The End of the Line
by Dennis Damon
I recently viewed a DVD titled, “The End of the Line: Where have all the fish gone?” It presented an eye-opening and thought-provoking portrayal of the condition of fishing throughout the world’s oceans and seas. I don’t know how the film was funded or by whom. That information could be pertinent if one was to question or criticize the film’s content or conclusions.
Rather than simply disregard the content and conclusions out-of-hand, passing them off as radical left-wing hysteria, I am cautiously receiving the message and storing it in the ‘fisheries knowledge file’ housed simultaneously in my brain and my heart.
IF the film is accurate, IF the conclusions are real… the world, particularly the fishing world, is not a better place!
For most of my life I have thought of fishing simply and only in the context of the area around my town, in downeast Maine, in the Gulf of Maine. Upon entering the policy-making arena of the Maine Senate and subsequently working in the broader policy arena of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) I started thinking of fishing and fisheries management on a more global, albeit national, scale. The DVD has me considering those same topics on a truly world-wide scale. I came to the conclusion some time ago that downeast Maine, Gulf of Maine, East Coast United States and the rest of the world are all connected in important and inextricable ways…some understood and many others not.
I view those global interconnections in much the same way I have come to realize the ecological interconnections in life. What I did not know when I was younger, but do know now, is that if a species, no matter how seemingly insignificant and valueless it is, is eliminated or even reduced to threatened sustainability levels other species will be altered.
Sometimes those alterations are viewed as a good thing by some (i.e. depletion of the cod stocks and the increase of the lobsters) may be narrowly seen as good for lobster catchers. Sometimes they are viewed as a bad thing by some (i.e. depletion of the alewife populations contributing to the depletion of the cod stock) may seem to be a good thing if you are a bass fishing guide in eastern Maine and don’t eat cod. Although neither of the aforementioned examples is the exclusive cause of the resulting effect, both examples are recognized as contributing factors in the present situation … we have fewer cod and we have fewer alewives.
The film points out that there are millions of tons of fish in the world’s oceans. Some of those fish have been regarded as having little or no economic value. Whether or not a particular fish has a dollar sign attached to it or not, all fish do have one thing in common… they provide protein. The world craves protein. And the world is craving more and more of it every day. In fact, with the ever-increasing population and all the additional mouths needing feeding, it can be said that the world is starving for protein.
The sea… the inexhaustible sea… is where increasingly we have turned for our protein fix.
Here at home we have come to harvest ‘trash’ fish because somewhere in the world people eat them. If people eat them, people want them. If people want them, they will pay money for them. If they will pay money for them, they are no longer ‘trash.’ If they are no longer trash, let’s harvest them.
Before this globalization of the Gulf of Maine how many among us had eaten, or would have thought of eating, urchins, sea cucumbers or eels? Yet today elvers and glass eels sell for as much as $1,500 a pound, urchins have been over-harvested so that the number of days allowed to fish them has been drastically reduced and cucumbers may only be harvested by a very limited number of permit holders in Maine. Who would have thought it?
At this micro-level we have consistently demonstrated our ability and our will to catch all we can, regardless of the long-term consequences, until or unless regulations hold us back.
On the macro-level the millions and millions of tons of ‘trash’ fish in the seas have provided for millennia the forage necessary for the fish higher on the feeding pyramid. Additionally, if they have not been eaten, they have provided the nutrient loading necessary to help balance the ocean’s protein production.
Now we see other uses for these fish and they suddenly have dollar signs attached to them. They have value to us. Let’s go get ‘em!
For me to refer to them as ‘trash’ fish, is objectionable to some. Purists will argue none of God’s creatures are trash. Capitalists will argue that they were never trash anyway… they were simply undervalued.
We are now harvesting gigantic numbers of previously under-harvested fish for reasons other than human protein needs. These fish are being used in the production of fertilizer, in the manufacture of pet and livestock food, for health supplements and beauty aids and increasingly as source of protein for the production of aquaculture feed.
Continuing to target these species combined with the frightening efficiencies we have developed to catch them, leads, in a very short time, to an irreversible depletion of those stocks. These fish have been and continue to be the food for fish higher in the food-chain and they provide much of the valuable nutrients critical for the continuance of the ocean’s cycle of life. What result should we expect when those two vital components are removed from the ocean?
Recently a report given to the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) sounded an ominous alarm. The Gulf of Maine cod stocks, thought to be rebounding from past overfishing, were not recovering. In fact the new science reported that the cod in the Gulf of Maine remain overfished and overfishing is occurring. Additional conservation measures were suggested. Implementation of those new regulations are sure to cause economic difficulties to some and inconveniences to all. Are they necessary?
That question reminds me of the cod fishing industry in Newfoundland, Canada. Fishing for cod in Newfoundland was not only the backbone of the Newfoundland economy; it was their way of life. It had sustained them for hundreds of years. If ever there was a place where cod blood ran in human veins it was there. Yet, in 1992 Director of Fisheries, John Crosbie, announced to a stunned populace, that because of the drastic decline in the cod catch over a period of years he was forced to declare a total fishing moratorium on cod commencing the next day and lasting two full years. Overnight 40,000 people lost their jobs. A way of life ended. Veins ran cold.
There was disbelief. There was considerable anger. “You will NEVER stop me from fishing!” declared some. In 2007, fifteen years after the closure, a sentinel fishing vessel set two trawls of 1,500 hooks each in an effort to see if the cod had come back. The first tub produced one small cod. The second tub yielded a small basket full. Again … was it necessary?
The mind-set that we can never catch all the fish in the sea, that there will always be fish for me and my kids, must change. We are living and fishing in very different times. Unimagined efforts are being employed to catch the world’s fish. The global fishing capacity can catch the world’s fish four times over. One point four billion long-line hooks are set each year, their ground-lines can encircle the globe more than 550 times. The world’s largest trawling net has a mouth opening large enough to accommodate THIRTEEN 747 Jumbo Jets! What are we doing? Why?
We cannot simply ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world and say, “This is the Gulf of Maine, it will never happen here.”
The ‘cod end’ of the trawl is that last portion of the net where the cod reside before they are released onto the deck and landed in the hold. Together we must work to ensure that ‘cod end’ does not come to mean the end of cod or the end of the line!