1. The Ocean As The Last Frontier of Planetary Stewardship
In l997 I wrote a proposal for a long magazine piece about the state of the world’s oceans, part of a series on the state of the environment at the turn of the millennium, that never happened. “I will first head for the pool halls and bars of Gloucester, Massachusetts to talk to codfishermen who are shooting pool and getting drunk because there are no more cod. The Atlantic codfish, whose schools once numbered in the millions, is commercially extinct, fished out, and headed for biological extinction. It is astonishing that this could happen to such an abundant, garden-variety species, but that is what we thought about the passenger pigeon and the buffalo. (Whenever I go to the Smithsonian Institution, I always make a little pilgrimage to the Bird Hall to contemplate the stuffed and mounted skin of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, who died in the Cincinnatti Zoo in l914). Recently the Atlantic and more than a hundred other species of oceanic fish were listed by the World Conservation Union as endangered, a designation hitherto reserved for terrestrial animals which represents a conceptual step forward, recognizing that fish are not just resources but are wildlife, too, which have to be monitored and managed. Only five years ago the idea that endangerment and extinction could also occur in the ocean, too, indeed was happening¸ did not have wide dissemination outside the cognoscenti in the marine biological and conservation communities, although people like Elliott Norse, the president of the Redmond, Washington-based Marine Connservation Biology, had been writing about it since l981. The red-listed fish range from the great white shark to the delectable white abalone of California (its population so depleted by fishing that little or no reproduction is taking place and extinction seems likely) to a whole group of groupers, including at least 14 species (sitting ducks for fishermen because they never leave the shallow-water patches of coral reefs where they live; a quirk in groupers’ life history makes them especially vulnerable : after several years as breeding females, the fish undergo a sex change and become breeding males. Kill the older, larger, fish, as is commonly done, or increase the rate at which individuals are killed by fishing operations, and the breeding males can be wiped out.). Millions of dimunitive sea horses are netted by suppliers of the traditional Asian medicine market in the grass beds around the world, where they spend their lives in small, circumscribed range, mated for life, nurturing their few young for a long time, and are easily caught. Obviously, this can’t go on indefinitely.
“The oceans are the new frontier in planetary stewardship. Large ocean fishes, big charismatic species— bluefin tuna, sharks, billfish like swordfish, marlin, sailfish— have declined dramatically in the past decade or two. Sandbar and blacktip sharks are ten percent as numerous as they were in the mid-seventies. Sharks have long lives and few young. Their life history resembles that of large land mammals, and they cannot stand the fishing pressure they are now under. The nine species of great whale would probably be extinct by now for the same reason had not thirty-eight of the countries that hunt them, most of them, agreed to a moratorium in l986. Fish are the last wild animals to be hunted on a large scale, and some conservationists maintain the world is in the early stages of a marine ‘last buffalo hunt’. I’ll stop at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, to speak George Woodwell, a visionary, multi-faceted scientist who is concerned about the big picture. It was after a conversation with Woodwell about global warming twenty years ago that I thought it decided it might a good idea to move north and started looking for land in upstate New York. .
Sylvia Earle, marine biologist and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is another eloquent spokesperson for the growing crisis of the oceans. The red listings represent the distribution of the lookers, not the distribution of the phenomena, she writes, and we still haven’t looked in many places. Our oceans are in fact far less known than Mars or the moon; there are only a dozen deep-sea robots and five submersibles that can transport people to the ocean’s depths. (A descent in one of them seems essential.) The 65,000 kilometers of underwater mountain range—by far the longest on earth, dwarfing the Andes or the Rockies– are only beginning to be mapped and explored, the links between ocean currents and climate are still poorly understood, and newly discovered deep-sea ecosystems whose flora and fauna are radically different from anything that has ever been seen or even imagined, are making us think in new ways about the origins of life. An entirely new kingdom of life, methane-producing microbes dubbed the Archaea, has only just been discovered to be thriving in the hot, high-pressure atmosphere generated by vulcanism deep within the ocean. They appear to be among most abundant creatures on earth and may be a critical link to life on Mars, controversial evidence for which has recently been found in a four-billion-year-old meteor. The oceans, argues Earle, are what make earth different from Mars (which was once well-watered) and hospitable for us and the rest of life. They shape the character of the planet, govern weather and climate, stabilize temperature, fill the (aerial) atmosphere with moisture that falls back on the land. Roughly half the oxygen in the air is generated by algae on their surface (not—a popular misconception– by the world’s rainforests, which are in photosynthetic equilibrium); and these algae also absorb the bulk of the carbon dioxide that is taken out of the atmosphere. Both in terms of the sheer mass of living things and genetic diversity, the sea is where the action is.
The services it provides, starting with being the earth’s life-support system, are so fundamental that most of us are not even aware of them, or take them for granted. In the past century, we have removed billions of tons of living creatures from the sea, and poured billions tons of toxic substances into it. We have regarded fish, whale, shrimp and clams and other living things are commodities, not as vital component of living systems on which we are utterly dependent. The worldwide catch peaked in l989, but we continue to grind tiny phosphorescent spotted lantern fish and hatchetfish, whose life history is largely a mystery, and benthic species that haven’t even been identified or classified yet, into fish meal, to lure squid from the depths with lights and to snare millions of tons of them— a brief bonanza that may doom not only the squid but also the fish, birds, marine mammals, and other members of ocean comunities that depend on squid for food. Ocean-sweeping factory trawlers with kilometer-long nets are hauling in four hundred tons of fish in single cast, schools of tens of thousands in single gulp, which are sorted on conveyor belts, gutted, filleted, and frozen by the time the ships return to shore. Other kinds of trawler drags heavy chains over shallow water to scare up fish, destroying shellfish, sea urchins, worms, and other bottom-dwelling creatures in the process. Seventy percent of the world’s fish stock is strained to the point of commercial extinction, ten percent of the world’s reefs are dead, thirty percent more may be gone in ten years, another thirty percent by 2050. The only hiatuses in the ruthless exploitation and destruction of the life in our oceans during the last hundred years, Earle points out, have been provided, ironically, by the two World Wars.
So even massive sanctioned state-level intraspecific violence has a silver lining.
No hay mal que por bien no venga.”
2. The Trip Report
On August 8, 2002 I set out with the fam. for the Gulf of Maine, leaving the Adirondacks, which are paradisial at this time year. It was one of those limpid days when the mountains are dwarfed by huge billowing white cumulus clouds several miles from tip to tip, but the rest of the sky is clear blue and the air is crisp and cool.
The Gulf of Maine extends from the eastern tip of Cape Cod to the southern tip of Nova Scotia and as far out as Georges Bank, which is 160 miles offshore and starts off Nantucket; this is where the perfect storm of Sebastian Junger’s eponymous bestseller took place. We passed through the White Mountains, which are bigger than the Adirondacks, on a grander scale with their bald tops rising higher and more massively above the treeline, and vast valleys that get much more snow and subzero weather for weeks at a time.
We’re going fishing, I told the boys. I fished a lot as a kid in Bedford, New York, walked every foot of its brooks and rivers, caught rainbow and brown trout, smallmouth bass and pickerel with little Mepps spinners and other lures on my ultralight spinning rod. Oliver, the eight-year-old, was really into fishing. Zachary, the seven-year old, loves animals and hooking and hurting a fish is not his idea of fun. Edgar, the four-year-old, is pretty much up for anything. So, crossing into Maine, we bought a couple of rods and reels at a tackle shop near Jay, and some home-made dayglo daredevil spoons and Oliver tossed one out into the Androscoggin River, below a big steel bridge, and on the first cast tied into a ten-inch smallmouth. The river was maybe a hundred yards across, taking a long slow bend around some cornfields. On the other side a bald eagle was circling, looking for a fish to drop down on.
Every motel within two hours of Bangor, where we had planned to spend the night, was full. Maine was just packed with tourists. Americans were not venturing abroad this summer. They were discovering the many marvels of their own country. Which was what we were doing. I hadn’t been to Maine since l970. The main thing I remembered about it was the incredible light along the coast and the beauty of Mount Desert. At last, at two in the morning, we found a room at the Best Western in Millinocket, sixty miles north of Bangor. The next morning we drove up the Golden Road, which belonged to one of the big paper companies, looking for a pond where we had been told we might be able to see a moose. The Golden Road was paved, and went dead straight for thirty miles through the forest until the massive bare treeless truncated pyramid of Mount Katahdin appeared in front of us. There were lots of little dirt side roads. We pulled off on one where it looked like there might be a pond behind the trees. But it was a dense, impenetrable alder swamp. A man with a pickup stopped and I asked him where the pond where the moose were supposed to be was and he said, well you get back on the Todd Road, as I heard him, and was puzzled because I knew it was the Golden Road, but then I realized he had said, in his downeast accent, tarred, not Todd.
We saw another bald eagle—further encouraging evidence that the eagles are back– right over the road from Medway to Mittawamkeag, where we picked up east 6, a secondary road, and took it to the border. The road went for several hours through complete wilderness, the Maine woods, spreading as far as the eye could see, more than fifty miles at the top of rises, with nothing human in it, only an occasional rusting abandoned trailer along the rokad. Miles to the nearest store. Nobody lived out here. It was reassuring to know that there is still such wilderness in the Northeast. Then we entered New Brunswick, where the rural human landscape was much less bleak and demoralized. Neat little farmsteads had been hacked out of the dense cedar-balsam taiga. The orderly civility of the Canadian mindset, a thrifty and frugal Scottish sturdiness, had made modest inroads into the wilderness. I remembered in l970 driving around New Brunswick with my “old lady,” who was only twenty-three. We checked out a 120-acre farm that was for sale with thirteen outbuildings, most of them beyond salvation, for three thousand bucks, on a place called Cape Enrage. It was really bleak. A dead heron was hanging from the telephone wires. Across the street, a river was racing down to the Bay of Fundy. When we finished walking the property, the water was racing upstream. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tidal ranges on earth—seventeen meters in some places. According to the Guiness Book of Records, Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin, an offshoot of the Bay of Fundy, has the very highest, but this is being challenged by the Inuit of Nunavik, who claim they have the same range in Ungava Bay.
