Net Loss

Plenty of fish in the sea? Not anymore, and that could spell trouble for seafood lovers across the country

  • Bill Lawren
  • Oct 01, 1991
On the pier at Scituate, Massachusetts--It's a rainy day in late spring, and all the boats are in. Frank Mirarchi would rather be out fishing--needs to be out fishing. Instead, he's using this bad-weather day to do some maintenance on his boat, the Christopher Andrew. And though it could use a little work, his boat is nothing compared to the horror show on the other side of the pier, where two vessels sit rusting away. "One of them hasn't been out in two years," Mirarchi points out. "It'll sink any time now." And a third, a small red-and-white trawler, tells this year's story in its name: Hard Times.

For Frank Mirarchi, these are indeed hard times. "In the 1970s," he says, "I was catching 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of good-sized cod a week. Day before yesterday, I caught two 30-pound cod. Two. And that was the end of it. We didn't see any more big cod that day, we hadn't seen any for weeks before and we probably won't see any for weeks more."

Relief seems just as elusive. "I'm caught in a downward spiral," he says. "My family and I can hang on, but we'll be living on next to nothing."

He's not alone. Many of Mirarchi's fellow New Englanders are selling their boats at a loss and looking for other work, however landlocked that work might be. Take, for instance, third-generation fisherman Joseph Brancaleone of Gloucester, Massachusetts: He now fishes for french fries as assistant manager of a local Burger King. And though New England is probably the hardest hit of the nation's traditional fisheries, songs of woe can be heard from sea to shining sea.

"Last year we lost $6 million in revenue," says Jim Johnson, a commercial fisherman in Oregon. "It could well be three times that this year."

"Red snapper fishermen are really in trouble," says Eleanor "Chickie" Dardar, a fish dealer from Dolan Meadow, Louisiana. "A lot of them are behind on their house and boat payments," she continues. "This year, 30 percent of the snapper fleet may go under."

While fishermen sometimes disagree, many scientists insist there's a simple reason for all this misery: Our saltwater fish populations are shrinking fast, victims, in large part, of relentless overfishing. Within just the past few decades, increasing numbers of fishermen have put unprecedented pressure on the ocean's bounty. Harvest regulations, unable to keep pace with the decline, are often either inadequate or poorly enforced.

Studies by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) indicate that only 15 percent of the species currently fished in American waters are near their maximum population potential. At least 14 species of oceangoing fish--Atlantic salmon, yellowtail flounder, grouper, Spanish mackerel and Pacific perch, among others--have been so seriously depleted that it could take them 20 years to recover, even if all fishing were to stop tomorrow.

"Some stocks are at their lowest level since we've been keeping records," says David Crestin, deputy director of the U.S. Office of Fisheries Conservation and Management. "Forty-two percent of species [in American fisheries] are overfished." Democratic Representative Gerry E. Studds, whose constituents include many fishermen on the Massachusetts coast, echoes this concern. "If we do nothing," he warns, "we will see the fisheries disappear."

These opinions, of course, are far from unanimous. Some fishermen still distrust government fish censuses and resist efforts to manage fish resources by limiting catches or regulating trips a boat can make. "Fishermen are being unfairly held back based on numbers that may not be accurate," says Louisiana's "Chickie" Dardar. "It couldn't be as bad as the scientists say, or we would never have caught so many fish so fast."

Even so, growing numbers of fishermen are coming to see fish stocks as seriously depleted and government intervention as necessary or even vital. "I used to think that the government should stay out of the fisheries," says Mirarchi. "But I've come to see that things won't get better by themselves. Something's got to be done."

