The last fish

America's fish stocks are crashing faster than Wall Street stocks last July, mostly for the same reason:


Nathan Walker,

After months of conflict between corporate and community-based fishermen, industry processors, recreational fishers, and environmentalists, Congress now appears gridlocked on reauthorizing the Magnuson Act, America’s main fishing law, so rife with insider trading it would make a hagfish gag.

Under Magnuson, eight regional fisheries councils set catch quotas on anything moving in federal waters from three to 200 miles out to sea. They are the only federal regulatory agencies exempted from conflict of interest laws. As a result, fishing industry reps effectively run them. The original idea was these were the people with the expertise, and it’s true. Fishermen are expert at killing fish.

I meet Scotty Doyle by the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at 3:45 on a cold, dark drizzling morning. He introduces me to Tommy Graham, a short, swarthy New Yorker. Scott is taller with curly gray hair under a bill cap, thin frame glasses, green eyes. He wears a Kevlar vest under his shirt and black shell jacket and carries a 10-mm automatic, marking him as a fed. He’s a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Enforcement Agent. But don’t call him a fish cop. He doesn’t like that. Tommy, in his worn khaki uniform, is with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

We approach the Fulton fish market across misty, rain-slicked streets. Dozens of tractor-trailer rigs, box reefer trucks, and vans are parked waiting below the freeway, within a stone’s throw of the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River. Company names are written on the vehicles’ sides: Tico Transport, Ameri-Cana, F&B Mussels, Ecuadorian Line.

Trucks coming from different locations used to have to pay kickbacks to different Mob families in order to get their product offloaded. Now, with city inspectors checking manifests, the kickbacks have declined. Of course, that has little to do with how much of the billion dollars a year of fish moving through the market is contraband.

“We usually target specific dealerships with CIs (confidential informants). Word goes fast when we show up,” Scott explains.

I look around as we walk into the Market. The streets are full of hard-working men and freshly killed fish - boxes, crates, handtrucks, and forklifts full - and guys carrying wood-handled metal hooks. There are open displays of big tilefish, king mackerel, and yellowtail flounder the size of serving trays, along with baskets of clams and scallops, small red mullet, and yellowtail snappers in fading colors of red, yellow, sky blue, and green. A couple of guys cover crates of crabs with a blue tarp. Scott and Tommy and the dealers greet one another with tense nods and smiles.

“Want to keep it professional, never let it get personal,” Scott mumbles. A short old man in a torn cotton sweatshirt is introduced as Herbie.

“How ya doin’, nice to meet ya. ‘Scuse me, but right now I’ve got a lot of stuff to do,” he says in a gravelly voice.

“Herbie’s company does $68 million in annual business. He’s been busted before,” Scott tells me, as the old man wanders into a narrow cubicle marked “M. Slavin & Sons.” His is one of five wholesalers that have been charged with selling PCB-contaminated striped bass.

We pass 100-pound halibut from Maine on display outside other narrow street-side fish stalls, including one marked “M.V. Perretti Corp.,” another of the companies indicted. A New Jersey fisherman, Ronald Ingold, illegally netted and sold PCB-tainted striped bass off Manhattan, under the George Washington Bridge. In court a year later, Assistant US Attorney Joseph DeMarco claimed Perretti bought nearly 100,000 pounds of this tainted fish from Ingold and other fishermen.

Big groupers are on display, probably imports: all but the smallest groupers are gone from Florida and the Caribbean. There’s a big tuna, a yellowtail out of Vietnam, bunches of New Zealand clams and greenshell mussels. We pass snapper and small Atlantic swordfish, 80-pounders with their heads and tails. Forty years ago they averaged over 260 pounds. Long-line fishing fleets, both US and European, have fished out all the big ones, and are now taking immature fish too young to breed.

We enter a shed covered area, the “Tin Building,” where I spot a big swordfish, about 250 pounds. “That’s the way they should all be,” Scott says. I admire a big-eye tuna that resembles a fat torpedo. The dealer has laid it flat on one fin. Its skin will never touch a floor or deck after it’s caught. Japanese buyers don’t like bruised flesh. “This one’s 158 pounds, worth about $550,” the dealer tells me. “It’s from Ecuador.”

This is globalization, the creation of a world market for anything indigenous to the sea. The sea urchin caught in California, Maine or Alaska this morning could have its gonads removed and served in a Tokyo night spot by tomorrow evening. A white abalone from California is the centerpiece of a $450 dinner in Hong Kong - which is why there are only about 2,000 left. Things once considered useless or inedible - baby eels, skates, dogfish, horseshoe crabs - all find markets now.

The global fish trade also keeps many Americans ignorant about what’s happening in their own waters. The blue crab you order in Baltimore may come not from nearby Chesapeake Bay but from Indonesia, where pickers make $15 a week. The expensive salmon you’re served in New York or Los Angeles could be from a polluted fish farm in Chile or Maine. Wild Pacific salmon are slowly going extinct, river by dammed, logged and diverted river. Atlantic salmon once returned to Maine’s rivers by the hundreds of thousands; in 2000, biologists counted only 27. Yet when they were proposed for listing as an endangered species, which would restrict economic activities that threaten the fish, Governor Angus King called it a betrayal, arguing that Maine’s native salmon can easily be replaced by farmed fish.