After an hour of this we reached Fredericton where there was a nice Sheraton right on the river, and even though we had no reservations, we were given a nice discount a junior suite. There wasn’t much to Fredericton, a couple of streets named King Street, Queen Street, Victoria Street, Prince of Wales Street, a couple of nice mansions from the oughts and teens on the riverbank, a white-bearded veteran in kilts and a khaki jacket sitting on a park bench. It was all still very dominion. The Brits sure left their mark this part of the world. I visited with Lily Ferguson, the executive director of the privately funded New Brunswick Council for the Environment, which has been going since l969 and has several publications that are relevant to this report (see the bibliography). The marine scientists, Janice Harvey and David Coon, were on vacation, but Lily filled me in on the issues the Council is involved in : the threatened herring fishery, the destruction of deepsea corals by draggers, developing the oyster fishery, sustainable forestry, reducing toxic particulates in the environment from the many paper mills and the oil-fired Colson Cove generator plant. “The province is resource-based : forestry, fishing, and farming,” she explained. “We do not come out strongly against trawling and dragging because we have to be sensitive of the economics. Naturally we can’t advocate putting everyone out of business.”
New Brunswick’s fauna ranges from the rare sightings of black panthers (mountain lions) on land to the occasional great white shark that swims into the bay of Fundy. As David Coon points out in one of the Council’s publications, many of the Bay of Fundy’s fish stocks are transboundary in nature and are subject to entirely different management regimes in the federal and state waters of New England. And now Bush is trying to deregulate everything from three miles out. At the same time the Rockland, Maine- and Boston- based Conservation Law Foundation, which is receiving support from the J.M.Kaplan Fund, is mapping out, with the help of the World Wildlife Fund’s Halifax-based Bob Rangeley, a network of proposed new marine protected areas to counter the onslaught of rapacious, high-tech fishing and other extractive activities, oil and gas drilling, sand and gravel mining, laying of pipeline, and other things that are disruptive of habitat, CLF’s scientist, Tony Chatwin, who I was going to be meeting up with in a few days, told me. “We’re looking at areas in the Gulf of Maine that jump out as high-priority conservation areas,” he told me. The idea of having more places where they could not fish imposed on them by bureaucrats and radical environmentalists who as often as not did not what they were talking about understandably did not sit well with the small local fishermen, who were already a dying breed due to the draconian regulations on their catches that were in place. But also, let us not forget, because they fished out the cod and the salmon. Obviously there has to be some management, and human nature being what it is, not just by the people who are exploiting the resource. They cannot be left on their honor to act in their own long-term interest and stop digging their own grave. The small-boat fishermen will tell you it is not they, but the 90-foot deepwater trawlers that destroyed the fisheries. But they can’t be completely exonerated. Disinterested people who are looking at the big picture, maintaining healthy populations of every species in the ecosystem that the resource is part of, have to be involved. But do such people, free of their own agendas, exist ?
It was obvious that I was coming in at the tail end of something, that the small fishermen were being gobbled up by the big fishermen– the multinational conglomerates who owned the factory trawlers, and were going the way of the small farmer in America’s heartland, and the small independent bookstore owner and numerous other fulfilling and beautiful ways of life that are on a local, more human scale and are no longer viable as everything is being homogenized and centralized and mass-produced. It was a sad story all around. The fish are vanishing, and so are the fishermen. They are in the same boat, and it is sinking. The crisis in the Gulf of Maine, once the most productive fishery on earth, is a perfect paradigm for the central thesis of the Dispatches : that the fates of nature and man are inextricably intertwined.
One of the fishing families I was going to meet were the Goethals of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Dave had a day boat that his eighteen-year-old son Daniel had helped him with for five years. But now Daniel was going off to college, William and Mary in Virginia. His mother, Ellen, e-mailed me the essay he had written for his admissions application. It spelled out the plight of the small-boat fishermen in the Gulf of Maine :
Extinction. A strange word that seems much too abstract to comprehend. Everyone has heard it associated with animals such as the dinosaurs or the dodo, but who has personally dealt with what this word actually means? In America there is a group of people that eke a living from the earth and are quite proud of what they do, even though the government has tried to stop them and the citizenry does not understand them. These men and women are the small boat fishing fleet of New England’s coast. On a weekly basis the average American likely consumes some sort of seafood product, but hardly anyone stops to think about where that food came from and the difficulties it took fishermen to produce it. Fishing is unlike any other occupation in the world. It unites families and communities as no other business can. It provides food to a wider variety of tastes and cultures than almost any other industry. There is just one problem: every year New England’s fleet shrinks and approaches extinction.
This issue is one of great importance to me. First and foremost my family is one of the few whose income relies almost solely on that of a 45 foot New Hampshire dragger. Due to this our lives revolve around what the government allows fishermen to catch in the North Atlantic Ocean. As a child I would often go out fishing with my father and bask in the excitement that was created by catching thousands of pounds of cod or other types of fish. Along with these large catches came even larger paychecks that could mean only one thing to a small brain: vacation and other goodies.
In the past few years many changes have occurred in the fishing industry. Although most people have assumed that the fishermen have simply wiped out all the fish in the ocean, this is hardly the case. Granted, at different times in the past some fish stocks have been dangerously
low, but hardly anyone ever bothered to ask the fishermen how stocks could be rebuilt. Government scientists used formulas and outdated numbers and told the fishermen that many
species had been fished to extinction. This caused a panic and forced the government to close down popular fishing areas and certain fisheries altogether, put time restraints on others, and created quotas on the amount of fish that could be caught.
Although each “ban” on fishing hurt the New Hampshire fleet including our family, the worst was the quota put on cod. This species had supported New England fishermen and their families for hundreds of years. Suddenly, with one quick stab, fishermen who had been used to unlimited catches of these beautiful and profitable fish were rationed by the government to catches of 30 pounds a day.
Ever since fishing had been established in America as a commercial industry in the 1700’s, the people that were involved faced many dangers. On a daily basis fishermen could face death from the elements. Whenever a boat headed to the fishing grounds people knew it might not return. Now fisherman faced a different sort of death brought not by weather, machinery, or collisions with merciless tankers, but from the government. Allowing boats to catch only thirty pounds was similar to telling a corn farmer that he or she could only sell 10 ears of corn a week; it meant certain death to the fleet. Just as the government was hoping, hundreds of boats went out of business. The men and women who had always depended on the ocean to make a living were now forced to find work ashore; for those who were able to squeeze through these times, life was very difficult.
Such was the case with my family. When the new regulations went into effect, I was still in middle school and unaware of financial matters. I began to notice the change when my father, who never missed a day of fishing unless the wind was breaking limbs in the woods behind our
house, began to attend more and more meetings and demonstrations. I never understood why until later when I was old enough to truly understand the significance of what was happening around me. Other changes occurred, too. Unnecessary items such as snacks, new toys, and exciting vacations to exotic locations became less and less frequent. The first time it hit me was when my father’s mate quit since he could no longer support his family on 20 % of the daily catch. My father was then forced to go by himself for almost a year because he could find no replacement. That summer, as I was preparing to enter high school, my dad told me I would be going fishing with him. I wasn’t thrilled at the declaration, but I knew I needed to and soon grew into the job. Six times a week I would get up at 4 a.m., stumble out of the house in a stupor, and head for the boat to spend the day as a mate.
Today things are better than they were: the quota for cod has increased to 400 pounds a day, still not much, but enough for fishermen to get by. The fight between the government and the fishermen continue. Scientists, still using outdated figures, say fish stocks are still endangered, while fishermen say that is not true as they often catch a couple thousand pounds of cod a day—and that’s when they aren’t trying to.
Over the years the fate of the fishing industry has become more of a concern to me, but not just for the financial reasons. Obviously the ebb and flow of the fish prices and quotas determines my family’s income and the basics we can afford—including schooling for my brother and me. More importantly I have developed a very personal interest in fishing, which has been created by all the time I have spent working on my father’s boat over the past four summers. By spending so much time with men and women who have spent all their lives fishing, I have come to understand how lucky I am to be part of a community with such a rich living history. Fishing truly is what gives coastal areas of the world a unique identity. If, for any reason fishermen do become extinct, then the world would lose some of the most culturally and historically rich people, and as my father is fond of saying, “Wasn’t Jesus a fisher of men?”
We drove down to the coast, and poked around for a while in St. John, a big port with the faded redolence more prosperous days from whaling and other fisheries. Up the coast was a residential area of very modest houses were perched on a magnificent bluff. Such prime oceanfront would have had multimillion-dollar mansions, but the local economy was not capable of generating such extravagance, and the frugal local mindset probably would have frowned on it. We continued down the western shore of the bay to St. Andrew’s, the headquarters of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, where we met with Steve Chase, its vice-president in charge of lobbying the government. This outfit, an umbrella group of some 150 conservation organizations whose aim is to improve the lot of wild, sea-running salmon, has old money with deep pockets on its board : Englehard, Molson, Ford, Winthrop, Reed, many of whom have camps on the Cascapedia and the Restigoose and other salmon rivers in the Gaspé, where a whole ritual of catching the fish with special fly rods, reels and flies cast from canvas coracles that descend from pool to pool has evolved. “There are only a hundred thousand large salmon left in the Atlantic,” Chase told me. “Commercial fishing in the U.S. ended in l948, after the runs up the Penobscot were too poor to be economically viable. In the early nineties the Canadian government spent 72 million (Canadian) to buy up its fishery, which caused a major shift of lifestyle. Thousands shifted to other fisheries, anything from cod to snow crab. But codfishing has gone the way of the dinosaur. We just signed a deal with Greenland that they suspend commercial salmon fishing—a major coup. We bought out the fishery for a quarter of a million, which is very reasonable when you look at the number of salmon saved : 25,000 to 40,000 fish, two thirds of which are North-America bound, and five percent of these to U.S. waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with us on this initiative. Every fish at this point is important.
Sixty-one factors have been implicated in the decline of the Atlantic salmon. Chase was reluctant to rank them in terms of their relative importance. Some comes into play in the ocean, some in the rivers. Among them are : predation by seals and cormorants; the last remaining commercial harvest on this side of the Atlantic, in the French provinces of St. Pierre et Miquelon; the quasi-commercial harvest by the residents of Labrador, who are so dispersed the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is unable to regulate them; global warming, which is changing air and water temperatures, the movement of shrimp, krill, and caplin (a 3-5” fish that used to beach itself by the millions on the Newfoundland coast but doesn’t any more), and the pattern of the salmons’ return to their spawning rivers (there used to be strong runs in June and July, but now hardly any fish come, but the fall run has been extended and now lasts into mid-October). Also the salmon aquaculture industry : 50,000-100,000 fish escape from their cages and enter the spawning rivers every year and compete with the wild salmon for food and habitat, infect them with sea lice and other diseases, and interbreed with them, reducing their ability to survive. The most intense area of salmon aquaculture is in the Passamaquoddy area on the New Brunswick-Maine border—just where we were. In Europe there are still commercial fisheries in Denmark’s Faeroe Islands, Ireland, Scotland, and the U.K., which impacts the French and Spanish river runs. A few summers ago the fam. and I danced on the famous Pont d’Avignon and right under it several very big salmon were finning in place beneath it. In l968 I spent a few days in Inistioge, County Kilkenny, a little village where the big moment of the day was when the dozen or so salmon that had come up the river were taken out of the wiers and brought to the main square in a donkey cart and the villagers bartered and haggled for the fish and then everybody repaired to the pub. The village depended on this daily run. I wonder if it is still happening.
