Challenges east and west

April was not a slow news month for the U.S. fishing industry.

The top story was the industry-backed decision by the Pacific Fishery Management Council to shut down most of the salmon fishery.

Upward of 1,400 fishermen and their families — thousands of people, in other words — will feel the direct effects of this calamity.

But as Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said, why fight for a salmon fishing season when there are no salmon? Grader says we need to take the long-term view toward salmon. What choice is there? 2008 is a wipeout, and predictions for 2009 are not rosy. (Read Grader's points of action in "Mail Buoy," p. 14.)

Perspicacious long-term thinkers are hard to come by, as most people tend to see things through the prism of their experience. Thus, if you're a student of global warming, the salmon failure becomes a function of climate change. By the same token, NMFS, which feels like it has been caught in a crossfire over the use of river water needed by farmers and dam operators as well as fish, is focused on undersea ocean upwellings.

I am reminded of the 2006 Boris Worm report warning of the disappearance of seafood, as a result of a marine ecosystem crash, by 2048.

This was broadly interpreted in the mainstream media as yet another warning to "stop overfishing before it's too late." However, the salmon crisis reminds us that myriad factors are at work in the world in which fish live, some of which we can control, and some of which we cannot.

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On the East Coast, meanwhile, the New England Fishery Management Council was meeting in Providence, R.I., in an effort to come up with a fishery management plan for groundfish.

Yankees should be forgiven for asking each other, as their 24-day fishing years lumber past at 2.8 knots, why it is that no matter how many boats quit the fleet, the need to get rid of even more has never been so dire.

The council is looking at creating as many as 17 separate harvest sectors — complex cooperative efforts that even King Solomon would want no part of — or maybe it will try individual transferable quotas.

In either case allocations ought to be fun to watch. Some guys have acquired catch history over the years, but more recently, some have leased or purchased days at sea, with no history attached. Then there's NMFS' landings database, which seems not to jibe with everyone's landings.

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At Fish Expo Atlantic in Providence (the week before the council met), Memorial University of St. Johns, Newfoundland, had a large mock-up of the flume tank used by fishermen and researchers at the university's Marine Institute.

It's an excellent tool for designing nets and has almost limitless applications in an era when reducing bycatch and mitigating habitat impacts are paramount, especially in the hands of scientists knowledgeable in the ways of fish behavior.

The Providence mock-up was operational, full of flowing water (which acts on mobile gear much like a vessel underway) and demonstrating the benefits of lab-testing fishing gear under controlled conditions for a fraction of the time and money that would be used up by sea trials.

One of the nets drawing throngs of Expo-goers was the Eliminator Trawl, which synthesizes fish behavior and trawl design in a net that catches haddock while "eliminating" cod and flounder.

The net was developed by several commercial fishermen, a net builder and a pair of researchers at the University Rhode Island.

According to reports, the bycatch ratio of haddock to cod improved by a factor of seven. The ratio of haddock to flatfish improved by a factor of nearly 12.

The net earned its creators a $30,000 prize in the World Wildlife Fund's Smart Gear competition, recognition that was bestowed last November at Pacific Marine Expo.

Alas, in this business, every silver lining has its cloud. More than a year after its development, the Eliminator is still awaiting approval from federal regulators. Meanwhile, $220 million worth of groundfish that could have been landed in the just-ended regulatory year went unfished upon, sources close to the New England council estimate.

In its zeal to "rationalize" fisheries, NMFS has overlooked its mandate to optimize yield. A meaningful increase in groundfish landings would reverberate throughout New England and without question would facilitate an increase in conservation efforts targeting cod and flounder.

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