Counting Fish | Estimating the Gulf of Maine’s Fish Population

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Fishes of the Gulf of Maine.

Fishes of the Gulf of Maine.

Photo/art by Brenda Gillespie/chartingnature.com

Fisheries expert Henry Bigelow at helm of F/V Grampus, circa 1930.

Fisheries expert Henry Bigelow at helm of F/V Grampus, circa 1930.

Photo/art by Courtesy of WHOI Archives

The NOAA scientists at journey’s end, rumpled but still upright.

The NOAA scientists at journey’s end, rumpled but still upright.

Photo/art by Markham Starr

Recording fish data in the wet lab.

Recording fish data in the wet lab.

Photo/art by Rowan Jacobsen

Reeling in the net on the Bigelow, which fishes 24/7.

Reeling in the net on the Bigelow, which fishes 24/7.

Photo/art by Rowan Jacobsen

Watch chief Geoff Shook takes a moment to admire the sunset from the deck of the Bigelow.

Watch chief Geoff Shook takes a moment to admire the sunset from the deck of the Bigelow.

Photo/art by Rowan Jacobsen

The Bigelow at sea.

The Bigelow at sea.

Photo/art by courtesy of NOAA

Cod and pollock in the catch.

Cod and pollock in the catch.

Photo/art by Fishypictures.com

 

Each spring, the research ship Henry B. Bigelow drags a net along the seafloor in the Gulf of Maine, cataloguing the fish it catches. What it finds will change the life of every fisherman in New England and impact every consumer who loves seafood.

[ May 1, 2013 ]
CAPE COD BAY

My shift ends at midnight. I deliver Ziploc bags of herring heads to the walk-in freezer, power-wash the fish gunk off my foul-weather gear, and turn my work­station over to the night watch, who will work until noon.

I’ve been on duty aboard the Henry B. Bigelow, the fisheries research flagship of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for a dozen hours, sorting winter flounder from witch flounder, cataloguing the stomach contents of cod and cunner, punching the results into a touchscreen monitor smeared with scales and slime. I should really head straight to my metal bunk to recover, but my mind is still reeling with the effort of learning new things, so instead I climb four flights of stairs to the fly deck for some fresh air.

A briny wind whips across the deck, and I lie flat on my back to escape it, staring at the night sky. Straight overhead, the Big Dipper frames the Bigelow’s radar dome. I watch the familiar constellation race forward across the sky, skid to a halt, then shoot backward to where it started. I watch it do this several times, puzzling over the state of the universe, before the obvious sinks in: It isn’t moving; we are.

At 208 feet long, with a labyrinth of passageways I’m still learning to navigate, the Bigelow can feel quite huge, but all it takes is the sight of the heavens wheeling above you and the slap of the black waters against the hull to make the ship suddenly feel like a rubber ducky on a big ocean, and to bring home the challenge of our mission. We’re attempting a task that sounds like the kind of thing that might have been charged to a Greek hero who was expected to fail: We’re trying to count the fish in the sea.

[ May 2 ]
STELLWAGEN BANK

On the fly deck, I shotgun coffee in the bright morning sunshine. A wall of white fog cloaks the coast. It looks just like a glacier, and it makes me think of the rivers of ice that created this landscape 10,000 years ago, scraping the land like a bulldozer and plowing mountains of sand and rubble off the edge of the continent, to become Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island.

Suddenly, off the starboard bow—spouts! The arcs of humpback whales. Then the distinctive V spout of a right whale, one of the most endangered animals on earth. Then pilot whales and dolphins. We’re curling around the tip of Provincetown, passing over Stell­wagen Bank, a remnant of those glaciers. Stellwagen’s fabled fishing grounds extend from the forearm of Cape Cod nearly to Gloucester, staying about 100 feet below the surface. As currents push nutrients from the bottom of the sea up this great underwater sand pile, they trigger tremendous phytoplankton growth, which in turn feeds the rest of the food web.

