Rough Waters: Declining Fish Populations

By Phillip Martin

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More Rough Waters:
Part One: Rough Waters
Phillip Martin explores the history of Federal regulation of fishing.

Part Two: Rough Waters
Rachel Gotbaum examines the transition from "Days at Sea" to "Sectors."
Part Four: Rough Waters
Rachel Gotbaum profiles the historic fishing village of Port Clyde Maine--one of only three commercial groundfishing ports left in the state and where a group of fishermen are determined to save their fishery by trying some unorthodox ways of doing business.

Part Five: Rough Waters
Phillip Martin reports on how new conservation rules are affecting the lives of those in the local fishing industry.

Phillip Martin and Rachel Gotbaum on The Emily Rooney Show

Working Waterfront Festival
Celebrating Commercial Fishing, America's Oldest Industry
September 25 & 26, 2010
Port of New Bedford

A report released this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, shows that New England fishermen have brought in 10 percent less fish than they did a year ago. However, revenues are up by 17 percent since new fishing rules went into effect on May 1st. Under the new regulations, fishemen work in groups to land a maximum amount of groundfish, like haddock and flounder. Despite this revenue increase, commercial anglers up and down the east coast complain that the rules are putting a good number of them out of business. Development of the new system is part of an ongoing effort to conserve North Atlantic fish stocks and is based in part on the findings of scientists. Those conclusions have often led to conflict with fishermen and their supporters who question the validity of the data, research, and methodology

The question, “How many fish are in the sea?” never quite rang with the same profundity as questions like, “who are we?” or “where do we come from?” But fish population numbers have long intrigued marine biology scientists, and fishermen whose futures are determined by the answers to this query. That question took on special urgency in the 1980s and early 90s with the expansion of the American fishing fleet in the Atlantic and the invention of new technologies. It wasn’t long before environmentalists, scientists, and fishermen all noticed a dramatic decline in fish stocks.

Fisherman Glen Libby has been fishing off the coast of Maine for 40 years, and with a device called a video sounder, he could actually see the fish beneath the waves. He noticed that they were coming closer and closer to shore. Libby says, “people started to figure out that we can start catching fish year round. What was happening was these fish had sort of sanctuary and they would make a spawning run. That’s when we were catching them, which was not the best idea, but they would come close to shore. This way, it became apparent that you could fish year round.”

Libby explains that the consequences of year round fishing were huge. He says, “it cleaned up the fish offshore, and if you cleaned those up in the winter time then there was nothing left in the spring and the whole spawning cycle is broken. The fish declined. They stop coming inshore. We would steam 12 to 15 miles in March to start out fishing. Guys will stay out in March right now, steam 100 miles and catch less in three or four days than what they caught in one day [back then].”

Researchers in Woods Hole, Massachusetts came to a similar conclusion. Their findings influenced policy makers to institute a number of regulations to halt overfishing in the Atlantic. These regulations included ones like Days at Sea, which restricted the number of days fishermen could work, and the most recent rule changes called “sectors”.

Underlying all their research is the question “how many fish are in the sea?” The answer comes about in a series of steps. Dr. Russell Brown, the lead scientist for the ecosystem survey program at NOAA’s North East Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, explains the general approach. He says, “In essence what we’re trying to do is really to measure trends in abundance, biomass, geographical distribution, and also the size and age composition of populations in an unbiased way.”

Scientists Brown and Burnett
Scientists Russell Brown (left) and Jay Burnett. Photo: WGBH

Brown works with a team of scientist that also includes Jay Burnett, the leader of the fishery biology program. Burnett says, “99% of the work that my group does is the aging of fish. We take parts of fish, like bones and organs, and prepare them for age determination. From the age compositions you can begin to estimate mortality rates, for example.” Dr. Christopher Legault works alongside them in the population dynamics Center. He says that, “What we do is conduct the stock assessments, which pull together the data from Russell's group, the observer group, Jay's group, plus all the catch info from the fishermen, and combine them in computer models that try and relate all these different pieces to estimate how many fish are out in the sea.”

Another way to look at it, says Dr. Russell Brown, is to think of fish surveying as a political poll. He explains that, “You'll see the political poll will say that we sampled a thousand adults, and we’re going to infer from there how 350 million people are going to vote. We do it similarly [with the fish], and then we randomly sample within each of those areas.” That poll, according to statistics supplied by the New England Fishery Management Council, today shows 11 species of groundfish to be overfished, including witch flounder and ocean pout.

As in politics, not everyone agrees with how the fish population poll was conducted. Tim Barrett is the captain of the Odessa and has been fishing commercially for more than 20 years. Barrett, who studied marine biology at the University of Rhode Island, says fishermen often have a better knowledge of the sea and a clearer idea of what is overfished or underfished than many government scientists. He believes that “a vast number of the people out here [fishing] today are college graduates that have degrees in history and business and science. So when you get some of these scientists, it’s not too hard for these people to decipher what they’re talking about or they can come up with better ways of doing it.”

