Abundance isn't enough: harvesters need to enhance market for product
The season will still last 140 days this winter, with plenty of shrimp. But prices that reached as low as 20 cents per pound last January are spurring efforts to build a better future for the Gulf of Maine shrimp fishery.
There's a three-way intersection along Route 1 in Ogunquit, Maine — known as The Square — that gets quite busy in the summer.
When I was a child, cars tended to back up out of proportion with the duration of red lights. The state added a right lane, but within a few years the backups were worse than ever.
So the police department put a cop in the square. Then, fearful he'd be run over, they pulled him out. Today there's a flashing light and a couple of stop signs, and more traffic than ever. But it moves.
That's not to say there's no congestion or backups. But after years of both observation and intervention, local and state officials — whether through intuition or higher mathematics — have perceived the role of disorder in an orderly system.
For hundreds of years, we fished the northwest Atlantic as we pleased, and for all of our concerns about foreign fleets, we never ran out of fish.
Then, in 1976, we passed the first Magnuson Act, designed primarily to secure our fisheries through a 200-mile limit and a system of regional councils, and things have gone to hell ever since.
Perhaps the biggest mistake we made at the time was the creation of the Capital Construction Fund, a tax shelter that created an incentive to build fishing vessels that unfortunately had nothing to do with productivity.
Ever notice that Congress has a way of naming laws just the opposite of their consequences? In 1996 came the Magnuson rewrite known as the Sustainable Fisheries Act, ostensibly passed to help beleaguered fish stocks to their feet. Instead, it shifted the burden of beleaguerment to fishing communities and infrastructure while feathering the beds of the crisis-mongers and attorneys who overpopulate the conservation movement.
If this were Plato's Republic, conservationists would be among our wisest and most revered citizens, guardians at the nexus of wise use, full employment and economic growth.
But it is not, and they are not. Fishery management has been subsumed by conservation for its own sake, the result of which has been our fool's errand of restoring all stocks at once.
Fishery managers accord only one attribute to fishermen — insatiability — and lament the so-called serial depletion of stocks and the "tragedy of the commons," neither of which is as axiomatic as the prophets of doom would have us believe.
Are we serially depleting stocks if we fish for things in season, or when it makes economic sense? I would argue that we are not. Generations of fishermen sailed in the direction of the greatest profitability, recognizing that it was the natural order of things that one stock was down and another was up.
"There were times we thought we'd starve to death, but we never did," Carl McIntire Sr., who in his lifetime fished for lobster, halibut, tuna, mackerel and herring, among other things, would tell us cove rats. "There were times we thought we'd get rich, but we never did that either."
McIntire and the other old-timers responded to the rhythms of the sea, rhythms of late drowned out by wailing about historic abundance, 10-year rebuilding timetables, and vessel buy-backs.
When I started as a deckhand in the early 1970s, most of Maine's big boats went redfish fishing, but some, not quite as big, chased swordfish, and the rest went after whiting. In winter, everybody went shrimping. A few years later the picture was quite different: The shrimp went back to Greenland and the redfish pooched. But groundfish had become abundant. And flatfish like dabs (American plaice) and gray sole (witch flounder), the latter in particular regarded as a way-Down-Easter, showed up in 40 fathoms to the westward with such a vengeance they became the lifeblood of a generation of inshore fishermen like me.
Today's fisherman can no longer go where the fish are. Instead, he's compelled to zero in on a species at the direction of a federal agency that won't be able to figure out what he caught this year until next year. But he can't stop, or he'll lose catch history or surrender days at sea.
Anyone truly concerned about serial depletion of fish stocks should get bureaucrats out of the fishery management business. The truth is, "serial depletion" describes our management regime since 1996.
Management is not malevolent, but it is under tremendous pressure to manage, not just from conservationists but also from politicians who feel either popularly or financially beholden to them.
Unable to count fish, NMFS counts boats with an eye toward subtraction. This is where the "tragedy of the commons," which holds that individual farmers will inevitably place too many animals in a common grazing area, is invoked: Independent fishermen are fated to over-harvest the ocean's unfenced seascapes.
The answer, adherents to this theory say, is to "fence off" the ocean by awarding shares of the fish to individual fishermen. If ensuring that each share is profitable means eliminating boats — "rationalizing the fleet" — so be it.
I don't buy it. The tragedy cannot play itself out, because when there's no longer enough grass for the critters, the farmers will move them or the herd will shrink to a size the grass can sustain.
What do you do when the fish play out where you are? You move or quit fishing. The real question isn't how many vessels the ocean can support; it's how many boats can support themselves.
The ocean lays out the rules by means of an infinite number of variables we can measure — weather, currents, thermoclines and spawning cycles, for example — but not predict.
Much remains mysterious. We've seen Pacific halibut bounce back from oblivion in what naturalists must regard as the twinkling of an eye, yet Atlantic halibut have dithered about recovery for 100 years or more.
We shake our heads at the cod's apparent abandonment of much of the northwest Atlantic for places like Greenland and Scotland.
And where, we wonder, did all those Bering Sea crabs go a few years ago — and why?
The idea of stripping fishing grounds as you might a wood lot is heretical in 2006. And despite my faith in markets, I appreciate that they react to events, and that in resource management, we should anticipate events.
