Newlyn Fish Market - boats due to land.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Of Fish & Men

The Boston Globe recently ran this story, "How does the government count the fish?"

The parallels between the fishermen of Maine and those who fish for cod in the North Sea are remarkably similar - only the North Sea is now full of cod.

There are a lot of fish in the sea. How to count them? It is, surprisingly, one of the hottest questions in New England public life these days.

Massachusetts Governor-elect Charlie Baker, concerned about sharp restrictions on cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, has openly questioned whether the federal government is accurately tallying the iconic species.

“My continued concern about this,” he said recently, “is there’s only one source of truth.”

And aggrieved fishermen, an iconic species of their own, have argued that the abundant catch in their nets this year belies the government’s warnings of a species on the brink of collapse. Scientists and environmentalists have offered broad rebuttals to Baker and the fishermen in the news media, often blaming the problem on decades of overfishing. But there has been little detailed discussion of how the federal government actually counts fish and how reliable its numbers are.

View Gallery Photos: Gloucester cod fishermen Gloucester is home to fishermen who catch cod and other fish. Baker questions findings on fishing limits Gloucester looks to balance fishing with tourism

The decades-old count, it turns out, is a sprawling effort, overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, based in Woods Hole.

Observers on fishermen’s boats track what they are catching and where. Analysts pore over catch data filed by dealers at the dock. And samplers at ports inspect a fish ear structure known as the otolith whose calcified rings reveal the age of a fish — just as tree rings show the age of a tree. Age is important. Scientists say information on how a particular cohort of fish is faring — 1-year-old summer flounder or 5-year-old cod — says something critical about the long-term health of the population.

The federal government gleans this sort of information not just from the commercial catch, but from a catch of its own. And it is a NOAA boat called the Henry B. Bigelow that trawls for the fish.

The 208-foot vessel, named after the oceanographer who founded the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1931, conducts two surveys in the Gulf of Maine yearly, one in the spring and one in the fall. A computer program dispatches the Bigelow to 50 to 70 randomly selected spots in the gulf to conduct 20-minute drags with a large net known as an “otter trawl,” held open by steel panels and plastic floats. The net grabs dozens of species of sea life, which scientists weigh, measure, and slice open to determine the fishes’ sex and where they are in the spawning process. All the data go into a complex statistical model. And every few months, NOAA produces a thick, peer-reviewed assessment of one of the species the agency studies — such as Atlantic striped bass, white hake, or cod.

The latest cod assessment, released last month, was stark. It found the species has dwindled to between 3 and 4 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population. And last week, federal officials responded with what amounted to a six-month ban on cod fishing in the gulf. This week, the New England Fishery Management Council took a big step toward more permanent reductions on cod, slashing already puny annual catch limits by 75 percent for the next fishing season, which starts in May.

Gloucester fisherman Al Cottone, who has been on the water full-time for 31 years, said the cuts don’t match up with what fishermen have found in the gulf this year — a bumper crop of cod. And part of the problem, he said, is that the Bigelow is not going where the fish are. “They pick random spots,” he said. “And where they’re going, there are no fishermen there. What does that tell you?”

Most scientists dismiss the argument. They say cod congregate. Finding their gathering points, they said, is a sign of a good fisherman, not a healthy stock.

But Steven Cadrin, an associate professor of fisheries oceanography at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said NOAA would benefit from more data collected aboard fishermen’s boats — and more data in general. Conducting a watery census over 20,255 square miles on a limited budget is no easy endeavor, observers said. And with less-than-trustworthy numbers, Cadrin argued, the government is ill-equipped to make fine-tuned decisions on how many metric tons of a given fish — 200? 500? — the fishing fleet should be able to pull from the water per year. “I think in the context of this uncertainty, it’s very safe to say that more information and more investment would help produce better science for management of fisheries,” Cadrin said.

