The mesh was small enough to capture those sea bass, but many juvenile whiting would be wasted along the way. A larger mesh would have meant fewer juvenile whiting but also fewer black sea bass, hence a longer and less-profitable trip. Given the hard limits of his fish hold, the boat’s owner had no incentive to keep and find a buyer for the juvenile whiting or any of those other, unregulated trash fish flopping their last flop on the deck. So it all got shoveled back, dead.
Variations on this scenario are played out countless times, every day, in oceans around the world. A 2005 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that 7.3 million tons of fish had been wasted annually over a multiyear study period.
“We’re forced to throw back so much product,” says Chuck Morici, a Montauk fisherman who plies these waters on the Act I. Gregarious and voluble, Morici was holding court at the Shagwong Restaurant in town last spring and had just returned from an especially frustrating trip where he’d thrown back thousands of those selfsame highly valuable black sea bass, a fishery that had been nearly shut down after it was found that the population had been seriously undercounted.
To put the finest of points on it: The fish Morici threw back were all dead. The waste, he says, is multifold and maddening in its scope. “We have to spend all our time recycling through all that shit just to get the quota” of the targeted species, he says. “I’m feeding the birds instead of the people. It’s insane. Nobody’s head is on the chopping block except the fishermen and the fish.”
The bycatch dilemma dovetails with a host of frustrations facing commercial fishermen these days, and Morici brings up the winter-flounder fishery as a case in point. These toothless flatfish are among the tastiest of all available fish in local waters, a once-abundant inshore species that is now limited to 50 pounds a trip to commercial fishermen. No one denies that overfishing is a factor, both commercially and recreationally. Back in the seventies, I remember marveling at photos in The Fisherman of happy anglers who’d go out in a rented skiff into one of our shallow bays and catch hundreds of unregulated flounder (today, the daily limit for recreational anglers is two fish). Morici cites an additional and more intrusive culprit: sewage and pesticide runoff from relentless coastal development. There is also the resurgence of the striped-bass fishery in New York, which may play into the demise of winter flounder, since the stripers love those fish as much as humans do, and maybe even more so.
“I'm feeding the birds instead of the people,” says a fisherman. “It's insane.”
Morici lays all this on me and then slams his fist into the bar: “Instead, blame the fucking commercial fisherman?!”
Morici himself has a novel solution. He believes there should be a mechanism in the Northeast that would allow, if not compel, fishermen to keep all the edible but off-season fish they capture and deliver those fish to Veterans Administration hospitals, area food banks, or other charitable concerns in exchange for some kind of subsidy or tax write-off that, rather than encouraging the targeting of off-season fish, would instead acknowledge that this is part of the deal when you drop the net. Lee Benaka, national coordinator of the NOAA Fisheries Services Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program, points to successful fish-donation programs in Alaska and says this is an “idea worth supporting” in the Northeast. Good faith would appear to be the first and only major impediment to such a program, but that’s in short supply.
It’s an early spring morning as Don Ball casts off and eases the Jen-Lissa from its slip at the town dock in Montauk. His 57-foot dragger is one of the roughly two dozen commercial trawlers, scallop dredges, long-liners, gillnetters, and lobster boats that comprise the commercial fleet here.
Don Ball is at the mom-and-pop end of the commercial-fishing spectrum that runs all the way to the huge factory trawlers that ply the Bering Sea for the pollock that goes into fast-food fish sandwiches. He has piercing hazel eyes to go with an ironic mien and an uncanny resemblance to Robert Duvall, and he shares the actor’s affable conservatism and skepticism of government regulations, a skepticism that rises to the level of outright hostility in these parts. For fishermen up and down the East Coast, this hostility has reached a breaking point. From Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Montauk, the dock areas are filled with pickup trucks brimming with gear and sporting a bumper sticker reading NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE: DESTROYING FISHERMEN AND THEIR COMMUNITIES SINCE 1976.