But what has the Sustainable Fisheries Act done for you? By any economic standard, the fishing business has gone downhill in the last 10 years: There are fewer vessels, there are fewer fishermen, and coastal communities from Maine to Alaska to Hawaii are on their knees.
NMFS crows about stock recovery and rationalization as if it has all been a success. The truth, of course, is that the agency has us sailing in the wake of the family farmer.
This industry's last best hope is science. The conservationists may not trust you and the politicians may not need you, but the observations of fishermen with intense experience on small slices of ocean are invaluable to scientists trying to make sense of it all.
To that end, I'm vitally interested in the upcoming symposium in Boston, Fishing Technology in the 21st Century: Integrating Fishing and Ecosystem Conservation.
Presented by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the five-day (Oct. 30 to Nov. 3) conference will focus on integrating commercial fishing and ecosystem conservation — which is another way of saying gear development.
The organizers are placing special emphasis on Nov. 3, which is to be stakeholder day, on which they hope to engage in dialogue with as many fishermen as possible.
Meanwhile, check out this month's Dock Talk piece (p. 8) by Chris Glass, a conference organizer and fishery scientist held in extremely high regard in this industry.
We can cry about the unfairness of it all, but doing so won't get us any further in the next decade than it got us in the last one. We need to be pragmatic and put ourselves in a position where there is no credible argument to oppose what we're doing.
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Don't forget to get those crew shots in here by Oct. 31 for our January issue. Your best bet is to e-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Jerry Fraser
The omega men
Catching fish in rough weather is only one of the challenges facing the menhaden fleet of Reedville, Va.
By Kathy Bergren Smith
At the bitter end of Route 360 on the Northern Neck of Virginia lies the Victorian village of Reedville, population 300. Founded in 1874 by a Maine fisherman, Elijah Reed, Reedville, from its start, has been all about Atlantic menhaden.
For generations, most people in Reedville, which consistently ranks in the top three U.S. ports by landings, have been associated with the catching and processing of this inedible fish. One by one, the factories have closed and the boats have gone where old boats go.
Today there is only one menhaden processing plant in Reedville: Omega Protein. I am heading there on a summer Sunday night to meet Capt. Lee Robbins and join his boat Shearwater for a purse seining trip.
"It looks like fishing is going to be pretty good tomorrow, we have a good fish report to work from," he says as we park in the fish processing plant's yard. A smoke stack looms over a factory and several smaller buildings dot the yard. There is not the typical marina-like atmosphere around the fleet; in fact, the factory's chutes and tanks hide the boats.
We make our way to the docks where the whole fleet is tied up. Eleven boats range in length from 140 to 200 feet. Several are former Gulf of Mexico oil field service boats. Several others are converted WWII-era Army supply craft.
Each boat is configured alike: wheelhouse forward, fish holds amidships, and two 38-foot aluminum boats hang from davits above the stern. Netting is gathered in each of the small boats and draped across the cutout stern. Like the menhaden boats I watched as a child on the Jersey Shore, each mast is topped by a crow's nest and a boom secured by a cable mounted to it. The Shearwater is the fleet's second largest boat at 166' x 32' with a molded depth of 11 feet. Twin GM 149 engines power the Shearwater.
As we tour the Shearwater's deck, Robbins calls to the Great Wicomico, tied alongside. Soon, the Great Wicomico's captain, Paul Somers, a fourth generation waterman, and the boat's pilot, Jeffrey Dameron, appear at the rail. The men's genteel Tidewater accents seem to turn the clock back 100 years. Dameron's father piloted the menhaden boat Robbins' father, Meredith Robbins, skippered.
Talk inevitably turns to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's decision to place commercial catch limits on menhaden for the first time in Virginia's portion of the Chesapeake. (Maryland banned purse seining in 1931).
"I see it as a state's rights issue; you have all these states" — the commission has two members from each East Coast state from Maine to Florida — "that have closed their grounds to our boats, and now they are telling us that we can't fish here in Virginia?" Robbins says.
The 106,000-metric ton menhaden limit the commission set became effective July 1, 2006. It was imposed in response to mounting recreational fishing industry concern that "localized depletion" of menhaden in the bay is depriving the burgeoning striped bass population of its most important food source. (In October, the commission was to consider Virginia's proposal to raise the cap to 109,000 metric tons.)
There is a dearth of population data for menhaden in the Chesapeake specifically. But benchmarks the commission itself set show the coastwide stock is considered healthy.
"That right there is the 'smoking gun'," Robbins says. From the fisherman's perspective, managers are bowing to political pressure from a special interest group instead of using the best available science to make a decision.
Like so many other late night discussions, at around midnight, the fishermen decide they can't solve the world's problems and they had better get some shut eye before the grueling work week begins at 4 a.m.
Flood prevention made easy: be watertight
Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports
A fishing vessel with a captain and two other crewmen onboard departed its home port of Plymouth Harbor, Mass., on a Tuesday evening in November. The trip was intended primarily to test new fishing gear.
National Fisherman Live: 8/14/14
In this episode:
National Fisherman Live: 8/5/14
In this episode, National Fisherman's Boats & Gear Editor Michael Crowley talks with Frances Parrott about the Notus Dredgemaster.