While the wild Atlantic salmon is down to the wire, there are still millions of the five species of West Coast salmon, despite damming of their spawning rivers, logging, urbanization, and fishing wiping out more than half the genetically distinct units, the populations of salmons that home to specific rivers or creeks. There are only four individuals of Snake River salmon left, for instance, but the species as a whole is not endangered. In l966 a college buddy and I spent the summer on the Kenai peninsula in Alaska and lived off the king, silver, and sockeye salmon that choked its rivers and in places were so thick we could have almost walked across the river on their backs. The U.S. and Canada are together putting $400 million into restoring the Western salmon spawning grounds, but efforts to get a fraction of that for the Atlantic salmon have not been successful. Chase said that recreational salmon fishing in Canada is a two hundred million dollar industry that employs two thousand people, including guides and camp staffs in Quebec and the maritime provinces. “If we can return the fish to abundance, this income will multiply. Recreational fishing should be taken more seriously. It contributes more to the economy than groundfishing in Atlantic Canada, because the cod are effectively gone, and the haddock, redfish, and halibut are depleted. Natives are still catching salmon on handlines in Atlantic Canada. They have the aboriginal right to do so, and the good this is that they mainly taken grilse, a genetic variant that doesn’t grow more than 23 inches and contributes only 2% of the eggs. Last year the Cascapadia Society voted to have catch and release only on the river, but the Quebec government overturned it, bowing to pressure from those who want to keep their fish. Fishermen are on their honor to return salmon they catch in their gillnets, when they fish for spring-running shad; but often the salmon are bleeding and too damaged to recover.” For more information on the Atlantic salmon and the ASF, see its Web Site, www.asf.ca .
Continuing to St. George, we saw our fourth bald eagle, circling right over the town, and drove the car on to the ferry to Deer Isle, which slid past huge whirlpools eddying and churning and seething in the fog. On Deer Isle we visited with the Mitchells, a family of herring fishermen, who have been living there since the early 1800s. The first member of the family we met was twelve-year-old Judson, who sometimes helps his father on his “sardine boat.” A sardine is a juvenile herring (in some places; in others it is any phase of members of the genera Sardini and Sardinops). The original sardines, of course, are the ones off Sardinia. There are about three hundred species of herring. The common Atlantic herring is Clupea harengus. The ones that are caught in the North Sea are known as pilchards. The ones that are caught off Peru and in the Black Sea are called anchovies. A 12-14-inch picked herring is a kipper. A sprat resembles a herring but is much smaller, and it also swims in huge shoals. The herring that the Mitchells catch are 6-8 inches— sardines in the local parlance. They fish at night, when the herring come toward shore in the millions, and seine them in weirs and then suck up the fish with a pump that holds sixty hogsheads. There are twenty-two cases in a hoghead, and 100 cans in a case, and ten herring in a can, so there are twenty-two thousand fish, 1240 pounds of herring, in a hoghead, which sells for eighty to a hundred and fifty dollars depending on fish size—the smaller the better. A typical night’s catch is about twenty hogsheads, split three ways, about five hundred dollars a day (Canadian; to convert to U.S., multiply by two-thirds). Judson said he may be a fisherman when he grows up; he wasn’t sure yet. A lot of the younger generation—the ones who are going into fishing at all— most are into gameboys and chilling at the mall– are going into salmon aquaculture which offers a steady paycheck. Judson said his Dad caught a thirty foot basking shark and gets lots of bluefin tuna which can fetch up to 65 thousand dollars for a prime fish, but he has to throw them back, because you have to have a tuna license, which costs two hundred thousand dollars, to keep them. The herring season runs from June to September. From October to December, the Mitchells catch lobsters. The absence of cod, their main predator, has caused an explosion, an unprecedented superabundance of lobster, in the Gulf of Maine. The last six years have seen the best harvests many seasoned lobstermen have ever experienced; another silver lining, I suppose. But now fishermen are reporting that the cod are coming back, starting to recover from the hammering of the inshore systems especially around Gloucester.
From January to March the Mitchells drag for scallops with metal bars that scoop up the scallops and everything else on the bottom, causing devastating habitat damage, according to marine conservationists. I spent several hours drinking coffee and munching beavertail, or fried dough, and talking fishing with Justin’s dad Dale, a proud, jocular example of the dying breed of small independent fisherman. He and his wife Lois met eighteen years ago, when she doing research for a dissertation called “Making It Pay : The Organization and Operation of the Deer Isle Fishing Economy” for a doctorate in sociology at the University of New Brunswick. “I didn’t know what a Phd. was until I met her,” Dale said. “By then she had already been on the island for three years. In those days herring were the big thing. Purse seine fishing for herring started in the Bay of Fundy in l940. The premise was that there were so many herring they could never be outfished, like the anchovies in the Peruvian trench [whose exploitation began after World War II after the California sardine industry collapsed due to overfishing]. Up till l900 it had been strictly groundfishing. Now there isn’t single groundfisherman here, and a lot of the herring weirs are being converted to salmon cages because of greed and shortsightedness. Now there’s this mysterious explosion of lobster. I caught more lobster the first day of last season than I did the entire one before. I think it has more to do with good fishing practices— protecting spawning lobsters and having to throw back the gravid females with v-notches in their tails, and the 2700 licensed lobstermen in the bay agreeing on size limits to their catch—than the absence of cod predators.”
Elliott Norse, commends the lobsterman for exercising the most self-restraint. “They are the best fishermen, but the lobster explosion is not entirely to due to their good management. It’s an intensive fishery. They catch 93% of the lobster in their first year of eligibility, once they are big enough. In addition to good lobster management in Maine and some other places, I suspect that the explosion is due to a combination of increased growth rates and diminished predation after recruitment. The production of recruits—baby lobsters after they’ve settled to the bottom from the plankton– has benefited enormously from putting prime lobster food in baited traps which small lobsters can walk in and out of with impunity. We’ve created lobster feed lots up and down the Maritimes and New England, boosting reproduction and providing an abundance of food to growing little lobsters that was not as available to them in natural conditions. Added to feeding is elimination of one of the lobster’s key predators—the Atlantic cod– and both of these are helping lobster managers withstand the heavy fishing pressure on the eligible adults. More than in most fisheries, we’re modifying two key factors that benefit lobsters : how much food they get and how fast they can grow when they are vulnerable youngsters, and how many predators there are.”
Dale continued : “The groundfishing was mainly done in by the Russian factory trawlers that were operating at the height of the Cold War forty miles off Grand Manan Island. The Russians use to come ashore to take ferns and flowers to the ship. There were two or three defectors. One drowned. One of our women was working on one of the trawlers and had a baby on it and they all cried. That struck me as the end of the cold War. It was a turning point in my life to see that the Russians were just like us. They all came from fishing families and were working on these ships because they had to feed their families.”
Dale has three weirs, and until his father died last year, three generations of Mitchells worked them together. “Traditional fishing provides the second-biggest income in Atlantic Canada,” he said. “The government claims salmon farming is a $300 million industry. 2.2 million fish are put in the water, but .2 million die, and with the average salmon weighing ten pounds and fetching three dollars a pound at the Boston wharf, that’s only $60 million, and traditional fishing is a $157 million business.” But the problem was that the herring weirs and the salmon cages were competing for space in the sheltered coves, and the aquaculturists were squeezing the traditional fishermen like Dale out. The herring weren’t coming in the numbers they once did, and the non-productive weirs were being converted into salmon cages. Dale blamed the aquaculture itself for this. “The salmon are fed meal of ground-up herring, which along with their fesces makes the harbors and coves greasy, and herring require clean, pristine water,” he explained. “Plus the noise of the stressed salmon flopping in the cages scares them off. And maybe the light pollution from shore is affecting the nocturnal movement of the fish. There used to be one light on the wharf. Now there are 5-7. Why ? All these street lights take power.” [In Hawaii sea turtles head for the glow of cities and highways thinking they are the full moon and get slammed by cars.] Salmon farming pays ten to fourteen bucks an hour for a fifty hour week. For someone just out of high school this is enticing money, and the income is guaranteed. Fishing is never a sure thing, and not everybody can fish. It takes initiative. Last year I made $153,000 from lobster, and that was only half my income. 30% was from herring, and 20% from scallops. When all three hit at once, it can be a spectacular living. But the opportunities for a young man to go into fishing are getting fewer. My nephew is the youngest sardine fisherman on the island. He’s 25. All the others his age are farming salmon. But we were brought up to think that somebody who worked for wages was a second-class citizen, to believe that we should never rely on credit. No one in my family has ever had a mortgage or has ever bought anything— a single length of rope—on credit from the lobster buyers, because then they would be in debt to them. My nephew just built a house for $125,000 that he owns free and clear. And it’s more house than he needs. [This is the environmentally commendable Canadian attitude, something Americans would do well to emulate. But on the other hand, it produces a small-mindedness and a conformity in the Canadian zeitgeist that many Americans would find claustrophobic. A Mohawk friend of mine who lives across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal has one of the biggest homes on Kanawake Reservation. “Boy I sure would hate to have to heat that thing,” his jealous neighbors say. And in the small dying Ukrainian towns of rural Manitoba, where all the houses are tiny, when I asked why don’t these people splurge a little and give themselves some space. They’re going to be living in these houses for the rest of their lives. It was explained to me that the attitude is the last thing you want is a house that’s bigger than everybody else’s because everyone will be trying to undermine you and cut you down to size. “The tall poppy syndrome,” as Conrad Black, the media moghul who gave up his Canadian citizenship and is now a British lord, has called it. Even the mansions of Westmount, the fanciest part of Montreal, are small and modest by American standards. Conspicuous consumption and flaunting don’t go over well up here except among some of the nouveaux-riches who want to be like Americans. A Scots parsimoniousness and frugality, living within the carefully circumscribed limits of what you need and not more, are one of the Canadian values, and Dale with his modest little house and eight-year-old pickup was a good embodiment of it.]