By now it’s 6 a.m.; the market’s beginning to clear out. We pass the Joseph H. Carter dealership, which three weeks from now will be hit with a $1.72 million fine for selling 1.2 million pounds of black-market fish, including endangered New England cod.

“Of all the fish caught in the US, how much is being taken illegally? How is that figure incorporated into the stock assessments the government uses when it decides if a species is overfished?” I ask Scott.

“The number of illegal fish is never going to be counted in the estimates,” the frustrated agent replies. “Not with industry making all the rules.”

It’s a complaint one often hears from law enforcement, scientists, environmentalists, even a number of fishermen who recognize the present system of industry-dominated management is broken beyond repair, and that a new approach has to be taken if America’s sea life is to survive.

Three basic problems
About half of America’s commercial seafood species are now over-fished, along with more than 70 percent of the global catch (according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization). A recent study found that the North Atlantic contains only one-third the biomass of edible fish species it supported in 1950. Fisheries managers fail to account for fish taken illegally or as bycatch (caught and discarded because they’re the wrong species).

As complex as the crisis of America’s fisheries may seem, it can be broken down into three basic problems: destruction of fish habitat, overcapitalization of the industry, and built-in conflict of interest in fisheries management.

“For years we’ve said ‘How can you address fisheries without addressing fish habitat?’” says Zeke Grader, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), which represents some 3,000 small-boat operators on the West Coast.

“The problem is you’ve got the Farm Bureau and the oil industry saying NMFS has no business looking at essential fish habitat. And NMFS doesn’t have the stomach to take on dam builders, oil drillers, and developers in order to protect fish.”

Along with loss of rivers, wetlands and productive coastal estuaries, fishing equipment itself is an additional cause of habitat destruction. About half the world’s catch comes from bottom trawling gear for shrimp and fin fish. Such gear uses big-mouthed “otter nets” pulled along the seabed by chains, and steel slabs called otter doors. Scallop and clam dredges are made of chainmail bags and bar spreaders that also drag across the bottom.

In 1998, seven papers published in Conservation Biology identified bottom dragging as the major cause of ecological damage to the world’s sea floors. Each year trawl nets scour an area twice the size of the United States.

The extent of bottom trawling as a threat to habitat reflects a larger problem facing America’s fishing industry: overcapitalization. Too many vessels are catching too few fish. If all 110,000 US commercial fishing vessels fished to their full capacity every day next year, there’d be no fish left to catch the following year. (It might take the giant corporate factory trawlers fishing in the Bering Sea another year or two to wipe out the pollack stocks.) It’s only through fishing seasons, closed areas, gear restrictions, and other regulations that the battered resource survives at all.

Ironically, this overcapacity came in response to an effort by Congress to protect America’s fishermen from foreign competition.

In the 1950s, New England’s fishermen were astonished by what they ran into on Georges Bank. “They’re fishing out there with ocean liners,” they reported. What they were encountering would grow into fleets of foreign factory-equipped freezer stern trawlers, known today simply as factory trawlers. These floating catcher/processor ships quickly began to outfish the smaller American boats. The fact that most of the foreign factory trawlers were Russian or Poliish provided a Cold War rationale for Congress’s decision to ban the “spy-trawlers” and declare a 200-mile US fishing zone.

The 1976 Fisheries and Conservation Act, also known as the Magnuson Act for its sponsor in the Senate, was not really about conservation. It was an assertion of exclusive US fishing rights on the continental shelf.

Among the Magnuson Act’s provisions was the creation of eight regional fisheries councils to advise NMFS on how to promote and develop US fisheries and establish “Maximum Sustainable Yields” for them. These maximum yields were supposed to represent the number of fish that could be taken without beginning to wipe out the stocks, although this theoretical number could be exceeded any year the Councils determined there was an economic or social need to do so.

Because it was believed important that the Councils include the expertise of professional fishermen, they were exempted from the conflict-of-interest laws that apply to every other federal regulatory body in America.

In the wake of Magnuson, the federal government created and expanded a range of fishing subsidies. Under the Capital Construction program, fishermen could defer taxes on profits if they put the money into new boats. With the Fisheries Obligation Guarantee, the US pledged its full faith and credit against any loan for a vessel or fish processing plant. The government also set up a National Fish and Seafood Promotion Council, advising consumers to “Eat Fish Twice a Week.”

Just as family farmers were encouraged to buy new combines and expand their acreage in the 1970s, fishermen in the 1980s were encouraged to take out multiple loans to upgrade their boats. Farm Credit Banks were among the major lenders in the Gulf, while in Alaska, the Christiana Bank of Norway put $315 million into fleet expansion, including the construction of new American factory trawlers.

Fishermen, flush with easy credit, went on a spree, buying steel-hulled vessels with stronger engines, long-range navigation and fish-finding sonar, spotter planes, helicopters, and satellite relays that locate fish by tracking ocean surface temperatures.