Mirarchi's conversion is one of many among the country's fishermen, most of whom are hauling in shrinking catches of smaller and smaller fish. A sampler of fish stories for individual species highlights the' severity of the problem:

Groundfish: For more than 200 years, bottom-dwelling species--cod, haddock, flounder, redfish and others--have been the foundation of the New England fishing industry. Now these groundfish seem to be in serious trouble. A 1990 report by the Massachusetts Offshore Groundfish Task Force--an alliance of fishermen, scientists and government officials--concluded that "since the early 1980s groundfish landings . . . have declined sharply, to record low levels." The primary cause, the report concludes, is overfishing. For instance, the haddock catch dropped from 28,000 metric tons in 1980 to 5,400 metric tons ten years later.
Frank Mirarchi has seen that decline reflected in his own harvests. "I used to catch thousands of pounds of haddock a year," he says. "Now I catch three or four fish a year--maybe 25 pounds."

Swordfish: These beautiful leapers declined in North Atlantic fisheries by as much as 70 percent between 1980 and 1990, despite harvest restrictions. Meanwhile, commercial demand for the tasty fish sent even more boats out to chase them. Increased fishing pressure has meant a reduction not only in the total number of swordfish, but also in the size of the remaining fish: The average weight of swordfish has fallen from 115 pounds to only 60 pounds.
Bluefin tuna: Its commercial value--a single bluefin can fetch $30,000 in Japan--has effectively marked this species for decimation. In western Atlantic fisheries alone, adult bluefin populations sank from more than 300,000 in 1970 to an estimated 30,000 in 1990, despite limits on their harvest. "The tuna are doomed," declares Richard Tobin of Newburyport, Massachusetts, a tuna fisherman for 25 years. "They'll be fished to extinction."
Red snapper: A favorite on Southern dinner tables, the red snapper has for years been a staple of the vast fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. But along the South Florida coast, the catch of red snapper declined from 253,000 pounds in 1983 to only 8,177 pounds in 1989. Although red snapper stocks may be on the rebound thanks to more rigorous law enforcement, "fishermen are still taking the juvenile fish," notes Wayne Swingle, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. "And that hurts."
Pacific salmon: Long a mainstay of the commercial fishing industry from Southern California to Alaska, the Pacific salmon is now in trouble as a result of overfishing and the damming of spawning rivers. Experts estimate, for example, that the number of coho and chinook salmon caught off the Oregon coast this year will be 67 percent lower than in 1991. This could mean limiting the state's salmon season to just two weeks. "We used to go from May through October," laments Oregon fisherman Jim Johnson.
Where have all the fish gone? Most experts agree that some populations have been hurt by pollution of coastal waters. In San Francisco Bay, contamination may have contributed to reductions in striped bass populations, which have fallen by 60 to 80 percent. In North Carolina's Albemarle and Pimlico sounds, declining levels of oxygen have suffocated hundreds of thousands of striped bass.

Natural cycles and weather changes may also have taken a toll. Part of the decline among Pacific salmon has been blamed on coastal droughts that shrank spawning rivers, and on El Nino-warmed waters that reduced food supplies.

Onshore construction and development have also contributed to fish declines. Dams on the Connecticut River, for instance, have kept an estimated 40 percent of Atlantic salmon from reaching their upriver spawning grounds.

But as many researchers see it, the main problem is one of numbers: Too many fishermen taking too many fish. The American fishing fleet has grown dramatically just since 1976, when the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act effectively banned foreign boats from waters within 200 miles of U.S. coasts. Federal loan programs that encourage the building of new boats have provided yet more impetus. In New England alone, the number of groundfishing trawlers jumped from 590 in 1976 to more than 1,000 in 1984. "It's a rat race out there," says David Crestin. "Anyone can buy a boat--there are no restraints--so this is the natural conclusion: chaos."

At the same time, technological innovations have allowed the already expanded fleet to fish with near-savage efficiency. Electronic depth finders provide detailed images of the sea floor. Computers "remember" the site of a previous good catch, then, using radio signals, help the boat home in to within 50 feet of that site.

Spotter planes and helicopters have enabled fishermen to hunt down large schools of tuna. And outside of U.S. waters, immense gill nets, some of them 40 miles long, sweep the seas, snaring not only tuna, but marlin, dolphins, sharks and sailfish--almost anything that swims.