“My grandfather Mitchell, who was born in l884, worked for the Stewart family, who had a weir. They paid him a buck a day and he was so poor he couldn’t ever buy a weir of his own. Today all you need is a hundred bucks for a license, and you can build a weir anywhere so long as it isn’t within a hundred feet of another one and doesn’t interfere with navigation. Today there are 150 permits, but only 30 weirs that are built. In l986 there were 67 active weirds. Aquaculture started on this island in l978. It was the first salmon farming anywhere. By l983 it had become a problem. We started to realize that we were coming up against something. Now there are 19-20 huge sites.”
What about this dragging that the enviros are so bent out of shape about ? I asked. “We only drag for scallops in the dead of winter, when the lobsters move off shore, so it will do the least damage. We fought to stop summer dragging and put in a two-mile conservation limit. But there are very few places you can drag here, anyway, because it’s so rocky. One time I brought up a 16,000 year old walrus fossil that’s now in the museum at St. John. Another time I caught an undetonated bomb from the Second World War. The dragging fleets were a problem, but nobody was aware of the ecological damage they were doing at the time. This year so far I’ve caught five bluefin tunas and put ‘em back alive. No one is fishing tuna here, but my brother-in-law, who lives on another island, landed a 1070-pound bluefin with a rod and he has a license and got 17 cents a pound for it. I see more tunafish coming through the water, maybe because this year there’s more shrimp and krill. They move around all over the Atlantic, from New England to the Azores to Florida, so I don’t think they’re endangered. I caught 400 Atlantic salmon this year, but most of them were escapes. They were full of sea lice and fatter and looked different from the wild, sea-running ones because they don’t get any exercise, and the fins were wore on ‘em. Fishermen are saying the cod are coming back and maybe they’re right because I’m getting more cod in my lobster traps. We did fish too hard,” Dale admitted. “I’m trying to anticipate the global changes over the next fifty years, so I can keep my family here, but it’s hard because I’m so tied to the present. I wish I would understand what to do. Is it going to get warmer, or is the melting polar ice going to shut down the Gulf Stream ? There have been no whales this year. Not yet, anyway. All these whales the last few years are a new phenomenon. Right whales in the Bay of Fundy, and one little humpback and a small minke around here—what does it mean ? I kind of scratch my head about these marine protected areas. I can see protecting certain things for certain amounts of time, especially estuaries and other spawning grounds. But a lot of places are naturally protected by their rockiness, and the places where the fish are are constantly shifting, especially with global warming. And I don’t believe that if you protect one place, it will make a lot of fish elsewhere. Fish are like us. They like choice areas, and most of the middle of the Bay of Fundy is like a desert. David Coon and Janice Harvey and Maria Burzeta [who is working for the DFO in nearby Letete to demarcate marine protected areas] are not radical Greenpeace types. They take humans into consideration. I have a lot of respect for these people. The only thing I disagree with Janice and David about is they want no rockweed harvest.”
This locally abundant seasweed is harvested for its carragenan, a thickening agent used in toothpaste and ice cream. A lot of the local people supplement their incomes by harvesting it with long rakes, which Dale said was not a problem as long as they leave a foot or so off in the water so it will grow back. “I have no problem with cutting rockweed, as long as it’s sustainable. There’s so much of it, and there will always be places to harvest it. But the big diesel-powered rigs I have a problem with. Everything hurts something, don’t it ? When I drive down the road, it hurts the environment.”
I found this argument somewhat specious. If that’s the case, if we really want to do a favor to the environment, why don’t we all just kill ourselves ? There’s actually an organization, called the Church of Euthanasia that advocates doing this and has info on the most painless way to do yourself in on its website. Founded by Chris Korda, the cross-dressing, seriously Dada son of New York editor Michael Korda, it advocates, besides killing yourself, abortion, castration, sodomy, and cannibalism. But this is an ideological stance. None of the church’s members have actually gone so far as to remove themselves from the planet.
“Most fishermen are conservation-minded these days,” continued Dale. “We have all witnessed the virtual collapse of the ground fishery because we didn’t manage it properly. I’m a workaholic, but I want to do the least damage and fish the best way possible. I’m 45 and ready to slow down. I got maybe 20 or 30 more years to fish. I hope my son’s a fisherman and my daughter marries a fisherman and we all work together and get along. My dad remembers Indians coming in canoes from the mainland to hunt porpoise. I’m a better fisherman than he was because I’ve got the basic electronics- GPS, sonar, and a depth record. But we fishermen are naturally pessimistic. We have to look ahead to the worst of times. I’m not living day to day. I have reserves. But the deck is stacked against fishing families like us in so many ways that I can’t say I’m not worried about the future. And now if you’ll excuse me”—it was five to midnight—“I love talking fishing, it’s my passion, but I got to scoot.” And Dale jumped in his pickup and headed off for his boat.
“It might be a hard life, but it’s your own life,” my wife said as we watched this man who was so obviously and inspiringly in love with his way of life grow increasingly antsy and eager to get to work as the herring witching hour drew nigh. The mystique of this disappearing way of life is captured in Linda Greenlaw’s books, The Lobster Chronicles and The Hungry Ocean, which are about traditional subsistence fishing on an island over the Maine border much like Deer Isle, which has “no modern baloney,” as Dale put it. “Twenty years ago the government wanted to put transmitters on the whales and make Deer Isle a big tourist destination like Bar Harbor. But the whole island was against it. All these whale-watching boats cruising up until dark would have spooked the herring from coming into the weirs, and it would have led to a reduction of the fishing effort.” Dale had another problem : with the natives inland who had aboriginal licenses to fish lobsters and hired white men to fish for them. “If they’re gonna have a license, they need to fish themselves,” he argued. His relationship with the enviros and scientists who wanted to tell him how to fish, and to put in more marine protected areas, seemed to a wary symbiosis, like the one between the enviros and the rubber tappers in the Amazon.
Dale told me that several of the Al Q’eda terrorists who participated in 9/11 took the catamaran ferry from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to Bar Harbor.
We stayed at a nice little guest house on a rocky cove. The boys spent the morning beachcombing in the massive mats of rockweed exposed by low tide, along with some local people who were filling buckets with clams and periwinkles, then we drove to Eastport, watched the Old Sow, supposedly the world’s largest whirlpool, swirl around for a couple of minutes, and took the ferry to Campobello, where Dale’s mother’s people, fishermen and farmers called the Lanks and the Calders, had owned a weir. His mother remembered FDR coming in the summer to his 30-room “cottage,” which we took a tour of. We have a macabre family connection with this great president. FDR collapsed with a massive cerebral hemmorhage on April 12, 1945 at another of his retreats, the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, while posing for a portrait by my grandmother, Elizabeth Shoumatoff. (See part two of the Old Russia section of Past Dispatches.)
There was heavy security at the customs and immigration station at the other side of the bridge to the mainland. Route One, which we took down to Mount Desert Island, was choked with tourists. We visited with my old Harvard classmate, Cap Weinberger, the son of Bush père’s Secretary of Defense, and met the old man himself, who is in his eighties and still has all his marbles and is still very much in the loop, part of the “illicit junta,” as Michael Moore calls them, that stole the election and is way over its head in terms of being able to with a world that is becoming increasingly disenchanted with the whole American shtick. Mount Desert is a serious Republican enclave. Kissinger, Martha Stewart—they’re all here. It is also one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth, the East Coast’s answer to Big Sur. Its summer people overlap with ours in the Adirondacks. Different lines of the same families have been coming here for five or six generations. Stanley Grierson, a local Westchester County naturalist who we spent a lot of time with as kids, moved up here. He’s dead now, but his widow writes a nature column for the Bar Harbor paper, and Cap senior’s wife publishes her lovely book about the natural history of the island in the small press she run by her daughter-in-law, my college buddy’s wife.
We continued wending our way down the Maine coast along Route One, passing through Camden, a highwatermark of American civilization, with Victorian houses of a grandeur that doesn’t exist in New Brunswick or anywhere in Canada. The following evening we dined at a homey seafood joint in Saco with Tony Chatwin, the Conservation Law Foundation’s marine biologist who was designing the network of new marine protected areas in the gulf with CLF’s economist and two laywers; the Kaplan fund is supporting the effort. Tony had driven up from Boston. A Brazilianized Brit who grew up in São Paulo, where his parents were in the import-export business, Tony was fluent in Portuguese and was married to a Brazilian woman (as I was for ten years), so he was an interesting hybrid, a good scientific mind with the British and air of authority and competence tempered by laid-back tropical sweetness and graciousness. I asked Tony if he was related to my friend the late Bruce Chatwin, the erudite traveler and writer. Tony didn’t know, but said the Chatwins are from the Midlands, around Coventry and Birmingham; there is a particular parish with a lot of them. He knew of Chatwins in Utah, New York City, and Patagonia (the destination of Bruce’s first book). Tony studied zoology and ethology, specializing in primate behavior, at the University of Redding, then oceanography and the behavior of shrimp-like arthropods at the University of Southhampton, then returned to Brazil for his doctorate; he wrote a dissertation on the little Atlantic tunney, which he described as “a poor cousin of the skipjack.” There are already several MPA’s in existence in the gulf : a three-year-old ground fishery closure on Georges Bank to protect the cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounders’ spawning grounds there, and the one on Stellwagen Bank, which was created in l994 and protects most of the waters off Massachusetts, from Cape Cod to Gloucester, but you can still fish in it, including for cod, but there are no cod there. The fishermen did themselves in. Thirteen sites around the country were created by the national marine sanctuaries act, but there are few regulations on fishing in any of them, so in what way, one wonders, are they sanctuaries ? There’s one in Monterey, California, and another in the Channel Islands. “We’re looking at the Gulf of Maine as an ecosystem rather than as a political jurisdiction,” Tony explained. “It’s all connected. We’re trying to identify and map the areas with high conservation value, looking at existing oceanographic information, weather temperatures, salinity, the depth and stratification of local water masses, and enduring and recurring features in the environment, reaching out to resources like statelevel managers, fishermen, and coastal-zone and fishery- management officials. One fishing cooperative has been responding positively what we’ve been talking about in the early stages. The fishermen like to be consulted. They have expertise on the location of spawning grounds, the seasonal the comings and goings of fish, where the nurseries are and the marine birds and whales feed. Often their information is not as easily quantified as data that follows scientific protocol, but still they have knowledge that is valuable. The lobster are proliferating because the cod are down and are not eating the baby lobsters, and also because some management is in place. Wolf fish and eels will eat large lobsters, so protection is a very powerful force, and the v-notching of females with spawn is very important. We’re half-way through the mapping. It will need vetting. Each habitat type supports a different biological community, and our goal is to protect all the components of marine biological diversity. A critical component that is missing is that there is no state legislation for full marine biodiversity protection. Even the 13 national sanctuaries are mixed; some fishing is allowed in them. And with Bush proposing that the National Environmental Policy Act should not apply beyond three miles, if he gets what he wants, there will be no environmental review so they can drill, extract sand or gravel, lay pipes wherever they want in the two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone. The attitude of the present administration seems to be inspired by the fundamentalist belief that the end is at hand, so why bother ? At this point there is no process for vetting proposed marine protected areas. A number of organizations are trying to address this lack of mandate : the CLF, the NRDC, the Ocean Conservancy. According to a poll of eight hundred randomly selected people in New England and the maritime provinces of Canada conducted by Sarah Clark Stewart, a marine policy consultant, 75% were in support of marine protected areas, even if it caused economic impact on fishermen, and thought that 24% of the ocean out to the 200-mile limit was already protected and were upset to learn that only 1% is. For more detail on our MPA projects, visit our Web Site, www.clf.org .”