Production boomed wherever this new fishing power was brought to bear on the resource. Ports like Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians soon took on the look of 19th century frontier mining towns, with thousand-dollar-a-hand poker games, booze, speed, cocaine, and knife fights.

By the ‘90s, the capital-driven cycle of boom and bust had played out. King crab populations collapsed in Alaska; redfish, shark and grouper in the Gulf; as did abalone and rockfish in California. Large parts of Georges Bank off New England were closed to save the last remaining codfish. A number of Massachusetts trawlers quickly moved into the already depleted Gulf of Maine. Within four years that fishery had also collapsed.

Increasing prices for dwindling fish stocks are a disincentive for conservation. By the logic of the market, the last fish in the sea will be worth a fortune. Scott and other enforcement agents have already seized bluefin tuna being smuggled out of the US, which would have netted about $30,000 a fish.

Despite the efforts of a handful of enforcement agents and the growing demands of activists and some fishermen, the US agency responsible for protecting marine resources has failed to do its job.

“NMFS is charged with both conservation and promotion of seafood consumption,” explains Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ), “but NMFS is also located within (the Department of) Commerce, where its commercial function dominates.”

“Unfortunately the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was reborn as the National Marine Fisheries Service - not to serve the fish but the fisheries industry,” adds Sylvia Earle, ocean explorer and former Chief Scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees NMFS.

“What’s going on today is not a harvest. It’s the commercial taking of wildlife and there’s no history of this ever having been done sustainably,” she claims. “The idea of continuing to take hundreds of millions of tons of wildlife is inexcusable, and with these bottom trawl nets! I use the analogy of taking squirrels and rabbits out of the forest using a bulldozer.”

“Change has to come, provided we can get beyond this ‘bigger is better’ mentality that was with us through much of the 20th century,” agrees PCFFA’s Zeke Grader.

PCFFA - which recently proposed examining the possibility of abolishing the Fisheries Councils - believes sustainable fishing is still possible, as do the Maryland Watermen’s Association, Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen, and a few other groups.

“Instead of indiscriminate trawlers, we need new technologies for gear that’s more selective, that harvests less but gets more value,” Grader argues. “Right now sardines are coming back in California. So what if instead of 40-70 boats fishing 50-100 tons a night and grinding them up for fish meal, we had 1,000 boats fishing a ton a night and going into the fresh food market? Instead of surimi (factory-trawler blocks of processed pollock), the Velveeta of fish with the nutrients all washed out, what if we provided pollock as a low-priced white fish fillet for the supermarket? That way it wouldn’t always be so expensive to buy fish, and lower-income folks could afford it also.”

The BLUE plate special
America’s fisheries crisis demands a big picture approach, and a public understanding and commitment to turning things around. That could be done using a combination of existing policy tools.

Let’s call this solution the BLUE plate special. The B is for Buy-backs, a financial commitment by both government and industry to reduce the size of the fishing fleet to a sustainable level.

L is for Limited entry. This means that only so many people can be allowed to work in a given fishery. Some people like the idea of Individual Transferable Quotas, or ITQs, in which a fishing license is like an ownership deed to a given share of the fish stock. Others worry this method will encourage corporate consolidation and privatization of a public resource. In some places, with strong traditional community based fisheries, ITQs might work, in others not. Whichever tool is used, we can no longer allow more people to fish an area than it can sustain.

U is for Undersea reserves, also called Marine Protected Areas. Biologists suggest 20 percent of the blue frontier needs to be set aside as no-fishing zones in order to restore and propagate new populations of fish, crustaceans and other animals and plants. Where undersea reserves already exist, new studies are finding them highly effective, with healthy populations of marine wildlife slowly expanding beyond their fluid borders.

Finally, the E is for an End to conflict of interest. Fisheries management must be taken away from people with a direct stake in killing the resource. The Magnuson Act reauthorization of 1996 included language saying Council members shouldn’t vote on fishing matters that would give them a “substantially disproportionate benefit” over other fishermen going after the same fish. The basic conflict-of-interest exemptions were maintained, however, guaranteeing that “active participants” in affected fisheries be appointed to each council. Rather than ban Jesse James from the railroad commission, these rules assure the robbers divide the loot more evenly.

At a hearing in Washington on the billion-dollar-a-year pollock fishery, I hear a one-time NMFS scientist give testimony. He’d quit NMFS to help found the “Arctic Storm” factory-trawler company and is also vice-chairman of the Pacific Fishery Council, setting the catch quota for his own boats. Elsewhere an FAA inspector might quit his or her job to found an airline, but couldn’t then also sit on the National Transportation Safety Board. The flying public wouldn’t tolerate it, nor does the law allow it. The same principle of not letting economic self-interest oversee the public trust should apply to preserving our living oceans for future generations.

Still, a program involving Buy-backs, Limited entry, Undersea reserves and an End to conflict-of-interest in our fisheries is not likely to take place until far more Americans who love the oceans decide to take more responsibility for the stewardship of our vast, and publicly owned, living seas.

David Helvarg is the author of Blue Frontier - Saving America’s Living Seas, (paperback, Henry Holt, 2002).

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