Chris Legault, supervisory research fisheries biologist at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries, acknowledged that it is difficult to make small-scale adjustments in catch limits with confidence. But the system is quite adept, he said, at distinguishing between the need for a catch limit of, say, 500 metric tons or 5,000. “I think we need to keep in perspective that all models are saying the catch for the Gulf of Maine cod has to be very, very low,” he said. Indeed, there is a broad consensus in the scientific community that, whatever the quibbles with this or that snapshot of where a fish population stands, consistent findings of decline in a long-studied species such as cod are nearly unimpeachable. “Where we gain our strength,” Legault said, “is doing this over time.”

If anything, NOAA scientists said, retrospective analyses have found them consistently overestimating the size of the Gulf of Maine cod stock.

Why the cod the population continues to decline, even in the face of stricter and stricter fishing quotas, is a bit of a mystery. Thomas A. Nies, executive director of the New England Fishery Management Council, said some chalk up the mortality to a growing seal population, others to a warming ocean. “The cod are being parboiled,” he said, summing up the climate change argument. “They vote with their fins, so they’ve left.”

But Mike Palmer, a research fisheries biologist with Northeast Fisheries, said the evidence for these theories is circumstantial. Seals, for instance, eat plenty of haddock, and the haddock stock is surging.

The most likely explanation, he said: Repeated overestimates of the cod stock have led to too-high catch quotas, year after year. Overfishing, he argued, is the real culprit.

On the back of this doom and gloom scenario comes plans for a film.

Fish & Men - the film that seeks to tell the truth and provide some answers.
Two men have decided the story needs looking at in more depth - is the case for complete closure justified? - is climate change responsible? - is the data legitimate? - who benefits from such drastic action? "

Filmmakers Darby Duffin and Adam Richard Jones is in the process of crowd-funding a film seeking to provide some answers for the beleaguered fishermen of Maine.

For centuries, cod has fed the world and built our nation. Today, the iconic American Fisherman is caught in a perfect storm of foreign competition, erratic regulations and declining fish stocks–all while scientists struggle to count fish, and conservationists struggle to save them. In a changing ocean where ‘sustainability’ is the geopolitical buzzword everyone wants to portray, this film will explore the complex forces at work in geopolitics, global trade, and consumer behavior, and offer concrete solutions to save a 400 year-old American industry. ‘Survival’ means preserving the species, employing the fishermen, and feeding the world. This film attempts to reveal to consumers what they don’t know about where their fish comes from, who is catching it, and how it lands on their plate.

Here are some appropriate quotes form the film's concept script:

"face unprecedented decline in fish stocks and the tightest catch limits ever" "while politicians Kelly Ayotte and John Tierney wage battle as port infrastructure dies"
"explain how domestic supply cannot keep pace with the growing demand forcing them to source their products from overseas"
"In New York City, 94% of the tuna tested wasn’t tuna" "Fish & Men exposes the forces at work that threaten to sink the commercial fishing industry and pose a public health hazard with the high cost of cheap imported fish"
"How do we feed the world and protect the seas? Can we protect human health while saving jobs and make a profit?"

Fish & Men opens at a dramatic stage of crisis in the Gulf of Maine. The iconic New England fisherman is struggling for survival with the cod industry on the brink of collapse. Against a saturated orange sunrise small boat fishermen’s calloused hands grip straining cables. Their boats rust. They can’t afford their mortgages or their kids’ college.

We examine the controversy around government policy and complexities of environmental science. Taking an objective approach and featuring voices from all sides of the contentious debate, this film presents the grave challenges we face and dares to ask the big questions. How do we feed the world and protect the seas? Can we protect human health while saving jobs and make a profit? 

Finally, considering the history and current landscape, we will offer potential solutions by featuring examples where collaboration and cooperation amongst fishermen and environmentalists has led to unprecedented success" "Fish & Men promises to make a compelling case for systemic changes that will move the needle on these critical issues and chart a course for a better tomorrow."

Of Fish and Men is a crowd-funding project looking for sponsors.