Back in the middle aughts, I took a job fishing on a commercial dragger out of Montauk. I was running a tab at a local pub when in walked a fisherman I knew. He was looking to fill out the crew for a trip leaving the following day and knew I’d been making noises about wanting to give offshore commercial fishing a try. I joined the crew as resident greenhorn, and the fisher, who knew of my eco-boy proclivities, warned me that we would be throwing back a lot of fish on the trip—the “bycatch”—and not just low-value “trash” fish, either. My friend explained that owing to the regulations we were compelled to abide, there would be fish coming onto the deck that were out of season, that we did not have permits for, and that we would have no choice but to throw back or we’d risk crippling fines at the dock, should fish cops from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation greet us at trip’s end to check the fish hold. The fisherman’s admonition was, “You’re going to see a lot of stuff out there that’ll knock you back on your heels, but there’s not much we can do about it. Do your job, shut your mouth, collect your money.”
While concerned consumers fret over which fish are correct to order at their favorite seafood restaurant, heading to websites maintained by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund for guidance on the “eco-best” and “eco-worst” fish to purchase, the truth about commercial fishing in the United States is that a regulatory framework designed to limit overfishing results in vast numbers of fish per year being scooped up on boats and dumped right back off, dead, never consumed by any human. Concerned about “endangered” bluefin tuna? Tell it to the tuna long-liners who’ve had to cut loose untold numbers of dead bluefins in recent years, owing to the restrictions that come with winding up on the endangered-species list. A recent bycatch-reduction report issued by the National Marine Fisheries Services says that “bycatch is considered to be one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of the marine environment, and bycatch affects practically every species in the ocean.”
On this early-spring trip, the quarry would be whiting, a commercial food fish that goes into lots of frozen-fish products—fish sticks and fish cakes and the like. The crew mustered on the dock at twilight, cast off the lines, and started to sail out to the edge of the continental shelf. At daybreak, the crew dropped the net into the Atlantic for our first “dip.” We towed the net for a couple of hours before “hauling back,” and that air of anticipation you apprehend on Deadliest Catch as the crab pots come up was exactly the sentiment on deck as the gears groaned under the stress of what would be a cod end bulging with fish.
That first dip indeed yielded a teeming bag of fish—but they were the wrong fish. We’d hit a pod of off-season summer flounder, or fluke. The regulations allowed for a certain poundage of fluke that could be kept and sold without risking fines—a tiny fraction of what we caught, less than 100 pounds. We toted up our allowance and shoveled the rest of the fish back into the brine, all dead or dying.
This was a waste of time, effort, fuel, and fish. The captain hightailed it from that piece of ocean in search of a body of whiting we could scoop up. But our regulatory bycatch frustrations were just beginning. During this three-day trip, I tallied about twenty species of edible fish and other sea creatures brought up in the net. There were more summer flounder and other out-of-season or less-desirable flatfish; there were piles upon piles of monkfish that got thrown back; and there were stone crabs, lobsters, silver eels, shad, ling cod, John Dory, menhaden, and black sea bass, which at that time were in season and had no minimum-size requirement to be brought to market. The monkfish, highly prized for their livers and status as “the poor man’s lobster,” were an especially memorable waste. I recall that we had around a 100-pound bycatch limit on the monks, and on every dip I was ruefully shoveling at least twice that amount back into the ocean.
Then there were the requirements of our whiting buyer, explained the captain, which placed a minimum length on the whiting it would be able to process. This meant we were throwing back every whiting that was below the processor’s requirements. All of those fish were juveniles—next year’s potential catch. As my old Montauk buddy Mack used to say: Well, the crabs gotta eat too.