What are the chances that any of this is going to result in any protection ? I asked, remembering the 31-million-dollar environmental impact statement for the proposed South Fork dam in Colorado that I wrote about for the New Yorker (see the butterflies section of Past Dispatches) and that ended up not even being part of the review process.
“A lot of sanctuaries will be created in response to increased off-shore drilling, but then the administration will create more obstacles than opportunities to create new ones,” Tony said. “But this will create more support for overcoming the obstacles. But we are under no illusion. This is a long-term project that has several beneficial results along the way. We are stimulating debate over this issue, highlighting the need for these tools and putting them in the toolbox of the decision-makers who are in charge of the governance of our oceans. The reach of the human hand has gone too far, and we have to find ways of limiting it by protecting certain critical marine areas. 50 years ago there were natural refugia for the fish stocks in the gulf, but technology has made them accessible. In New England the seafood industry is a huge part of the economic engine. Aquaculture is high-impact. It takes places in estuaries. It’s all about appropriate uses in appropriate places and striking a balance.” This was almost same phrase as a study by the Traditional Fisheries Coalition that Dale Mitchell gave me : “In Search of a Balance : Saving the Traditional Fishery in Southeastern New Brunswick.”
“We are finding that dragging is widespread,” Tony went on. How long does it take for the places that are dragged to recover ? I asked. “Some impacts last a day, some take decades or even centuries. Deepwater corals have five-hundred to a thousand-year lifespan and they are being mowed down with one pass. But a sandy bottom subjected to wave turbulence takes a day to recover. The impact is gear-specific and site-specific. A scallop dredge is a two-ton metal structure. So anything providing three-dimensional resistance like sponges is knocked over, and subsequent draggings prevent them from growing back. The draggers argue that it goes back to the same once the season is over, and since we always go back to the same places and get something, we can’t have destroyed the habitat. But there are many subtle impacts that can’t be can’t be related to population-decline percentages. Loss of cover exposes juveniles to predators, for instance. Habitat destruction is taking as great a toll as overfishing or other human impacts. So we are in a situation where we know that there are impacts, but there some uncertainty how much, but even so, we have to act. That’s the precautionary principal. You can’t for all the answers to act, or until Bush finally admits that there is global warming. Justifiably industry wants to know what benefits from habitat protection will offset the economic loss from no longer being able to exploit these areas, but we are not at the point of being able to say, if we protect x amount of habitat this will bring back x amount of fish . But a more robust and stable ecosystem will inevitably produce more fish, so the marine-protected- area debate gets lost in fisheries discussion. The fishermen are looking at the ocean as a producer of fish and we are looking at it as an ecosystem that provides services over time if it is protected. A lot of people in the fishing industry buy into idea that they shouldn’t be able to fish everywhere. The difficult issue is which areas. Wherever a line is drawn, it impacts somebody’s livelihood. The MPA is not most controversial aspect. The big battle now being fought is over the point of sustainability. There are still too many boats chasing too few fish. The bigger the boat, the more fish it needs to catch and the more mobile it has to be, so that when the stock is depleted in one place it can move to next. In our vision we want a fleet with a greater sense of stewardship. The fishing grounds here are close enough to shore that the locally caught fish can be processed locally, so there are none of these big factory trawlers, which are doing most of the damage, in New England. Here it is the local guys who are dragging the continental shelf for scallops, pollock, haddock, flounder, hake, redfish (a perch-like variety of scorpionfish of which there are three species in the Atlantic)—whatever they can bring up. No one knows for sure what impact all this habitat damage is having, but the initial indications are that it’s definitely not good.
The next morning I met in downtown Saco with Craig Pendleton, one of the more progressive ground fisherman who is working with CLF works and is the coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, which was incorporated in l997 and is also getting Kaplan support. Craig said that “CLF has been working so long that it realizes you can’t divorce conservation from reality, but it’s gone in-house with its marine protected area mapping and isn’t consulting us. It’s taking a non-collaborative approach, and the science they’re relying on is eighteen months behind what’s happening. [par for the course with academic disciplines, I reflected, recalling how when I was an English major in the late sixties, T.S.Eliot was the cat’s pajamas, while over the ivy walls what was really happening was Bob Dylan, who is now, thirty years later, a subject of college English courses]. The cod are running strong this year, but the government-anointed science says they’re still on the brink of extinction. I got into fishing at the age of nine. I took to it like a priest to his calling. For me the conservation ethic was always there. But in l985 was working on a big trawler, one of five ninety-foot boats that belonged to a cutthroat Canadian organization whose attitude was catch as much as quick as you can. Originally they were after redfish, but redfish take thirty years to mature so they were being fished out even before modern technology, so they shifted to pollock. We were catching 150,000 pounds of pollock a day. The only thing we had to worry about was not to overrun the onshore factories’ capacity to process them. Like a reformed alcholic, I keep a picture on the wall of me standing on the deck with millions of fish, exulting with a clenched fist, Yes ! Science says it takes a nineteen-inch pollock to spawn, and these fish were fourteen-fifteen inches. But we weren’t interested in the damage we were doing. Our job was to catch ‘em. One day in l985 I woke up and said I can’t do this anymore. We fishermen have to think beyond just how can I keep my piece. I want to dig clams but I also want my grandchildren to be able to. And to make sure this is possible you have to look at the whole ecosystem. So I started NAMA, which is transborder and is the only organization spanning all the interests. We have become a trusted source of information, and a forum where the various parties can voice their concerns and adversaries can get together and talk out their differences. Two years ago there was a big blowup in Nova Scotia between some of the local lobstermen and some of the native people who decided not to abide by the rules about the season and how big the lobster has to be that you can keep and how the gravid female have to be released. Boats were burned and sunk, traps were cut, there were physical rumbles. There were also five or six Passamaquoddy communities that said it’s our aboriginal right to ignore the rules that are in place for lobstermen, so before they too came to blows, we sat and down and worked it out. There are always a few individuals who can see through the forest.
“My inspiration for how to proceed with NAMA came when I met Dee Hawk, the emeritus founder of VISA, in Olympia, Washington. Hawk made VISA such a huge success because he distributed power to the local financial institutions. Why should someone in Washington, D.C., tell someone in Stonington, Maine, how to go fishing ? Why should everywhere from Maine to North Carolina be managed under one blanket ? Hawk gave me models for getting rid of command and control and distributing power and authority down to a level where it makes sense, and he taught me about conflict management. There is so much polarization in the world from globalization, and we’re all in it together, we’re all on spaceship earth. Fishermen these days have a stronger environmental ethic, because it’s they who are going to pay. Now there are fishermen who will go to their grave fighting oil drilling on Georges Bank. I almost ran aground on George’s Bank, but the Canadian government says that’s okay because the current will take any spill to the U.S.. So it is saying if America wants to joint-drill in the Arctic, why don’t we joint-drill on Georges’ Bank, too. That’s the kind of thinking that has to be done away with.”
Craig complained that there was no follow-up on the recovery of any of the existing marine protected areas, and pointed out that even Skellwagen Bank was not fully protected; some fishing was still going on. “If they’re trying to bring back a high species on the food chain, why do they still allow fishing of the lower species ? You can’t protect cod, pollock, or haddock if there’s unlimited fishing of herring. The situation is totally manipulated by the people with the most money and power—the owners of midwater trawlers. Herring bunch up so dense they’re almost like a piece of bottom, and the midwater trawler comes along and breaks the ball up. So the trawling interests have made 4 stages of spawning the criteria for protection. Some of the balls of fish move ashore and go into weirs. The trawlers catch most of the first and third stages before they get there, and the wiers are not allowed allowed to catch stage four, so the herring have to be impacted, not to mention the cod, which home to the herring’s traditional spawning grounds. But having a homing device depends on being part of a large school, and when a trawler sucks up a big part of a school it takes part of its knowledge. Some of the coastal spawning grounds are not being rejuvenated because basically they have been wiped out. The scientists of the National Marine Fisheries Services tell us the haddock grounds are rebuilt. You’re still allowed to catch 50,000 pounds over ten days in the deep water off Georges Bank. But my boat fishes all over the Gulf and in all these years I’ve never caught more 3700 pounds of haddock in a day. But the cod coming back. Our guys can’t get away from the cod, but government tells us there aren’t any. Jeffreys Ledge, 20 miles off Portland, is permanently closed and is crawling with cod. Kerry [Senator John, D Massachusetts] is favor of lifting the moratorium on individual fishing quotas, which put the fisheries in the hands of a few large conglomerates like Monsanto and will eliminate the small boats and be the death of Maine. Now we’re managed by days at sea and individual trip limits. You are only allowed so many pounds. Individual fishermen’s quotas are determined by how long they’ve been fishing and their catching history, the same as with the halibut fishermen in Alaska. The people who always caught the most are rewarded, and they’re allowed to sell their quote to someone else, so what you’re seeing is more of the fishing being done by fewer players. Surf-clam fishing in the Mid-Atlantic, for instance, went from a hundred participants to six because the clams became such a hot commodity that they were good investment for big business and the license to fish them has become as expensive as a taxicab medallion in New York City, which is fine with the regulators. Managing fish is about managing fisherman. It’s a lot easier to manage 6 than a hundred.”