Dr. Russell Brown at Woods Hole says they work cooperatively with fishermen but, “the reality is fishermen and scientists have different objectives in terms of why we're out there. That's why we're fishing in areas sometimes where fishermen don't think fish are. We're aware of that, but we need to be sure of where they are and where they aren’t.” To create a sustainable fish food supply, marine scientists say it is also essential to understand what fishermen are hauling in from the ocean and what they’re throwing back into its depths.

Discarded fish brings up the role of the “observer.” Jason Dean is a tall, lanky self-effacing guy. His young career has consisted of hopping on and off fishing boats here in New Bedford over the past ten years. Despite his experience, he is not exactly welcomed with open arms by many ship crews and their captains, who often see observers as a nuisance aboard already crowded ships. Jason Dean supervises observers for a private contractor that works with NOAA. He sees his own role as essential in monitoring catch levels on behalf of science. Dean says his job is “when the net comes up, after being drug along the ocean for however long they choose, maybe one hour maybe a few hours, they bring the net back up and empty all the catch out. The crew takes out kept stuff and I sort all the discards. Anything they don’t want from crabs to small cod or haddock, I weigh it, length it, and get rid of it. Jason Dean believes that observers play an important function in helping to replenish the Atlantic. But many along this dock see observers as the eyes and ears of government regulators.

Dr. Brian Rothschild, however, is viewed quite differently. Rothschild is a noted Professor of Marine Science and Technology at UMass Dartmouth and a self-described “friend of fishermen.” He says his disagreement with scientific colleagues is largely over how some fish are counted, and he cites cod as an example, “The fact of the matter is that over the past several years we’ve tagged perhaps 30,000 cod. We have several thousand recoveries. And so the cod swim back and forth between the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, between Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank and the Scotian Shelf, Georges Bank and the Bay of Fundy, so it’s not clear that there are separate populations of cod. So if it’s not clear that there are separate populations of cod, then any stock assessment could be overestimating or underestimating the cod populations and so the cod population may not be overfished right now.”

Government scientists, whose work often forms the inertia for fisheries policies, admit that there is always an element of uncertainty in some findings. Writer Paul Greenberg in his new book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, blames scientists for playing a major role in overfishing cod by promoting the idea that there was an infinite number of fish in the sea. Now, some critics believe government scientists have gone 180 degrees in an assessment that laments the massive depletion of Atlantic groundfish stocks.

For his part, Dr. Russell Brown says his team of scientists in Woods Hole work hard to deliver unbiased information that reflects hard facts, empirical evidence and data that is tested and tested and tested again. He says that when his team puts out positive information that argues for lifting restrictions on fishermen, no one really questions the science. Dr. Brown cites the example of “the Bottom Trawl Survey, [which] in the autumn of 2003 found the largest haddock year class in 30 years on Georges Bank. When we put out that information based on one survey, there was a great deal of uncertainty. Nobody questioned this because it was very good news.”

Gloucester fisherman at work
Gloucester fisheman at work. Photo: WGBH

New Bedford fisherman, Antonio Pereira, is one person who does give credit to government scientists for the work they do. He blames neither them nor observers for the new federal regulations that he says have kept his boat, the Blue Seas II, tied up at the dock since April. He says, “They are doing the best job that they can and they are trying to collect as much data as they can, and I guess we will show what we’re doing out there and what is right and what is wrong.” What is wrong, says Pereira, is that massive tons of fish are being thrown back into the sea. Pereira says from the point of view of fishing families, it seems like a waste. And, he believes, it also seems to make no sense scientifically, “That fish could be brought in. It’s one of the things they have to work on more harder than they’re working on so far.”

Some fishermen say they are doing better under sectors than they did with the Days at Sea system. Peter Libro fishes in Gloucester. He says under sectors he is getting paid more for his fish and the new rules are more flexible and more economical. He can now catch more fish per trip. He explains, "it has made us more efficient because under the Days at Sea trip limits you could go out and catch 800 pounds of fish and that was it, but it would cost $200 worth of fuel. Now with the same $200 worth of fuel, you can catch 2,000 pounds."

Supporter of sectors say it has worked in other parts of the country. John Sackton is editor of Seafood News, and he points out that "if you look at salmon, for example, in Alaska, one of the first things they put in their state constitution was to put strict limits on salmon fishing. Today, they have the biggest salmon runs that they’ve had in a hundred years." However, even fans of the new regulations say they could lead to the further demise of the small boat fishing fleet unless protections are put in place.

Gloucester fisherman Peter Libro worries about his future, but he says he is going to try to hang on. He explains, "the reason I am optimistic is because I think the stocks are going to get better and stronger in this system. I think it will be tough for a few years, but I think once things get stronger our allocation will come up. I think it will be more viable again to be a fisherman." While Libro and other New England fishermen try to adapt to their new way of life, Massachusetts lawmakers have asked the Obama administration for $150 million in immediate aid to help those fishermen hurt by the new regulations.


Part One | Part Two | Part Four | Part Five


"Rough Waters: The Ongoing Fight Over Regulating New England Fisheries" is a multi-part series produced by 89.7 WGBH Radio.

Phillip Martin – senior investigative reporter
Rachel Gotbaum – reporter
Steve Young – editor and executive producer
Katie Broida – researcher
Nic Campos – researcher
Robin Moore - engineer

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