Three Sides to Every Fish Story

The relationship between the fishing industry, conservation groups and scientists is complicated. Climate change isn’t helping.


Small owner-operated day-boat commercial fishing businesses are the traditional backbone of Cape Cod’s iconic fishing industry. Chatham remains as one of the last small-boat fleets in New England, preserved in part by efforts of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. (David Hills/The Prospect Hill Foundation)

One could argue, relatively easily, that domestic fisheries are the most beleaguered food-industry sector in the United States. Monsanto and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are certainly more vilified, but they’re also better protected, because of the wealth and power they wield.

Seven states have passed “ag-gag” laws that are designed to silence whistleblowers from publicizing animal abuses on industrial farms, by criminalizing acts related to investigating factory-farm activities such as recording, photographing and/or videotaping. It’s also illegal to possess and/or distribute such documentation. Nineteen other states have tried to pass similar legislation.

Since 2008, Monsanto has spent $52,535,120 — nearly $6.6 million annually — on lobbying. Not surprisingly, Congress continues to pass Monsanto-friendly legislation, allowing the Missouri-based multinational to take more and more control of the world’s food supply and sell more and more Roundup poison.

The U.S. seafood industry doesn’t possess the same influence. That’s not to say corporate fishing giants — environmentalists routinely point to pair trawlers — don’t put profits over the environment, or that some fishing practices/gear don’t harm marine habitat. Sectors of the fishing industry most certainly have been poisoned by greed, but the industry’s makeup is similar to its terrestrial counterparts.

“There’s this misconception that the fishing industry is some giant corporate operation,” said Robert Vanasse, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Saving Seafood, which conducts media and public outreach on behalf of the seafood industry. “It’s really a lot of smaller fishing operations. There’s a lot of blue collar-working families in this industry.”

Dead fish
Dead zones and algal blooms, which rob waters of oxygen, often result in devastating ‘fish kills.’ (Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Dead in the water

Land-based corporate food manufacturing — Big Ag and factory-farm operations and the politics and policies that allow them to avoid paying the true cost of the damage they cause — impact aquatic ecosystems, and harm both the commercial and recreational fishing industries.

Dead zones are oxygen-depleted bottom waters of oceans and bays. The lack of oxygen kills bottom-dwelling marine organisms and forces out others that can’t survive in such conditions. Some 400 dead zones have been identified in coastal waters around the globe, including up and down the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

These zones that suffocate coastal marine habitat are created in large part by agricultural and industrial farm runoff that contains nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers, animal waste, and toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

In southern New England, wastewater treatment facilities, septic systems and cesspools, from Cape Cod to the western end of Long Island Sound, are the bigger threat, dumping tremendous amounts of nitrogen into the region’s waters.

CAFOs house thousands of chickens, cows or pigs in crowded conditions and produce staggering amounts of waste. Animal manure and urine are funneled into largely unprotected waste lagoons. These open-air cesspools often leak and overflow, or can breach, sending microbes, nitrate pollution and bacteria into local rivers, streams and drinking-water supplies, and helping create marine dead zones hundreds of miles away.

But, despite the well-documented harm caused Big Ag and factory farms, they are seldom held accountable for the environmental laws they ignore or circumvent. Single-boat fisherman and small-scale fishing operations are more closely scrutinized.

Dead zones are a key stressor of marine ecosystems and rank with overfishing and habitat loss as global environmental problems, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

While small-scale farming operations, organic farmers and urban farmers are praised by conservation organizations and environmentalists concerned about the harm being perpetrated by government-backed Big Ag and CAFOs, small-scale fishing operations and single-boat fishermen are typically lumped in with the entire domestic fishing industry.

“Ninety percent of the fishermen today don’t want to destroy the environment,” said Jon Williams, president of the New Bedford, Mass.-based Atlantic Red Crab Co. “They understand the importance of the resource and harvesting in a sustainable manner. They want to protect this resource much in the way a farmer wants to protect his fields.”