What about the damage from dragging ? I asked. “The middle of the Bay of Fundy is mud and sand, so it’s not a big issue,” Craig said. “We’ve learned to make our nets to go anywhere. We used to use three-inch mesh and hauled up sponges and kelp and whatever was in the net got killed. I reconfigured my net so it hops over the rocky bottoms and does less damage. I made it so there is no place in the Gulf of Maine where fish could hide. When I dragged Cassius Ledge I took off the rock hoppers so the net hovered over the bottom at two and a half to four feet and was still stirring up a cloud that drove the fish into it, but didn’t touch the rocks. It’s a change of philosophy like going from being a big factory worker to having the finesse of a ballerina. I used to go for 20,000 pounds, now I’m targeting 6,000 pounds of high species. This is what most groundfish draggers are doing now. My boat grosses $25,000 a year, $50,000 in a good year. It’s been tied up since May 6, but in the 6-day window before I tied it up I made $40,000. But the insurance is killing me. It’s the most dangerous job in the country. I have to pay $9,000 for two guys and can’t even get it for myself, which is one of the reasons I stepped off the boat and got into advocacy and mediation.
“Scallop dredging is the most damaging. It takes finesse to tow this two-ton piece of steel a thousand feet behind your boat. You tow it really fast. I’m not trying to say it doesn’t do damage, and when the cutting bar gets worn to a certain point it doesn’t even pick up the scallops. But does it knock over the corals ? I have to tell you part of that is bullshit. If I was a lunatic enviro trying to get money I’d say yes, but we don’t wipe out the coral forest. How do I know this ? Because the scallops not where corals are. The location of the corals and the scallops have been known for decades. This is another tragic example of fishermen and enviros not sharing knowledge. Yes, we make mistakes, but it doesn’t happen twice. We do rearrange the kelp and sea anemone beds on the bottom, yes. But is dragging in the Gulf of Maine like clearcutting national forest [as Elliott Norse, whose first two books were on forest conservation biology, maintains; this comparison between bottom-trawling and clearcutting really got fishermen’s hackles up] ? I can’t go that far. Fishing practices are not as destructive as they used to be. It doesn’t do any good for a fisherman to have his gear destroyed or to wipe out your scallop fishery, as the Japanese did. But the Japanese have done some very innovative research and developed nets that fish pass through but that the microscopic sprat, the larval babies scallops shoot into water column glom on to. We’re underwater-filming the traditional scallop beds, and are set to release seven hundreds bags, with a million baby scallops, into Saco Bay. The Japanese say you need six million to get results. These bags may be it, the thing that will restore 25 years of ruthless dragging. The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in Chatham is looking at the impact of dragging. The management system we have now offers no incentive to conserve or find the least destructive gear. Instead it take fishing days away from those who fill their quotas.”
Craig had been allotted seventy groundfishing days between May 1 and the following April 1. His family had been in Saco for a hundred years. “Dad was one of thirteen kids,” he told me as we drove out to Camp Ellis, a blue-collar summer resort and fishing community where his boat was tied up. “He had brothers who fished, but he was a policeman and a pharmacist. I helped secure $335,000 from the feds to rebuild this pier, which is named after my uncle Charlie. There are fifty-three boats here, but only five groundfish. The others catch lobster, which is year round. This managing by days at sea is very contentious.” Craig showed me the boat of one of his friends, “a big guy who fell off the pier and broke his back, he was so weak from trying out for the New England Patriots, so he couldn’t fish last year and now he has only eight days. He is basically
screwed, because his boat is set up for multiple fisheries– gillnet and dragging– and is too big for lobstering.
“My children have no interest in this profession,” Craig said. “They’re content to do the modern stuff. I tell ‘em at the age of twelve made more money than my mother did, but it’s a different world now, and there’s less and less room in it for the small-boat fisherman.”
We spent the afternoon with some Montreal friends who summer at nearby Prout’s Neck. While the boys found little crabs, huge clams shells, starfish, and all kinds of other fascinating things in the tidal pools at the rocky point of the sandy beach that curved gently for several miles. , I stood in the surf remembering one of my favorites poems, that memorized in college, when I thought I was going to be a poet :
The people along the sand
all turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land
and look at the sea all day
As long as it takes to pass
a ship keeps raising its hull.
The wetter ground like glass
reflects a standing gull.
The land may vary more,
but wherever the truth may be,
the water comes ashore
and the people look at the sea.
The poet who wrote these characteristically wry, understated lines about an uncharacteristic maritime setting was none other than Robert Frost, a landlubber like myself, a denizen of mountains and forests who doesn’t get to the sea very often, and always feels that it is a great privilege and wished he knew more about what it is all about.
The next morning, at four a.m., I went out in a fishing boat, the Ellen Diane, with David Goethal and his son Daniel, the nineteen-year-old who wrote the remarkable college entrance essay reproduced at the beginning of this Dispatch.
We had driven down to Hampton, New Hampshire, where David keeps his boat and belongs to a fishing cooperative. The Ellen Diane, a forty-four footer named for his wife, is a day boat. These are smaller boats that go in and out the same day and bring in 25% of the catch in this part of the gulf. They don’t go out to George’s Bank and fish for a week or so, like the ninety-foot boats, which catch the other 75%, including the mid-water trawlers which land 100,000-150,000 pounds of “heron,” as Dave pronounced herring, a day. “We’ve been trying to tell the government regulators the herring fishery is not in good shape, trying to get them to allowable daily catch, but they won’t listen, any more than that there are plenty of cod.” Any cod or out-of-season flounder or other groundfish the trawlers land is “bycatch,” that has to be returned, whatever shape the fish is in, but some of the trawlers keep their bycatch illegally. Another problem are the recreational boats which are allowed to fish closer to shore, some of whom sell their catches illegally. Occasionally a sailboat from the Carribean will transfer a shipment of cocaine to a local fishing boat, or fisherman bring out a shipment of guns for the IRA to a ship waiting offshore. But most of them are just trying to make an honest and increasingly difficult living. Groundfishing had just been closed, because of a CLF suit that the stocks weren’t being rebuilt, from April to June, and “that’s our season,” Dave complained. “We’re being destroyed by the effort to save us. I’m willing to do my share, but not to be put out of business to save fish that don’t need saving.”
Dave had been allotted sixty-three groundfishing days, but on the other days he is allowed to fish for unregulated species like silver hake, which was what he was doing today, going after the diurnal migration, when the fish come in toward shore. The peak haul is around daybreak, from then on your catch is reduced by half until by noon it isn’t worth it and you head back in. But since the sixties, Dave told me, the fish haven’t been coming in so much, “maybe because of some trace dioxin or barium from the paper mills, or some biocide. It could be any one of 45,000 compounds that are polluting the sea. Every day they find a couple of new ones, and no one is going to spend the dough to find out which it is.” Dave, who was talkative, was 49, and his son, who hardly said a word the whole time we were out there, was 18. They worked together quickly and smoothly, pitching the plastic fish box on to the boat, then we headed out to sea, and Dan went to sleep down below. After forty minutes or so, Dave started to look at his fish finder, a sonar device that tells you something’s under the boat, down to 250-300 feet deep, but not what. Then he cranked out the net and started to make the first pass, and there was a lull in the action. He resumed our conversation. “New England fisheries management anywhere else would be a success story. [“These guys are in such denial, ” one prominent marine conservationist says. “New England’s been a nearly complete disaster, maybe the worst situation of the eight federal fisheries management council regions.”] We’ve done more than stabilize, we’ve rebuilt. The problem started back in the seventies, at the height of the cold war. The Russians were ruthlessly scalloping George’s Bank. It’s taken twenty years to recover from the damage they did. The government said, we’re a First World country, but we have a Third World fishing fleet. So they decided to do away with the three hundred or so small boats and gave low-interest loans and a ten-percent tax credit for 70 midwater trawlers. [Elliott explains that Russian, Polish, and East German trawlers with sophisticated listening devices were coming to within twelve miles of shore, so Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Management Act in l976, which sent them out to the two-hundred-mile limit. The act states that resources within these U.S. waters are off-limits to foreign fishermen if they are being used by domestic ones, so “massive subsidies were given to domestic fishermen, with the result that domestic overfishing replaced foreign overfishing.”) It takes a lot of fish to feed a ninety-foot boat, and by the early nineties this new fleet had depleted the cod and haddock. As for swordfish and bluefin tuna, they’re transborder stock : they could be here today and in Labrador tomorrow, so you could be the best-meaning conservationist, but protecting just your area means nothing.” Most of the other boats out there with us were tuna-fisherman with huge rods and monofilament trot-lines with hooks every seventy feet that caught turtles, small fish, and very rarely, a tuna.
We talked about the book and movie of “The Perfect Storm.” “Jungar did an excellent job of portraying life on a boat,” Dave said, “and the Las Vegas strike-it-rich mentality of some fishermen. But they didn’t need that Hollywood wave. A 40-foot wave would have done the same thing. The boat the story is about ran into trouble streaming home off Sable Island on Halloween 95 or 6, I forget which. There were enormous seas. The leaves were being ripped off the trees. But they went out because they wanted to make one more trip. Three things have to happen to make a perfect storm : a northeaster, an extratropical hurricane, and high pressure from Canada. [“There’s one more thing,” Elliott adds : “The swordfish were severely overfished in New England waters, so these guys had to go all the way out to Flemish Cape—two thousand kilometers from their home port– to find any, and got caught before they could reach it.”] We had twenty-five-foot seas here. When the weather gets bad, we don’t even think about fishing, we just go home. There are two fundamentally different groups of people who fish : 1) the ones who love it. There’s one good line in that movie : ‘Damn, it just doesn’t get any better than this.’ On a nice day, when the fishing is good, there’s no better place to be. One government guy asked me, ‘Why are you still going out ? We’re doing our best to make it impossible for you ?’ They don’t get it. It’s a way of life that shapes our communities. I’ve spend more time on this boat than I have in my back yard. I don’t wear a watch. I feel sad every when I’m going home. I hate being on land, having to answer the telephone and deal with the modern world. I’m my own boss. If I don’t want to fish that day, I don’t.
“The second type is the Las Vegas mentality type fisherman, who is in it for the money, hoping to make a big strike, to catch fifty thousand pounds of haddock, to make twenty-five grand for a single trip. They don’t even like it. They’re just hoping to get a big stake to do something else or get into some other fishery than the one they’re in. These are the guys who go offshore on three to thirty-day trips. I never talked to a guy who did an offshore trip because he loved it. Virtually every town up and down this coast has five to twenty boats that go out and fish, but it’s gradually dying out. In Gloucester fifteen years ago there were thirty boats. Today there are two or three. All the others were put out of business by the closures. The older guys couldn’t stand the idea of people looking over the shoulder all the time, of being told if you catch a cod you got to throw it back. And if you’re caught with cod the penalty is so steep you’ll never set foot on the ocean again as long as you live.
