Monday, January 24, 2011

A Day in the Life

Saving me the effort of typing it all up myself, South Coast today has an article on the recent history of fisheries management. It's a decent summary of what has happened and what has not happened, but I do think it fails to capture exactly what is going on on the docks. There is still a high degree of uncertainty for fishermen as the fishing year draws to a close. Recently several large quota holders expressed support for Catch Shares, while small owner-operators continue to struggle. Additionally smaller ports are losing out. According to data assembled by Aaron Dority from the Penobscot East Resource Center,
"...between 2009 and 2010, we’ve seen a shift in the types of vessels landing fish, and where those fish are landed. While we all acknowledge that new ACL’s needed to reduce catch across the board, small boats (under 50’) have experienced a far greater catch reduction (47% reduction of landings compared to 2009, as of Nov 30), while landings for boats over 50’ have increased 8%. Similarly, where those fish are being landed has changed. Maine (outside of Portland) is down 50% - I’m sure that much of that reduction is reflected in Port Clyde. New Hampshire landings are similarly down 50%."
This article, by Richard Gaines of the Gloucester Daily Times, talks in more detail about the lawsuit by the cities of New Bedford and Gloucester against NOAA, which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is trying to join. Curiously, a side note of this lawsuit is the Conservation Law Foundation's opposition to the Commonwealth joining the suit as well as opposing 'discovery' of emails between CLF and NOAA/NMFS. If one were a conspiracy theorist, one might wonder what they have to hide?

Well, some people think wind power is the driving force behind the desire to consolidate the fishing industry. One might think that fishing and wind turbines could co-exist. In Ireland there is a wind farm and you can walk and bike right around and between the turbines and listen to the sounds much like reams of paper being ripped apart as the blades slice through the air well overhead. Are we really the kind of country that can't find a way to balance competing needs?

Lastly, as the Coast Guard issues a frost warning this morning, one might keep in mind that fishing in New England in the winter is a hard way to make a living. I've been on boats in icing conditions, and its really amazing just how quickly a vessel can get covered in ice. One night returning from the North River in Scituate around this time of year on a small tugboat, an unexpected shift in the wind brought heavy increasing seas and heavy icing. The vessel quickly lost its smooth running style and started fighting the waves. We lost visibillity completely to the ice, and going up front to clear ice was out of the question as the seas mounted to 8-10 feet.

The vessel, a Duffy 31
quickly lost its smooth running characteristics and started heaving and lumbering through the waves. My mate on board and I struggled to make it to the lee of Nahant where the seas calmed enough that we could properly assess the icing. We were able to clear some ice, but with the wind NNE shifting to N then NNW, we were soon in calm seas on our way back to Salem Harbor. We'd taken such a beating it took several strong drinks to get the chill out of our bones. Nearly a month later my mate was still complaining that his knees hurt from the pounding we took that night.

As you enjoy your fish this week, spare a thought for the men and women who put their lives at risk to do the job they love to bring us the seafood we love. Enjoy and stay warm!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A recent spate of news about the state of our fisheries left me feeling genuinely conflicted. At first reading the headline:

Has overfishing ended? Top US scientist says yes

I was ecstatic. Finally the mainstream press is reporting what we have been hearing on the docks for a while now from fishermen. As our friend, Gloucester fisherman Joe Orlando says, "The story here is one of a success. We've rebuilt the stocks. But no one wants to hear about it." Now it would seem that the story is starting to emerge.

Yet as I read further I began to have mixed feelings. If the stocks are coming back, why are we still eliminating fishing jobs? If the stocks are healthy, why are the people that fish them still suffering? In the article there is a quote from Pete Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation,

Peter Shelley, senior counsel of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group, said the industry's problems are rooted in years of overfishing, especially during the 1980s, not regulation.

"It was a bubble," he said. "Fishermen were living in a bit of a fantasy world at that point, and it wasn't something you could sustain."

I could not disagree more with Mr. Shelley. Yes fishermen caught too many fish, that much we all know. But to suggest that it was fishermen living in a fantasy land of greed and plenty denies the real world economic and regulatory issues that led to the overfishing. It is a fact that regulations encouraged the growth of the fleet that resulted in overfishing.

The sad part is that now that there are supposed to be healthy stocks of fish, regulators are forcing policies designed to consolidate the fleet and eliminate jobs. The reality is that the shape and size of the fleet is a direct result of regulations and for some reason fisheries regulators are trying to consolidate the fleet at the expense of coastal communities and community based fishermen.

A second spate of news covered the rejection by the federal government of a request for emergency action to increase fishing quotas. It is not surprising that the request for emergency action was turned down. It would have in effect been admitting that the new regulatory scheme of catch shares is not working and that the science it is based on is not valid.

I am sorry to say that in all of this news, there is the conspicuous absence of any kind of discussion for a better, safer, greener, more sustainable fleet. The pieces are in place, you have recovered stocks, a still fairly diverse fleet (though that is changing rapidly) and an opportunity to build a success story in a fishery that many have left for dead ten years ago. The hard work is done, but perhaps the most difficult work remains.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Understanding Ecosystems from a Fisherman's Perspective

One of the great things about a Community Supported Fishery is how it connects people to the local eco-system. For most of us that live along or near the coast our connection to the ocean is going to the beach in the summer, or maybe boating. But these activities can only give us a glimpse of the ocean eco-system. Fishermen have a unique perspective of the ocean from their constant presence on it and their working in it.

One of the things you often hear from fishermen is about imbalances in the ecosystem. A recent article in my hometown newspaper is a great example of a fisherman's perspective.

“Twenty years ago, it was hard to find and catch a striped bass,” Michaud said. “Now, thanks to regulations, we have seen a massive explosion of these predators who arrive when the new crop of lobsters start to arrive in July.”

In the summer, the lobstermen used to be able to provide lovely soft-shell lobsters, but now the striped bass get them all. The bass, which can reach 4 feet in length, can eat their weight in lobsters every day and travel under the lobster boats, so when the shorts get thrown back into the water, they never make it to the bottom.

The other protected predators are dogfish or small sharks, a good-tasting fish, but now there are billions of them, leading Michaud to believe they are the predominant species in Massachusetts Bay. The problem with dogfish is that they eat everything: cod, lobster, even themselves.

Predation is a problem out of control, Michaud claimed.

“You will hear people talk about over fishing, but I have always felt it’s under fishing,” he said. “We are not allowed to catch the predators."

In this case, there is a direct connection between regulations and an eco-system imbalance. This is directly the result of single species management without consideration for how fish really behave as part of an integrated system. It sounds beyond obvious to say it, but fisheries regulators are reluctant to acknowledge that fish eat other fish, in addition to people eating fish!

Another point that strikes me from reading this article is that if we lose the fishermen who are part of our communities, we lose the connection to the eco-sysytem that fishermen provide. If a factory trawler comes and fishes an area, they have no connection to the community and consequently we lose our connection to the ocean. If we lose our communities connection to the ocean, will we care more or less about the health of the ocean? I suspect we will care less simply because we will know less.

One fisherman turned researcher is finding out some amazing truths about how ecosystems work. Ted Ames' research is painting a very clear picture of how we got to where we are, and more importantly how we can go forward with eco-system management to restore and enhance an enduring marine environment.

In the meantime, your support of a community supported Fishery is a great way to make sure there is support for small scale community based fishermen. Please encourage friends and seafood lovers to give it a try. We are always working hard to come up with more creative share plans, such as the Neptune's Choice share and the bi-weekly share. Let us know what works for you so we can better serve our seafood loving customers!