By Richard Gaines
Since the 1994 publication of a troubling, landmark study, the United States has led the way in the effort to reduce "bycatch."
Bycatch is the term used to described fish hooked or netted inadvertently, fish of lesser or no value to the commercial fisherman, fish of a species that puts the boat over its limit or of a species protected by "no-catch" rules.
In simple terms, bycatch is a byproduct of the legal catch and is wasted — typically just shovelled overboard. The waste has troubled Gloucester for a long time.
Here in New England waters, bycatch became illegal on May 1, under the catch share regime ordered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If industry analysis proves correct, that change in the rules threatens to put some fishermen out of business.
The rules require the landing of all legal-size fish caught in federal waters, including those landed by accident.
The Catch 22 of the catch share system is that the fish landed by accident count against the fisherman's quota and can shut him down. For example, a fisherman with a quota of 100,000 pounds of cod and 1,000 pounds of pollock must stop fishing after reaching his 1,000-pound limit on pollock — even if he is 90,000 pounds short of his 100,000-pound cod quota.
In the past, the fishermen might have discarded the pollock he was not allowed to keep in order to keep fishing for authorized species.
But now observers working for the government will be on at least 38 percent of all fishing trips. And because the boats tend to congregate at the most productive spots, the mix observed on the government-manned boat will be the mix presumed for other boats in the area as well.
Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, says the new rules could hamstring the industry.
The problem is not so much the zero-tolerance policy, in Giacalone's analysis, but the flawed and outdated trawl data used to set the catch limits. For example, the new season's allocation for pollock is barely one-third of the actual catch from 2008 because the last trawl survey by scientists caught very little pollock.
Giacalone and others believe the reason so few pollock were caught was bad fishing, rather than a dearth of pollock in the waters of Gulf of Maine. A new trawl survey last winter seemed to confirm the theory.
The government is now considering adjusting the allocation of pollock based on the new evidence.
Even so, allocations of other species remain too low, according to Giacalone.
"No bycatch creates a dangerous situation, a disconnect between abundance and the science, forcing you to pretend there are less fish than there are," he said.
Giacalone was a commercial fisherman before helping organize the Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry organization, and is considered the region's leading analyst of the science and business of fishing.
In a zero-tolerance, no-bycatch regime governing a mixed stock of groundfish, underestimating the size of any one stock of fish produces an industry allocation that will be quickly exhausted by waste alone.
"You will shut the fishery down and leave lots of fish on the table," Giacalone said.
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Concern about indiscriminate fishing by the Gloucester fleet is a century old. By the early 1900s, Gloucestermen had already been fishing for nearly 300 years, and enlightened leaders worried that new trawl technology might kill the industry..
The Oct. 3, 1911, edition of the Gloucester Daily Times documented the moment of recognition that fishing might be passing into an unsustainable era.
The Master Mariners Association, a small group of elders who guided Gloucester's fishing fortunes, met before a large audience to organize a campaign against otter or beam trawlers.
Those wise men of Gloucester saw that the stocks were overmatched by the diesel-powered trawlers, which deployed nets that dragged the sea bottom and scooped up everything in their path.
Otter trawlers used wooden or steel "otter doors" to keep the mouth of the net open as it was dragged over the sea floor. Beam trawlers used metal beams connecting steel "shoes" to perform the same task.
In both cases, the trawlers plowed the fertile ocean bottom as they caught fish, "scraping over the fishing grounds and destroying countless numbers of young and immature fish," the Times reported.
In the unregulated fisheries of the era, young, immature and other unwanted fishes were what later generations would call bycatch.
The Master Mariners could not have foreseen the even greater damage done by the huge foreign factory trawlers — known derisively on the docks as "Russian" boats whether Russian, Japanese, German or some other nation's — that put the American fisheries in mortal danger in the decades after World War II.
But it was not until late in the 20th century that science attempted to quantify the waste.
The 1994 study, "A Global Assessment of Fisheries Bycatch and Discards," was sponsored by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
The authors included Steve A. Murawski, director of scientific programs and chief science advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Dayton L. Alverson, a fishing industry consultant and marine biologist with the University of Washington in Seattle.
They built a global database and concluded that an average of 27 million tons of fish are discarded each year in commercial fisheries.
"That study was really a clarion call not only for raising global consciousness of the issue, but showing that better monitoring programs were a priority," Murawski said in an e-mail.
"Until then, there wasn't even a good a good definition (of bycatch)," said Alverson, now retired, in a telephone interview. "We didn't expect it to be a high as it was."
Another study four years later concluded that discards had been reduced from 26 percent to 8 percent of global catch. Murawski said the dramatic improvement was partly due to more efficient use of the non-targeted catch, especially processed as feed for the burgeoning aquaculture industry.
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Trawling has never shaken its bad reputation.
Writing in Saltwater Sportsman in 2002, Eliot A. Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, based in Redmond, Wash., described the practice as ocean "clear-cutting."
By then, efforts to tame the trawl were already well underway.
The award-winning Ruhle trawl adapted the netting system to capture haddock as they moved upward in the water column and away from other bottom-dwellers. The impetus for the invention was the effort to catch the fully recovered haddock stocks without taking cod, yellowtail and other groundfish that required continued protection.
The trawl was named for the esteemed and inventive Ruhle family, led by the late Phil Ruhle Sr., who was lost with his 80-foot dragger in stormy seas off New Jersey in 2008.
Approved for use by NOAA in 2008, the Ruhle trawl was credited with significantly reducing bycatch.
Ironically, it was also the Ruhle family that helped expose the flawed methodology that skewed the results of the federal trawl surveys in the early 2000s.
The flawed trawls dramatically undercounted target fish, leading regulators to impose the strict limits on bycatch that now threaten the fishing industry.
Ruhle showed that the federal agents doing the trawls were using bad gear. In fishing circles, the scandal became known as "Trawlgate."
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or email@example.com.