“This boat was supposed to be my retirement,” he went on. “It’s supposed to be worth more than my house—150 or 170 grand. But that was ten years ago. Today it’s worth more like 80. The law says we have to fish for scallops three miles out, but we know they’re further in. You almost have to have a phd. to read all the regulations. We get two or three thick envelopes a week of the latest regulations written in governmentese. I agree with most conservation policy but I understand that if I make one mistake, I’m up a creek. It’s like the family farmers no longer exist, but they’re just a few years ahead of us. The same thing is happening here. There are these fish sticks made out of processed crap by a company called Gorton’s of Gloucester that they want you to think is bought from small local family fishermen, staring out at the sunset, when it’s a big multinational operation that hasn’t bought any American product in twenty years. It’s like the Betty Crocker image, buying from the little guy who grows forty acres, when it’s all mechanized and multinational. But in New England we still have a strong town meeting tradition, and that is the only thing that is going to save us, the tradition of so-called pure democracy. If we don’t have the right to be heard, we get extremely angry. This is our way of solving our problems. That grassroots spirit is going to make it extremely difficult to get rid of the little guy. Remember New Hampshire’s motto : LIVE FREE OR DIE.”
Yeah but the guys that make the license plates with that motto on them are in prison, I thought. And secondly, how much of the fish in the gulf are being caught by New Hampshire fishermen, when the state has only like ten miles of the coast ? But I didn’t want to interrupt Dave, who went on :
“We’re more self-reliant in New Hampshire. The government is small, there are no state taxes. We really don’t like it when a bunch of outsiders come in and tell us everything you’re doing wrong instead of how about we sit down and work this out together ? We have a strong cultural bias against people coming in and trying to solve our problems. The most dreaded words are, ‘I’m from the government, I’m here to help you.’ There’s a popular bumper sticker that says, DON’T STEAL. THE GOVERNMENT HATES THE COMPETITION. I myself am dragging ten feet from the sea floor, with a modified otter troll. A lot of our critics don’t know what they’re talking about. 200 feet down the 600-pound metal doors on the troll weighs less than one tenth the weight of a human footprint, and the doors have lateral lift and are at a thirty-degree angle. The boat moves at two and a half knots, three miles an hour. One turn sweeps an area a hundred and fifty feet across and 1 ½- 4 ½ miles long. The troll scars are 2-5 centimeters deep and fill in rapidly. The bottom here is real soft mud. They make nets that can troll over harder bottom and have more interaction, but the damage I’m doing is not catastrophic. I can’t go over hard bottom with this gear. I’m limited. I’d need more horsepower to do hard-bottom dragging. The damage to the very slow-growing deep-sea cold-water corals on Georges Bank is not a good thing to do; I support that. But how much of it is really happening ? When there is a lack of information, it opens up a field to exploit.” Like Craig Pendleton, Dave was incensed at the comparison of dragging the Gulf of Maine to clearcutting national forest which some marine biologists make, and he told me about a set of before-and-after pictures purporting to show the damage from dragging that was shown at one conference but was not of the same place. “Basically, the enviros who presented these pictures lied. One picture was of sandy bottom, the other of complex habitat. They admitted it in fine prints some years later. I’m immediately suspicious of scientists with agendas. That image absolutely incensed me because it just wasn’t true. I’d take my lumps for the things I do wrong but for the vast majority of trolling I can’t find any evidence of long-term damage to bottom. Short term, yes. Wind does, too. It creates wave action that can rearrange the bottom down to a hundred fathoms.”
Dan was off to William and Mary next week. “He’s my last kid. He’s very quiet. He’s worked relentlessly for the last five years and you can see from his essay that he understands the issues.” Dave’s eyes watered slightly as he said this. Dan came up from the hold still half asleep as his dad started to crank up the net full of fish. Usually Dave had a second guy to help but since the loss of June he couldn’t afford it. Dave put on one of his son’s favorite country western cd’s on a blaster, as the two of them gaffed the fish that had spilled from the net on to the deck and flipped them into different boxes, throwing the bycatch—flounders, undersized or notched gravid lobsters, mackerels, squid, butterfish, monkfish, herring, a species of shark universally despised by fishermen called the spiny dogfish that grows to four feet and is used for fish and chips in Europe, where it is called “rock salmon.” Most of the bycatch was snagged as it hit the water by dozens black and herring gulls that had suddenly materialized behind the boat. “As you can see, we’re not conserving anything by throwing these fish back, just keeping the gulls happy,” Dave said, “but there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, or somebody would be figuring out how to make money off ‘em,” Dave said. “There’s always some kind of regulatory waste. You got to have a balance between the fish and the fishermen.” If this had been one of the sixty-three groundfishing days, he would have kept the legal-size flounders.
It occurred to me afterward that not a single one of the thousands of fish that Dave brought up in three passes was a cod, belying the contention that they were back, at least off the New Hampshire coast that morning. Nor did he say that silver hake were considered, along with dogfish, to be trash fish until the early nineties, and that he was fishing them because they’re just about the only fish that are left.
Besides the silver hake, there was also red hake, gravid with roe and ruptured as they were brought up by the bends, which silver hake don’t get. The red hake breaks up easily and is used for chowder and lobster bait. A lobster boat came up and bought a box from David. The hake were destined for the ethnic markets, Korean, Jewish, Italian, in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. They are also known as whiting and ling. This day’s catch, Dale thought, was probably going to Montreal. “It’s one of those perverse things, it’s cheaper for Canada to buy its whiting here, because it’s a hundred miles closer than the east coast of Nova Scotia. I don’t come in with a boatload of whiting unless I’ve made arrangements for a buyer. I’ll get fifty cents a pound, twelve of which will go to the coop for shipping and handling. A 125-pound box of red hake was going for twelve bucks. There are about twenty fishermen in the coop. Most of them are lobstermen. To me lobster are nasty animals. Don’t say this in front of the tourists, but all they are is a glorified cockroach. It’s just that they’ve been cleverly marketed as this great delicacy and luxury item. People didn’t eat pollock until they started to be called Boston bluefish. It’s all tasty, except menhaden, which is almost inedible, but it wouldn’t kill you to eat even them.” David did research for his B.A. in biology on menhaden at the New England Aquarium. He’s a college-educated guy who is blue-collar by choice. He worked on party boats for ten years, where you come aboard and they give you a rod and bait and you keep what you catch. Dave’s oldest boy, “who wants fly commercial airplanes as much as I want to fish,” worked on party boats to pay for flight school. Dave has had the Ellen Diane for twenty years. “My dad was a reluctant lawyer for John Hancock,” he said. “When I was fourteen he and my mom divorced. When I got this boat he came with me all the time. This is what he always wanted to do. But he’s had a couple of strokes and now he’s in a rest home and doesn’t really know what’s going on.”
“One more haul like this and we’ll be done,” Dave said. A tuna boat came up and bought a box of silver hake. “Tuna fishing is a great part-time job. It’s highly addictive. You can lose your house, your wife, everything. I could support my family with eight-ten tuna a year. They average five hundred pounds. But a guy can do everything right and get nothing, and another guy can do nothing right and make twenty-five grand a year.” We were still miles from ashore, but were being eaten alive little noseeums that had blow off the marshes. Dave said that on foggy fall days migrating warblers and monarch butterflies sometimes land on his rigging. “This isn’t a normal job,” he said. “Most people work five days a week. I often work seven. Every day’s a fishing day.
“As far as these marine protected areas go, I’m not necessarily against them, but I want scientific evidence why they are not just a feel-good exercise, and I think that fishermen should have extensive say in their creation. I’m not negotiating my own extinction. Putting me out of business is non-negotiable. Certain things are based on whether you’re white collar or blue collar. Like Tony Chatwin : he comes from Brazil, which is socially really stratified, and regards fishermen as low-class. Ten percent of the fishermen here are illiterate, but they know how to read fish. Tony says if they don’t know how to read and can’t fill out their log book, we don’t need ‘em. My response to that is we don’t need him.”
We pulled into the dock, which was across the bridge from Hampton Beach, an old-time Coney Island-like summer resort for working-class Boston with a huge water slide that the boys and I took and extensive boardwalk with arcades and pinball now video parlors. Rosette and the boys and Ellen, Dave’s wife, were waiting for us. Ellen had been a champion figure skater but couldn’t afford to train for the Olympics, so she does show and tell about the life of the sea at the local schools, showing the kids what whale’s baleen and other marine objects look like. The kids call her the Fish Lady. Rosette confirmed my impression, from several phone conversations, that Ellen is a very special, caring person. They were good people, the Goethals, a great family, and we all felt privileged to hang out with them for a morning and learn a little bit about the unsung lif of the small fishermen of New England who put fish on our tables.
After the boxes were unloaded, Daniel quietly hooked a hake on to a line on a bait-casting rod and dropped it into the water off the side of the boat. Within seconds it was taken by a huge striped bass, a lunker that the dozens of recreational fishermen who were casting fancy plugs from the shore or trolling from speedboats would have given their eyeteeth to tie into. Daniel gently unhooked the fish and slipped it back into the water. The whole performance took not more than twenty-five seconds, but the boys, standing on the dock above, didn’t miss it. Daniel had them eating out of his hand. The whole outing almost made you want to be a fisherman.
I sent a draft of the report to the Goethals and to Elliott Norse. The Goethals did not reply. Something may have upset them, maybe that I was a buddy of Elliott, who some fishermen see as their enviro foe. Elliott, for his part, called me to task for the one-sidedness of the presentation. “You’re writing is gracious, your observations witty, your emotions heart-felt,” he e-mailed. “I would have expected no less. But I am troubled by the asymmetry in the piece, which will only hasten the collapse of the system that it depicts.” The tone of the report, he complained, “is very sympathetic to the fishermen but not to the fish (or those who fight to save them from the one and only cause of their systematic demise).” I should have cited Daniel Pauly, the world’s leading thinker in fisheries, at the University of British Columbia. Pauly has watched and document fish populations on both sides of the Atlantic disappear decade by decade. (Pauly, who recommends that twenty percent of the world’s marine environment be protected, was sent a copy of this revision with an invitation to contribute whatever thoughts he may wish to contribute about the issues the Dispatch raises; he said he was swamped with work and recommended that I get hold of Robert Steneck, a professor of marine biology at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center who studies lobsters and their habitat. Steneck didn’t reply to my e-mail, but he gives his views in an informative article by Colin Woodard called “Saving Maine” in the summer 2003 issue of onearth, the National Resource Defense Council’s magazine.)