We’re here to document that food web. The Bigelow is the most sophisticated fishing vessel in the United States. It has to be, because it’s in the eye of the storm of the most complicated, claustrophobic, controversial, and downright crazed fishery in the United States: New England groundfish, which include cod, haddock, pollock, hake, flounder, and other species caught in bottom-trawling nets. It’s NOAA’s job to determine how many of these fish there are and how many of them New England’s fishermen can safely catch. Every spring, a team of scientists from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole sets out on the Bigelow to drag a net along the seafloor for a mile at each of hundreds of randomly selected points and catalogue the fish they find. This has never made the fish geeks at Woods Hole terribly popular in New England, but since February of this year, when they slashed the quota on Gulf of Maine cod by 77 percent, throwing fishermen out of work from New Bedford to Portland, the Bigelow has been about as welcome here as the Black Pearl.

“We have a saying,” Mike Palmer, the chief author of the new cod assessment, tells me as we watch the whales. “If you’re pissing off both sides, you must be doing something right.” By that metric, NOAA is doing one heck of a job. On the same day this past spring, it was sued by the Conservation Law Foundation for setting catch limits too high and by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for setting them too low. Fishermen have lost all faith in NOAA’s numbers. They want to know how the same agency that announced a surging population of cod in its 2008 assessment could have discerned a crashing population just three years later.

As do I. Since it began its surveys in the 1960s, NOAA has welcomed volunteers to ease the load on its scientists. So I volunteered, to see how they do it. How do you accurately estimate fish populations in a body of water as huge as the Gulf of Maine? You can’t exactly roll back the waters and count.

Now I’m starting to get an inkling. Once we clear the whales, the net plays out. Twenty minutes later the bridge calls, “Haulback!” and the seven of us on the day watch pull on foul-weather gear and head for the LED-lit “wet lab,” where we line both sides of a conveyor belt connected to the back deck, orange plastic lobster hampers around us. The catch is dumped onto the conveyor belt, and the great, glinting diversity of the sea comes wriggling past. As the only landlubber in the group, I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. I sort as fast as my hands can move: herring, flounder, mackerel, dogfish, and lots and lots of “monkey dung,” an odiferous deep-sea sponge.

“Give those flounder a swirl, people!” shouts Geoff Shook, our watch chief. “There could be lots of things hiding beneath.” Alas, there are: shrimp and four-inch eel-like fishes. “Sand lance,” Palmer says, holding one up. “Big part of the cod story.”

I’d love to follow up on that, but I’m frantically sorting shrimp into one basket, sand lance into another, trying to dodge the snapping claws of the lobsters. Cold seawater pumps across the belt and the floor to keep the fishiness to a minimum.

Shook backs me up and, once the conveyor belt is bare, delivers the bad news: My basket of herring is actually a mishmash of sea herring and river herring, a.k.a. alewives. Shook shows me how alewives are stubbier and flatter than sea herring, despite the same silver coloring. “You’ll get better,” he says, un­convincingly, sorting the two species into different buckets.

But there’s no time to study before we divide into two-man teams to work up the catch. I’m partnered with Nikolai Klibansky, a grad student from North Carolina. Klibansky is our “cutter,” while I’m the “recorder.” We position ourselves at a workstation with a cutting board and several touchscreen monitors and grab a basket of fish.

Klibansky lines up the first fish on a magnetized scale and plunks down a magnet at its tail. Length and weight automatically enter the Fisheries Scientific Computer System, known as “Fiscus.” Klibansky cuts open the fish’s belly and announces its sex and maturity as I punch the data into the monitor. Klibansky cuts out the stomach and squeezes its goopy contents onto the board, picking through the mush with tweezers and calling out the names of prey species, as I tap it all into Fiscus. (In herring, the goop looks like orange Cheez Whiz, but in large fish like cod, sometimes whole herring ooze out, looking almost ready to swim away.)

Klibansky then breaks open the head with a fillet knife, fishing around inside with tweezers for the otoliths—tiny ear bones that can tell you a fish’s age, like tree rings—and I slip them into envelopes I’ve tagged with matching labels and barcodes. Sometimes we check liver weight, sometimes gonad weight. Sometimes we freeze shrimp and herring for other researchers who don’t have the luxury of collecting their own.

To let us move quickly without consulting the screen, Fiscus makes a sound when each piece of information is recorded. After experimenting with all sorts of sounds that would stand out, the software engineers at Woods Hole settled on the burps made by the Budweiser frogs. One of the three stations says “Bud,” the next says “weis,” and ours says “er.” Every now and then, everything lines up, and a perfect “Bud-weis-er” rolls down the wet lab, an especially cruel choice for a dry government vessel. The sounds for other recorded data include a whip crack and a jaguar screech.