Many scientists think the long-term effects of this ongoing exploitation could make today's problems seem trivial compared with tomorrow's. Of particular con cern, they say, is the taking of juvenile fish before they reproduce, effectively short-circuiting that species' future. In New England, for example, the "spawning biomass" (the total weight of all reproducing fish species in the area) has dropped from 120,000 metric tons to less than 20,000. Stephen Murawski, a biologist with the Northeast Fisheries Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, says the problem is elementary: "If you've got no mother, you get no babies."

Ultimately, declines in fish populations can set off a chain of eco-disasters that affect not only the fish but also the animals that feed on them. Wildlife surveys in Alaska suggest this process has already started: Populations of Steller sea lions there have tumbled 70 percent since the early 1970s; red-legged kittiwakes, rarebirds unique to the Bering Sea, have dropped by 50 percent; and harbor seals are declining in the Gulf of Alaska at a rate of 5 percent per year.

The Department of Commerce, acting through its eight regional Fishery Management Councils, has the authority to regulate the number and size of the catch of any given species in a variety of ways. Among them: limiting the number of days fishermen can go out, closing off certain areas (especially spawning grounds) and prohibiting sales of troubled species once the total allowable take is reached.

Unfortunately, application and enforcement of that authority has been spotty. In New England, the regional council imposed trip limits and catch quotas on groundfish in the late 1970s. But fishermen widely evaded the restrictions, especially catch quotas. "People would catch all the fish they could hold," says Frank Mirarchi. "They'd unload some of the fish--up to the official quota--at one port, then go down to another port and unload the rest." The council lifted the restrictions in 1982, and by 1989 catches of groundfish in New England waters had plunged by almost half.

In the Gulf of Mexico, by contrast, restrictions on the red snapper catch have been rigorously enforced. Fish dealers there must record and report every snapper purchase, and when the annual total quota of 2 million pounds is reached, the council closes the fishery for the rest of the year. The 1992 quota was met by the end of February, bringing howls of protest from snapper fishermen facing months of enforced unemployment.

Such incidents highlight an ongoing conflict between the scientists who count the fish and the fishermen who catch them. To arrive at figures for fish populations, staffers from the National Marine Fisheries Service research centers interview fishermen, then sample their catches both at sea and in port. They also take a sampling aboard government vessels. Multiplying catch tallies by the number of trips made by the entire fishing fleet yields the total catch, and from that the scientists estimate populations for each species.

The debate over fish populations can obscure indications that strict regulation and management can mean the beginnings of recovery. In the mid-Atlantic region, for example, the catch of surf clams had dropped from a high of 50 million pounds to 12 million pounds by 1979. But after the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council restricted catches of clams and closed certain areas, the harvest returned to the 50-million-pound level in just eight years.

Similarly, in the Gulf of Mexico, where populations of king and Spanish mackerel had declined drastically, a council restoration program begun in 1985 seems on the brink of success.

A growing number of fishermen agree, if reluctantly, that it will take some kind of regulation to resuscitate the industry. Some think the government should implement farmlike subsidy programs which would pay fishermen for not fishing. Most, however, concede that regulation means limiting the activities of fishermen. And in many regions, government agencies are responding with plans to do just that:

In New England, the Fishery Management Council has proposed new rules that would reduce fishermen's days at sea by 10 percent a year for the next five years. The rules would also limit haddock catches and require fishermen to throw back smaller, younger fish. And in the Pacific, the regional council is recommending that the salmon catch be reduced at least by half or suspended altogether. The search for solutions has spawned a few radical new approaches to fisheries management. A team of biologists in Florida, for example, has recommended setting aside 10 to 20 percent of all coastal waters as "reserves" where fishing is prohibited.

Will these efforts bring the fish back? Only time will tell. But more and more fishermen now face what seems to be an unavoidable fact: Unregulated fishing today means fewer fish tomorrow. "The fishing industry will never be unregulated again," says Frank Mirarchi. "It's like logging or drilling for oil--we have to have consideration for the larger world."

Writer Bill Lawren lives in Massachusetts, one of the states hardest hit by fish declines.

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