Fishing net and seagulls on the ocean
The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is working with the fishing industry to develop practical solutions to fisheries challenges. (UMass Dartmouth)

Troubled relationships

The clash between the fishing industry and conservationists/environmentalists has been raging for generations, with scientists often caught in the middle. There appears to be no end in sight. In fact, the relationship grows more contentious by the year.

Williams told ecoRI News late last year that the relationship between the two sides is deteriorating. He blamed much of the added hostility on “deep-pocketed” non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Vanasse, of Saving Seafood, said the relationship is further stressed by the “political appointee revolving door” between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and conservation organizations.

“It’s a strained relationship at best, and that’s unfortunate,” Williams said. “Environmentalists are a necessary evil and we’re a necessary evil for them,  because without us they wouldn’t have jobs.”

The relationship between fishermen and scientists isn’t much better, and distrust between all parties involved abounds. It is scientists, after all, who ultimately decide whether fish populations are endangered, improving or thriving. To help make that determination, scientists receive reports on the number of fish brought to port and they conduct their own trawl surveys. But to understand what is really happening at sea, scientists largely rely on fishermen’s logbooks.

Since 1994 fishermen have been required to report how much of each species they catch and where — even those animals they throw back — and provide that data to government monitors. As would be expected, this system of self-reporting features facts, half-truths and deceit. Some fishermen consider the reports a joke, and the logbooks, sometimes filled with stained and/or ripped pages, are often unreliable.

John Torgan, director of ocean and coastal conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, said it makes better sense for conservation organizations and the fishing industry to work more closely together.

“The idea is to offer constructive solutions to fisheries challenges; not assign blame,” he said. “All voices are valuable. You need to build trust and confidence.”

But strained relationships, questionable catch information, environmental protections, fish quotas, flawed data, permits, historic abuses, criticized trawl surveys and lack of scientific data, plus the growing stresses of a changing climate and land-based pollution, makes fisheries management a complicated business.

“Fisheries management is a hazardous occupation,” Torgan said. “It’s complex … you’re dealing with livelihoods. The same information is being viewed many different ways. Even the industry never speaks with the same voice.”

He noted, however, that southern New England’s fishing industry and culture is too important to be torn apart by contentious relationships. “There’s value in having a sustainable fishing industry,” Torgan said. “Fishing, shellfish, seafood restaurants, fish markets are who we are. They define southern New England.”

New England coral canyon map
Deep-sea canyons, which can plunge to depths greater than 7,000 feet, and seamounts, which rise thousands of feet above the sea floor, create habitats that are home to corals, fish, marine mammals and turtles. They’re also popular areas to fish. (CLF/NRDC)

Hot waters

Two recent issues, both of which are still being hotly debated, provide a glimpse into the intense relationship between fishermen and environmentalists. At a September meeting in Providence both sides spoke passionately at a NOAA public hearing about the idea to create the first marine national monument protection area in the Atlantic, off the New England coast.

A few hundred people filled a hotel conference room to speak against or in favor of a proposal that would permanently protect a network of deep-sea canyons and underwater mountains. Commercial fishermen and industry representatives said the monument consideration process is flawed and shrouded in mystery.

In a piece published by The Hill, New Bedford fisherman Williams wrote about the meeting.

“Those of us who have fished sustainably and responsibly in the area for decades have had our voices almost completely shut out of this process. A prime example was the September 15 ‘town hall’ meeting held by NOAA in Providence. Hastily arranged, many fishermen who would be affected by the proposals were not even aware that it took place. Those in attendance were provided no firm details on the scope of the proposal, preventing them from commenting substantively about something that could dramatically affect or even eliminate their livelihoods.”

Williams also wrote that the environmental organizations urging President Obama to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate Cashes Ledge and some New England canyons and seamounts as marine national monuments is an abuse of the law.

