In order to ensure greater diversity of participants, SeaWeb established a Summit Scholars Program that enabled us to provide direct support to ensure the participation of fishers and groups whose approach to sustainable fisheries includes promoting community development and empowerment of the fishers and their families.
As an example, we were able to support Lance Nacio, a Gulf shrimp fisherman, to attend the summit as a SeaWeb Scholar this year. His level of engagement was quite significant, from adding an important perspective to the panels and weighing in on the sidebar conversations to leading a field trip for participants to witness firsthand his shrimping operation. I hope we can strive to have greater engagement by the fisher community next year in Malta, given the significance of the Maltese fishery in the European Union.
The second takeaway I’d like to mention is that at the last summit, in Hong Kong, FishWise held a workshop on the key mechanisms needed to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud that served as a kick-off to a collaborative effort that came to fruition in New Orleans. Along the way Highliner Foods, National Fisheries Institute, and representatives of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud joined the effort. This unique collaboration became an important part of this year’s workshop which advanced agreement on key data elements for traceability and provided a timely opportunity to discuss implementation of the task force recommendations with representatives from the task force.
Q: What differences do you find between summits in the U.S. and abroad?
Given that the summit started in the U.S., we have a core base of participants that view it as an essential element of their sustainability strategy. We are also able to attract a strong group of participants from the EU, given the leadership role that Europe has played on this issue historically and the fact that we have previously hosted summits in Barcelona and Paris. The last summit before New Orleans was held in Hong Kong, specifically to help build greater participation from Asia and to try to influence that important market.
While we have previously been able to attract participants from Asia, the Hong Kong Summit was the first major event focused on sustainable seafood in China, and the receptivity was quite strong. We clearly have a lot more work to do to develop a base of support in Asia but given the global nature of the fisheries market, we tend to get a good geographic mix wherever the summit is held.
It is, however, critical that we continue to strive to reach underrepresented geographies and sectors, such as the fishing community, in order to advance solution-oriented dialogue and to ensure better managed fisheries worldwide. Each location where we host a summit brings with it different challenges, as well as opportunities that are important for us to explore.
Q: How has the summit evolved since you started; in other words, what’s different, then and now?
The New Orleans Seafood Summit was our 11th, and many of the participants noted the evolution of the summit in their remarks, commenting specifically on the dramatic shift in the tone of the debate. I think this reflects the maturing of the movement, in addition to a concerted effort to move the discussion away from a platform to highlight the problems to a focus on collaborations — the purpose of which is to seek solutions.
In the earliest days, the concept of sustainability was just beginning to take hold, and our efforts were aimed at shifting the focus away from wildlife protection campaigns for fisheries to efforts aimed at making the “ocean-to-plate” connection. SeaWeb’s market research taught us that the way to get people/decision makers to address fisheries management in a productive, lasting way was to focus on fish as seafood.
Once that focus was established, we intentionally directed our efforts on integrating the other seafood stakeholders into the summit, such as scientists, the seafood supply chain, governments and the media. Today, we are able to focus less on the makeup of the convention itself and are now able to turn our attention to ensuring that we have robust solution-oriented dialogues that attract the right players to advance the issues.
Q: What goes through your mind when you contemplate distressed fisheries, such as New England groundfish?
That the social, environmental and economic impacts of fishery management decisions are inextricably linked. The integration of these essential components is a topic this summit has also helped put on the table for discussion. We need to talk about some of the negative social impacts of fishing, like forced labor, but we also have to recognize the positive social impacts fisheries provide communities and regions in terms of economics and food security.
The debate has changed significantly from the earlier days, and now I think everyone agrees that the goal is to have well managed fisheries that meet environmental goals, while also providing for the economic sustainability of the fishing communities that are often most affected by management efforts.
Q: What is the level of seafood/fishing industry participation? What are some of the things you do to attract industry to events like this?
Historically, we have had good representation from the seafood supply chain but there is always room for growth. On average for the last few years, the breakdown has been about 30 to 40 percent industry, and about the same percentage from the NGOs, with the remaining participants coming from the science, governments and the media.