“The fight to save the Earth is a fight for people’s hearts and minds,” Elliott continued, his passionate concern for the plight of marine life making him eloquent. “As long as fish are depicted as cold, slimy commodities, those who champion them are depicted no differently, while the fishermen are depicted as real people [ by which I think he means archetypes of salt-of-the earth, rugged individualism], fishermen will continue to be in denial, blaming everyone but themselves—the government, the environmentalists, other fishermen. The real problem is that we humans have increased our ability to catch fish, while fish have not kept up. As a result, we have to exercise restraint, either voluntarily or by compulsion. The alternative is exactly what we are seeing. But the fishermen’s explanations all too often explain the disappearance of the fish as anything but their responsibility. I love that you chose to call attention to a real, underappreciated problem, but I am disappointed that you bit the fishermen’s line, while you gave short shrift to the fish, who are the real (but unchronicled) victims of this story. If fish could hear you talk, you’d hear the real cause of the tragedy. But they can’t, and so you need to listen to those who have no incentive to spin the truth.”
“The Goethals are very good people, Elliott,” I said. “I’d love to put you together so you could work out your differences. Ellen is in the same business you are : marine conservation consciousness-raising, but with kids, the adults of the future, not the ones of the present, all to many of whom are a lost cause. The reason I gave the fishermen most of the air-time is that the local people from the culture that is living off the resource need to be listened to, and all to often their concerns are not factored into the conservation plan, to its detriment. I’ve seen this happen in the Adirondacks, the oldest park with people in it, with the master plan that was put together during the Cuomo administration. The attitude of its authors was ‘we know what’s best for the peasants,” and the local people were not even consulted, so the reaction to the plan was overwhelmingly negative. The enviros hurt their own cause, and provoked nastiness that could have been completely avoided. There was one young enviro at a public hearing in Plattsburgh who pissed even me off. One of the plan’s most radical suggestions was that the development rights of everybody’s property within the Blue Line be frozen, and that no further construction be allowed than what was there now. I had bought forty acres zoned eight acres per dwelling– five lots that my kids and their kids could eventually build on should they so desire. ‘You need to establish a multi-generational generational presence in the park, because those are the people who will care about it, and your proposal will make it impossible for this to happen,’ I argued, and the young turk said, ‘Sorry, but you can have only one dream house on your property.’ His tone was almost fascistic.
“As far as these marine protected areas are concerned, I don’t know who is right about the cod, for instance—the enviros or the fishermen—or how much damage the dragging is doing. But I can understand how the fishermen might be pissed at college-educated young oceanographers like Tony Chatwin, with no personal experience of the local reality, coming in and telling them what to do.” Although I liked Chatwin, his Brazilian sweetness and humility did contain a dash of colonial managerial-class condescension, and I could see how he might have rubbed the fishermen the wrong way. Chatwin, in any case, is no longer a player in the marine issues of the Gulf of Maine. He has decamped for warmer climes and is now working for the Nature Conservancy on St. Croy.
“When David Goethal said, ‘My livelihood is not negotiable,’ I resonated to that,” I continued. “I’m a writer and the kinds of stuff I write about, the full treatment I give my subjects, very few people are doing this any more, so I’m a vanishing breed myself. Take writing away from me, and I don’t what I’d do.”
“Everything human is negotiable,” Elliott countered, “including the livelihood of fishermen. The only thing that is not negotiable is the laws of nature. What happened to the saddle and buggy makers when the automobile came ? It’s not environmentalists or scientists who have caused the problem, the fishermen have put themselves out of business. And to a fish it doesn’t matter whether it is caught by a small boat or a big one. Either way, it’s dead.”
“But what about volume and sustainability ? Wasn’t the fishing effort viable until the big trawlers came ?”
Conn Nugent, Kaplan’s executive editor, had the answer to that one. Conn has given me completely free reign in these Dispatches, but he did say, diplomatically, that this one on the Gulf of Maine “doesn’t show a modicum of awareness that the notion that what the smallboat fishermen are doing is sustainable is romantic and not borne out by the studies.”
“Big boats catch more, but there are fewer of them,” Elliott explained. “They have no loyalty to the resource, but the small guys behave in much the same profit-motive way. Human beings are smart enough to fish in a sustainable way, but not in this society, in which our political leaders from both sides are beholden to constituencies that can vote and contribute to their campaigns, rather than to the Earth that generates the resources that keep us all solvent. It does no good for people to portray themselves as victims and heroes. The only thing for sure is that the fish are disappearing, and blaming the other guys is not going to do anything to solve the problem. The fish aren’t at fault here.”
Elliott explained that the decimation of the fish started first with small boats near shore and was continued by big boats further out, which are hoovering up fish all over the world, from Anatarctica to the Bijagos archipelago off Guinee Bissau. “Maybe there should be size limits on boats as well as fish,” I suggested.
Subsequent developments in the Gulf of Maine, not to mention everywhere else, seem to confirm the truth of Elliott’s remark : the fish are suffering. Periodically through the winter of 2002-3 the Montreal Gazette would have an article about how Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans Department was planning to shut down what was left of Canada’s Atlantic cod fishery this spring. This would impact 19,000 fishermen and plant workers in Quebec, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Newfoundland, including 900 cod-dependent independent fishermen who will have no alternative but to go on unemployment. But after showing signs of recovery in late 90s after the economically devastating moratorium imposed in l992-3, senior bureaucrats at the DOF reported that the trend has since reversed itself. The current removals are not sustainable. The stocks haven’t shown a significant enough increase since moratorium. “We don’t know why they aren’t coming back,” one of them told the Gazette, “whether it is due to pockets of ocean remaining cooler or seals or foreign trawlers.”
So in early May the boom was lowered on the cod fishery. “The stocks are facing, extinction,” federal fisheries minister Robert Thibault declared in Ottawa, adding that $44 million in federal job aid would be provided to the fishermen who were being put out of work. The announcement of the indefinite shutdown sparked anger and roadblocks in St. John’s Newfoundland. One protester said he was “denouncing my Canadian citizenship.” Elliott’s reaction was that “the DOF, after getting a lot of criticism from scientists, is doing the right thing now, but it’s too little too late. And the fishermen’s pain is real.”
A few days later, the DOF announced that the snow crab catch was being reduced from 22,000 tonnes to 17,000, and 250 protesters in Shippagan, northeastern New Brunswick, torched four fishing vessels and two buildings on the wharf. Since then, the crab fishermen have unanimously decided to sacrifice the season and not fish for snow crab at all this year unless the DOF reverses its decision, which affects 75 vessels in New Brunswick, 45 in Quebec, 30 on Prince Edward Island, and two in Nova Scotia. The shutdown of the cod fishery is going to put more pressure on other species—crab, shrimp, and lobsters– and bring them to the brink of a similar disaster, scientists warn.
My heart goes out to the fishermen, and the fish. They’re both in the same boat, and it is sinking.
An editorial in the New York Times on 11/14/02 urges that the 175 square miles around the Channel islands off Santa Barbara, where no fishing of any kind is allowed needs to be expanded to 426 square miles. Two thirds of world’s fish population is being harvested at or beyond sustainable levels, some are actually declining and a few have crashed altogether. Vide the collapse of the cod fisheries of Canada and New England. A similar implosion now seems possible in North Sea, whose codfish have long been a dietary staple in Britain and much of Scandinavia. Recent studies of three smaller reserves than the national marine sanctuary in the Channel Islands –– one near Cape Canaveral, another in the Carribean, and the off the Florida keys, shows that fish populations were boosted dramatically not only within them but in adjoining waters as well. The international to reduce swordfish catches—many restaurants were persuaded to stop serving it– has produced dramatic increase in numbers, but the international commission that governs the swordfish catch in the Atlantic recently authorized 40% increase—not good news.
Meanwhile in Anatarctic, about twenty long range high-tech pirate trawlers are illegally harvesting the multi-million-fish shoals in its water. One called the Eternal, previously known as Arvisa, Camouco, and Kombott, and believed to be Spanish-registered, was recently intercepted with $200 million dollar worth of Patagonian toothfish, much of it destined for American restaurants where it is served as Chilean sea bass. Most of the crew was Asian and was repatriated at the owners’ expense.
In May, 2003 the journal Nature published a shocking report by two Canadian biologists that found in the last fifty years 90% of the world’s biggest commercial fish, such as tuna, swordfish, and marlin, have been fished out. The following month the Pew Foundation’s Oceans Commission publishes an equally disturbing report called “Shifting Gears : Addressing the Collateral Impacts of Fishing Methods in U.S. Waters.” It found that “currently almost one quarter of global fisheries catches are discarded at sea, dead or dying, each year. Scientists estimated that 2.3 billion pounds of sea life were discarded in the United States alone.”
The June 16th Globe and Mail had an article about how dozens of Nova Scotian fishermen were giving up fishing and being retrained to provision offshore oil rigs. So maybe Elliott is right : every human activity is transitory. So is all the life on earth. The age of animals is only five hundred million years old, and the days when they were rampant are over. The earth is at 4:30, according to one scenario, and at 12:00 everything on its surface will be melted by the dying, exploding sun. Between now and then we can look forward to the death of animals, then forests, then grasslands, then all life except bacteria, because there won’t be enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to sustain it (despite our present diligent efforts to pump as much as we can get away with into the atmosphere). “Hey, hey the atmosphere. There’s a god we know up here,” my five year old boy Edgar, a budding songwriter, exclaimed the other day.
But let us not be the ones to do in the fish. To keep abreast of Elliott’s cutting-edge initiatives, see www.mcbi.org
Agardy, Tundi Spring, Marine Protected Areas, Austin,, Academic Press, 1997
Conservation Matters, journal of the Conservation Law Foundation, and its 2000 publication, The Wild Sea : Saving Our Marine Heritage.
Coon, David, An Ecological Sketch of Some Fundy Fisheries, Fredericton, Conservation Council of New Brunswick, l999
Dobbs, David, The Great Gulf : Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World’s Greatest Fishery, Washington, Island Press, 2000
Wilbur, Richard, and Harvey, Janice, eds., Voices of the Bay, Fredericton, Conservation Council of New Brunswick, l992 26