GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 7, 2010

Fed dogfish, skate mandates shutter Gloucester's Zeus Packing — and 70-80 jobs

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The Zeus Packing Co. has been a lifeline during the long, unrelenting, regulated hard times for the day boat groundfishing fleet — the 60 or so remnants of what had been the world's pre-eminent fishing port.

With the groundfish complex under extraordinary protection and the fishermen rationing record small allocations of cod and flat fish in their first apportionment of catch shares, boatsmen could at least keep busy and keep the lumpers, the cutters, the packers and the truckers employed in a "trash" fish sector — skates and dogfish — that provided steady work.

Although landing prices were in the pennies — a fraction of the premium prices fetched by the fine table fish that end up in linen-tabled restaurants and East Coast kitchens, the work was dependable.

But now — despite all the empirical evidence from fishermen and the one place where it counts, the trawl surveys of the government, telling a conservation success story of a Northwest Atlantic teeming with dogfish and skates — the federal government has effectively shut down the closely related fisheries to protect stocks that would no longer seem to need protection.

So the Zeus Packing Co. is no longer packing. And the 70 to 80 people who drew paychecks from Zeus, an eight-year-old company founded in Gloucester by Spanish interests to buy, clean, pack and export to markets in Europe and Asia, are no longer getting those checks.

Kristian Kristensen, the Zeus CEO, said Tuesday he sees it all as such a waste, nearly a farce. And he attempted to document that through a tour of the refrigerated cleaning and packing rooms, about 8,000 to 9,000 leased square feet in the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction complex that thanks to NOAA actions have the ambiance of a morgue.

"Instead of laying off people," said Kristensen, "we should be hiring people."

A fishing sector worth between $30 to $40 million to New England, almost all of it landed in Gloucester and New Bedford, has "no fish to process," he said.

At an economic multiplier of 4.5 — seen by many as conservative — the shutdown of the sector could cost the region more than $100 million. And, as Kristensen noted, with most of the product exported, the balance of trade is negatively affected by the shutdown. Export revenues are considered the strongest medicine for the recipient economy.

The dogfish fishery was closed on Aug. 27 and will remain so through the end of October, halfway through the fishing season.

The shutdown ordered by NOAA came just two months after Patricia Kurkul, NOAA Fisheries' Gloucester-based regional administrator, had said she was "very pleased" to announce the dogfish stock had been "rebuilt, as it will increase fishing opportunities ... and benefit local communities."

The punctuation of the achievement was found in a chart showing that of the 24 species that are caught in the trawl surveys and counted by the government at the starting point of management planning, there were far more dogfish in the fall 2009 nets than any other species. Eighteen percent of all the fish by weight were the voracious schooling sharks.

There was more than three times as much dogfish by weight than any other fish, almost 10 times more dogfish than cod.

But the shutdown was triggered by the fact that the half-year allocation that had essentially been landed — a finding widely noted by the industry as a sign that the dogfish, considered a nuisance for their capacity to eat and destroy netted and hooked fish, are now too numerous to avoid.

"The dogfish is extremely abundant, mortality rate very low, and the great abundance of the small sharks is not typical of the ecosystem," said Brian Rothschild, a leading research scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology.

He urged reconsideration of the closure "in light of the effect of catch shares on jobs and fishery."

As Kristensen noted, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's expressed "biomass target" for skates in a rolling average for three years was 5.3 kilograms per tow during the trawl surveys; these are conducted in spring and fall each year.

The trend was promising: 3.71 kilograms per tow in 2007, up to 9.50 kg in 2008, and the 2009 numbers were nearly off the chart, once Kristensen was able to get the NOAA Science center to release them.

Russell Brown, NOAA's chief scientist at Woods Hole, told Kristensen in an e-mail last Thursday that the autumn survey from 2009 produced 11.33 kilograms per tow of skate.

A rolling average for the three years was 8.18 kg per tow, nearly double the target.

Referring to the 9.50 kg and 11.33 kg tow averages for skate over the last two years, Brown wrote to Kristensen that "these indices are higher than we have observed in recent years and this likely represents good news for fishery stakeholders, managers and the resource."

Brown described the results as "fully audited," and said they would be released shortly.

The next day, Nancy Thompson, NOAA's science and research director, sent Kristensen an unsolicited e-mail, effectively negating Brown's optimism and also partially contradicting Brown's claim that results had been "fully audited."

"While we are completing the audit for the bottom trawl survey at this time," she wrote to Kristensen, "we do not know what these results mean relative to the status and condition of the stock. So, quite frankly, we do not know what this means as far as news for the fishery."

The explanation given for the shutdown of the skate fishery involves a series of shavings from the theoretical "acceptable biological catch," including a 25 shaving to account for "management uncertainty," and lesser shavings for "projected" discards by boats uninterested in the low-margin fish.

When all the shaving was done, and the boats had brought in a "projected" 80 percent of the total allowable catch, the opening allowance in May, 20,000 pounds per trip, was cut to 5,000 pounds in mid-July, then dropped to 500 pound per trip incidental catch.

The protection of dogfish and skates is widely advocated by most of the seafood conservation evaluators, a competitive submarket of non-profits that provides guides for consumers.

The Seafood Watch of the Monterey Bay Aquarium rates both skate and dogfish as foods to "avoid."

As for dogfish, the aquarium asserts that "most shark populations worldwide are at historically low levels due to serious overfishing."

It also notes that, according to the Environmental Defense Fund — where NOAA chief Administrator Jane Lubchenco served as vice chairwoman before being tapped by President Obama to head NOAA, dogfish are a health hazard due to "elevated levels of mercury and PCBs."

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.