“The Antiquities Act, originally enacted to give Teddy Roosevelt authority to protect vulnerable Native American archaeological sites, allows the president to act quickly, unilaterally, and without Congressional oversight to preserve sites in danger of destruction,” he wrote. “The act, while undoubtedly created in good faith, has been misused in the case of marine monuments to a frightening extent.”

More than 1,500 fishermen from 26 states have signed a letter opposing such a presidential proclamation. Monument supporters, however, have noted that the country’s national parks are proof that presidential action is sometimes warranted when it comes to protecting natural resources.

Cashes Ledge and New England’s collection of deep-sea canyons and underwater mountains will never be tourist attractions like, say, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but supporters believe these areas need to be better protected to ensure healthy marine ecosystems.

Environmental groups, including The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the NRDC, say they would like to see five canyons, four seamounts and Cashes Ledge, in the Gulf of Maine, included in NOAA’s monument designation. They say Cashes Ledge is one of the richest marine habitats on the East Coast and serves as an important feeding ground for tuna and endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Cashes Ledge is a roughly 500-square-mile undersea mountain chain about 80 miles east of Gloucester, Mass. The chain includes a large kelp forest that provides habitat for a diverse collection of marine life, including Atlantic cod.

“Cod has been devastated by overfishing since 1990. Even forty years after overfishing was first required to be prevented, estimated New England cod catches in the Gulf of Maine continue to be several times higher than the overfishing level,” Peter Shelley, CLF’s senior counselor, has said in support of greater fishing protections for Cashes Ledge. “Rebuilding New England’s cod populations must be the absolute highest priority and should not be sold out to an ill-advised quick fix of short-term economic concerns. How many more taxpayer-funded ‘emergency’ bailouts will be necessary before managers take the actions that are necessary for cod recovery?”

In 2014, Congress sent $32 million in government aid to cod fishermen, according to CLF.

Cashes Ledge has been closed to bottom-trawling since the early 2000s, but other fishing methods have been allowed in the area for decades. Environmental groups are arguing that it’s time to prohibit all fishing in the area. They say Cashes Ledge is a pristine resource that needs better protection.

The fishing industry — most notably the four fisheries that regularly fish these areas, red crab, swordfish, whiting and lobster — has responded to those concerns by noting that if ongoing fishing in Cashes Ledge was inflicting harm environmentalists wouldn’t be calling the area pristine. They would be citing the damage done.

Williams, president of the Atlantic Red Crab Co., said his company has been actively fishing in Cashes Ledge and in parts of the proposed marine national monument protection area for 20 years. He said the red crab fishery compiles with regulations and has “expended significant resources and time to ensure the health of the resource we fish.”

During testimony in late September before the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans regarding the potential implications of marine national monument designation, Williams noted that in 2009 the red crab fishery became the first Atlantic Coast fishery certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. He also noted that the deep-sea fishery is listed as “Ocean-Friendly” by the New England Aquarium Seafood Guide program.

His New Bedford business employees about 150 people and has five fishing boats.

Williams believes “large, well-funded environmental organizations” are using their money and power to marginalize fishermen. Williams claimed NGOs are negotiating with government regulators behind closed doors.

“Pew is the elephant in the room. It has a lot of influence in D.C.,” said Williams, noting that The Pew Charitable Trusts’ net assets are more than $5 billion. “Pew and NRDC employees get paid to attend all these meetings. Fishermen aren’t getting paid to be there. It costs them money. It’s frustrating. As my grandfather would always tell me, ‘There’s two sides to every story and the truth is somewhere in between.’”

Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, said most fishermen operate on razor-thin margins, and noted that they have to deal with quota cutbacks, catch limits, inflexible permits and depressed prices for locally caught fish. He said banning fishing in these proposed areas would unnecessarily cripple the industry.

“Fisheries are a real resource that need to be properly addressed,” Vanasse said. “Good science and good management are needed. The problem is environmental groups trying to close down one fishery and then moving on to the next.”

He suggested that NGOs use the money they spend on lawsuits to help develop better science, which would better protect marine resources and create better management practices. “I’d love to see that money put into science,” Vanasse said. “We should be funding science, not lawsuits.”

