“Stop treating us like criminals,” says Morici, and maybe the fishermen will start scraping off those bumper stickers.
“I think fisheries are saved through the efforts of a variety of partners,” says the NOAA’s Benaka, “the most important of which are fishers and government regulators and scientists.” He adds that “there are numerous instances where difficult decisions by the fishing industry and NMFS to close areas to fishing, require more selective fishing gear, and/or set conservative quotas have saved fisheries from collapse, including the Atlantic swordfish fishery, the Atlantic sea-scallop fishery, and the groundfish fisheries off Alaska.”
Benaka is the first to admit that sometimes the government does not get it right, but he vigorously defends his agency’s motives. “We base our management on the best available science,” he says, “and it’s also hard to know what’s in the ocean at any given time. At some point, you have to make some assumptions and extrapolations—it is always going to have some level of uncertainty.”
As Don Ball sees it, fisheries management is “in its infancy,” and the time has come for it to be brought into a responsible adulthood. He’s not optimistic that it will and has already “majorly encouraged” his son to not get involved in the industry. He’s frustrated by an ever-shifting regulatory framework where “you’re a criminal one day, and the next day you’re not” and is convinced that the government is engaged in a “divide and conquer” strategy when it comes to the long-term fate of the industry. Closer to home, he’d just as soon keep all the yellowtail flounder he catches, but when I fished with him, he was working with a 250-pound-a-day quota. “Low quotas, recreationally or commercially, increase discard,” he says.
A lot of effort is being undertaken by NMFS to limit commercial bycatch of all varieties, and the effort to date has put an emphasis on creative ways to tweak the technologies, incentivizing entrepreneurial fishermen and administering grants for especially clever inventions and adjustments to the gear. These include improvements to escape hatches for sea turtles in shrimp trawls, now deployed by shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico (shrimping has one of the largest bycatch problems in American fisheries), hook guards on long-liners so that seabirds aiming for a quick free meal don’t get hooked, and other similar bycatch-reduction devices. According to the 2010 bycatch-reduction report from NMFS, two areas of special concern for the mid-Atlantic fleet are mitigating against bycatch in the Loligo squid fishery and minimizing the incidence of Atlantic sturgeon and porpoise fatalities in monkfish gillnets.
Benaka also says that the recent implementation of a new regulatory system in the Northeast, known as a catch-shares framework, while not designed to reduce bycatch, has been shown to do just that. The reigning protocol has been “derby fishing,” where an overall quota is set for the fishery, and once it is reached, the fishery is shut down. If you haven’t caught any fish, too bad for you. If the weather conspired against you during your “days at sea” allotment, too bad. You can risk death on the high seas, or you can stay tied to the dock. Not an especially friendly protocol for fishermen looking to put some presents under the Christmas tree.
Derby fishing means that fishermen will “hit it hard, often in bad weather,” says Benaka, in order to get their share of the overall quota. Under catch-shares, “each boat has a right to catch a certain amount of fish in the season; they can fish when they want to, they can base their schedule on the weather, how safe it is, the markets—when the market might peak, when they can get a better price,” he says. “If they are fishing in that manner rather than under a tight deadline, they’ll be more careful and will try to reduce the bycatch”; i.e., they will fish in a way designed to maximize their yield and minimize the time spent sorting through the catch to get at the fish for market. His approach would seemingly be beneficial to a guy like Ball.
On a trip a couple of years ago, when we got to the fishing grounds off Block Island, Ball clanked out the gear, deploying a six-inch net, and set his tow at a steady three knots; after an hour, he “hauled back” the net, and the deck flopped with life. We stooped over and sorted through the catch, which was dominated by skates. Two marketable varieties of flatfish filled about six waxy cartons. A dozen or so plastic totes of skates were earmarked for local lobstermen. We’d done only one short tow, and Ball hadn’t caught his daily quota of yellowtail, so there was no regulatory bycatch that day. And he was using the six-inch net, so there weren’t a lot of wasted fish, just a few see-through windowpane flounder and a smattering of sculpins; they’re swept off the deck, back to the benthic depths, where the crabs would have at them.