The bycatch problem can be as slippery as the fish themselves, and regulators have been faced at times with the unenviable responsibility of having to shut down a healthy fishery because of the bycatch that goes along with it. In recent years, the Northeast has seen the rise of a highly profitable Lilogo squid industry. We all like our calamari, breaded and fried and dipped in tangy marinara sauce. But the growth of that small-mesh fishery, says Brad Sewell, a fisheries expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, is “the dirtiest in the mid-Atlantic, by far.” He adds. “It’s the biggest bycatch problem that’s attracted the least attention.” Not so fast, says Bill Reed, owner of the Providence and North Sea draggers in Hampton Bays. He claims the squid fishery, at least during the spring and summer, is as “clean as corn,” with minimal bycatch.
Ask Ball, and he’ll say that he’d just as soon “keep the larger net” in the water and do his part as a responsible steward of our shared national resource. But given the intensely restrictive regulations on the flounder he’d rather be catching, and given that the bills don’t stop arriving in the mailbox just because he can’t catch the fish that would help him pay those bills, “I have to try for squid and butterfish.” That means deploying the smaller-mesh net, which in turn means more regulatory discard getting thrown back dead, which means more head-scratching anger and bewilderment at the apparently contradictory if not flat-out self-defeating aims of government regulators.
They tell me there was a time when you could come to Montauk and hear a multiplicity of cries from local fishermen selling their catch right off the back of the boat, a practice that is now all but illegal. Why not reinvigorate this tradition with the addition of a radicalized and intensively localized bycatch program that would allow, if not compel, fishermen to keep whatever they catch and work with the government to sort it out at the dock? Instead, the regulatory structure as it exists encourages fishermen to become fish “pirates,” to try to game the system where they can. At the most self-defeating end of the piracy spectrum are the occasional bad-apple lobstermen who scrape eggs from off-limits, egg-bearing females in order to make a shortsighted buck. Now state fisheries cops have a special dye they will swab on a lobster’s underside to detect whether eggs have been scraped. Emerson writes that “[t]here will always be a government of force, where men are selfish,” but in the commercial-fishing industry, there are also corrupt regulators doing their share to guarantee a continuation of the mutual-distrust dynamic; this May the Department of Commerce ordered a payback of some $650,000 in fines to Northeast fishermen after an investigation revealed that regulators had unfairly targeted them for violations.
Meanwhile, down at the docks, I checked in with Ball, and the age-old question is asked …
“The fishing is good,” he answers. “But the regulations …”
It’s a tangle that has to be sorted out, lest we have no fish and no fisherman.