Wickford Harbor seafood market
Fishermen dock their boats at Gardner’s Wharf Seafood and sell their catch directly to the North Kingstown, R.I., seafood market on Wickford Harbor. (ecoRI News)

Science matters

The ongoing fight that pits marine protections against marine jobs is refereed by government regulators, who have to balance the demands of both sides. For example, last July regulators denied a request from a coalition of environmental groups to prohibit cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine. Instead, regulators reduced the Gulf of Maine cod catch limit from 1,550 metric tons to 386.

Last October, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that the American eel is stable and doesn’t need protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The New England Fisheries Management Council recommended last year reopening 5,000 square miles of Georges Bank, an area known as the Northern Edge, to fishing after a closure of two decades.

According to some scientists and those in the industry, the council’s decision, passed by a single vote, was an admission that having the area closed was accomplishing little while sacrificing plenty — a bounty of high-value scallops, for instance.

U.S. commercial fishing operations, which includes wholesalers, processors and retailers, contribute billions of dollars annually to the economy. The National Marine Fisheries Service has estimated that the U.S. fishing industry contributes nearly $90 billion annually to the economy, and supports more than 1.5 million jobs.

And, according to Vanasse, environmental management by the U.S. commercial fishing industry ranks with New Zealand as among the best in the world.

He noted that this past fall the president of the Garden State Seafood Association, chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and director of the Mid-Atlantic Marine Program at The Nature Conservancy were recognized as “Regional Champions of the Ocean” by the New York Aquarium and Urban Coast Institute for the roles their organizations played in the preservation of 38,000 square miles of ocean floor in the mid-Atlantic as habitat for native deep-water corals and other marine organisms.

“Ecosystem management by our domestic fisheries has many successes that the rest of the world could learn from, but NGOs spend more time criticizing it,” Vanasse said. “It’s one planet with five oceans and we should be thinking globally. We should be taking what the United States and New Zealand are doing and teaching it to the rest of the fishing world. We should be helping the lowest ranked nations do better.”

Good management was what brought the $559 million U.S. sea scallop fishery back from the brink of collapse during the past 20 years, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

However, that fishery’s current management plan doesn’t account for longer-term environmental changes such as ocean warming and acidification that may impact sea scallops in the future. A group of researchers from WHOI, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the Ocean Conservancy hope to change that.

They have developed a computer program that concurrently simulates ocean conditions, sea scallop population dynamics and economic impacts on the fishery. In the past, each component was considered separately, so it wasn’t possible to anticipate the full range of impacts of environmental changes on, for example, fishery revenues.

“Combining ocean chemistry, biology, fishing and economics into a single model was a real challenge, but the effort is critical if we are going to provide useful information to fishing communities and resource managers,” said Scott Doney, a marine chemist at WHOI.

Researchers have described the model as a tool intended to empower everyone who is part of fisheries management.

The first scenario researchers analyzed showed that with current harvest levels and business-as-usual carbon dioxide emissions, sea scallop harvests may decline over the next several decades, and landings of larger scallops may be less abundant. The researchers noted, however, that this is just one possible scenario. Additional scenarios need to be evaluated, they said, and more detailed information is needed regarding the impacts of warming and ocean acidification on sea scallops.

“Because this is a high-value fishery that’s not in crisis, we have the luxury of planning ahead for future challenges,” said Sarah Cooley, science outreach manager at the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy. “This way, we can help sustain the fishery and the communities that depend on it for income and jobs.”

Editor’s note: John Torgan is an ecoRI News board member.


Join the Discussion

View Comments

Recent Comments

  1. If people would adopt a vegetarian diet and stop eating fellow animals, a large part of this problem (demand) would be solved. Whatever the tension between regulators and fishermen, if we all stopped eating fish, there would be no demand.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.

Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.


We use cookies to improve your experience and deliver personalized content. View Cookie Settings