An important part of our outreach effort is to work with our partners to encourage them to help us promote the summit to their networks, while also seeking opportunities to help them set up side meetings or other events to advance their own programmatic agenda at the summit.
The time and expense of traveling to the summit is something that we always consider and so, if there are ways to help people utilize the summit to meet other related goals, we do our best to accommodate them. We are sensitive to the fact that it is a luxury for many of our participants to be able to come to learn, network and seek solutions to some of the hurdles that they are experiencing on their pathway to sustainability, so we try to encourage opportunities for other business to be conducted while they are there.
Over the years, we have learned that making connections is as an important part of the summit experience, as is the learning from the program.
Q: You’re in Europe next year. The year after that maybe Asia? From the perspective of American impacts, three years is a long time. Is that something you think about?
We always need to think about our base and how to keep the folks from different regions involved in the summit. While we tend to draw a significant amount of our participants from the local country/region where the summit is held, we also have geographic diversity from other parts of the globe. For instance, this year we had representation from about 30 countries here in New Orleans, and I expect and hope we will be able to continue to have a strong showing from North America next year in Malta.
There is a lot of integration within the supply chain, and given the importance of the European markets to the producers in the U.S. and Canada, I expect we will see an even more diverse group of participants in Europe.
Written by Melissa Wood
February 26, 2015
In August 2007, John Yates was fishing for red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico when an officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boarded his vessel for a random inspection. The officer determined 72 of the estimated 3,000 fish on board were under the then 20-inch limit, set them aside in a crate on ice and ordered Yates to bring them to shore. Yates returned with 69 fish, and a crew member later told authorities that Yates had told him to throw the small fish overboard and replace them with properly sized ones. (Yates has disputed the charge, citing incorrect measurement methods and a miscounting of fish.)
Then, prosecutors threw the book at Yates. Instead of a civil penalty for the offense, Yates was charged under federal law of destroying evidence. Under that law he faced a fine and up to 20 years imprisonment if he "knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence" a federal investigation.
To understand the charges, you need to look back more than a dozen years. Remember Enron? This law was implemented in the wake of that company's 2001 financial meltdown that occurred after the company had been misstating income and equity by the billions, and for years, causing the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Thousands of investors lost billions of dollars; many of them were employees of the energy firm and also lost their jobs. Enron's accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, was convicted of criminal destruction of evidence, for shredding thousands of documents — by the truckload. Yates was charged with a similar crime for throwing over fish.
So essentially, a blue-collar guy was charged with a white-collar crime. Why is it never the other way around?
Yates was convicted and served 30 days in jail, but he continued to fight the federal charge, and this week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided 5–4 in Yates' favor. The court ruled that fish did not fall under the definition of a "tangible object" in the law's language since it was intended to prohibit corporate document shredding and because fish are unlike the records and documents that were specified in the destruction of evidence statute. (Yates did not fight a lesser conviction for removing property to prevent seizure.)
During oral arguments in November, Justice Antonin Scalia also reprimanded the prosecutors for excessive prosecution, which was reported in a story by Slate magazine: "This captain is throwing a fish overboard. He could have gotten 20 years. What kind of a sensible prosecution is that? ... Who do you have out there that exercises prosecutorial discretion? ... What kind of a mad prosecutor would try to send this guy up for 20 years?"
Yates won an important legal victory, but it's also bittersweet. In an interview with the Bradenton Herald (in the video above), Yates, now 62, says the conviction destroyed his fishing career. "It forced me into early retirement so now I'm drawing social security ... Right now the fishermen are probably making $110,000– $120,000 a year. There's nobody that's going to give up a seat for me to jump in there right now. I think my fishing days is over, and I wish it wasn't. I'd get back in a boat today if I could."
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The Center for Coastal Studies recently announced that Owen Nichols, Director of the Center for Coastal Studies’ Marine Fisheries Research Program, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the John Annala Fishery Leadership Award by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.Read more ...
Cummins announced the opening of a new Alaska service location on Kodiak Island last week that will serve as a service and support location for commercial marine applications.Read more ...