“Those are mine,” Fiscus’s chief engineer, Dave Chevrier, tells me proudly. Chevrier, who anchors the night watch, has spent more than 100 days at sea each year for years, observing and tweaking his software in real-world conditions. To keep himself entertained, he keeps tabs on how many fish each cutter processes. Chevrier, who has processed the most fish two years in a row, jumps into an early lead after the first few days and confidently predicts a three-peat. Palmer is a distant second. Klibansky and I have a firm grip on last place.

Yet our pace is the last thing on my mind. I try to focus on the fish, try not to think about the meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, three months ago where they announced the cuts, and one prominent fisherman from Gloucester moaned, “We’ve done everything that has been asked of us,” while another from New Bedford shouted, “I’m leaving here in a coffin!”

I try, but I fail. Each fish feels as though it has a hundred fishing households riding on it. So you try to be an automaton: Just get the data; do the science. By midnight I’m an automaton covered in blood and slime, the chilly sea washing over my feet, the iodine reek of the deep infiltrating my clothes. I have a screaming headache and an aching back and can’t turn over my station fast enough. I lurch to my bunk, surrendering to the pitch and roll. The Bigelow steams on through the night.

[ May 3 ]
CASHES LEDGE

Where are the cod? Our nets are full of lobster and hake, pollock and herring, and occasional net-busting clots of dogfish, but precious few cod. The scientists tell me not to draw conclusions from the small sample, tell me there’s the landings data to consider, which counts just as much as NOAA’s surveys, but I know that what we’re seeing can’t be good.

I stand with Adrian Martyn-Fisher, the Bigelow’s chief bosun, as he works the net. Before coming aboard the Bigelow, he spent 20 years as a commercial fisherman in Maine, chasing cod, haddock, and flounder. He shakes his head as another codless catch comes up onto the back deck. “We were trawling in a spot last year where I’d caught lots of codfish—big, beautiful codfish,” he says. “And we didn’t catch a single one. The fishermen say the codfish are still out there. Well, no, they aren’t.”

Let ’em eat dogfish, you might say—target new species. Unfortunately, you can’t catch dogfish, or any of the other groundfish species, without catching cod. Once you reach your cod quota, you’re done fishing for the year. Besides, nobody wants to eat dogfish. Cod still brings two or three dollars per pound at the docks. Dogfish? Twenty cents. Cod is the money fish and always has been. Nothing else has ever achieved that magical combination of endless supply and high demand, which is why cod made New England. When Bartholomew Gosnold encountered a curled arm of land shaking its fist at the Atlantic on his 1602 scouting voyage, he didn’t name it Cape Dogfish. The salt-cod business was so good in Boston throughout the 1600s and 1700s, with ships departing almost every day for France, Spain, or the Caribbean plantations, that the new “codfish aristocracy” decided that it didn’t need England around anymore. A carved, wooden “Sacred Cod” has hung in Boston’s State House since 1784.

In the 20th century, cod populations crashed, as steel boats, refrigeration, and improved nets let fishermen target cod longer and more ferociously than ever before, and the U.S. Fisheries Bureau sent a young man named Henry Bigelow to investigate. Working out of a leaky sailboat, Bigelow developed the first scientific assessment of the Gulf of Maine. Over 20 years, he became the expert on New England fisheries, penning Fishes of the Gulf of Maine (still the definitive work) and helped found Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1930. Yet for all of Bigelow’s work, his concerns about overfishing were ignored. Fishing technology continued to improve, and fish populations continued to decline.

In 1996 Congress tasked NOAA with identifying U.S. fish stocks that were overfished and setting catch limits that would let the populations fully rebuild by 2014. “It’s a myth that we’re here to protect the fish,” Palmer points out. “We’re here to maximize the sustainable yield of the fishery.” Palmer is a fit, bearded 35-year-old with swirly-blue eyes resembling the planet as seen from space—eyes that harden when he hears NOAA accused of incompetence, which it has been ever since 2011, when it announced that its 2008 assessment had wildly overestimated the cod population.

Palmer knows better than anyone why the 2008 numbers were off, but nobody wants to listen. Fishermen understandably prefer the 2008 numbers. They probably picture the guy behind the assessments as some stat-head in a Woods Hole cubicle, pumping out the formulas that ruin their lives, but Palmer loves the Gulf of Maine. “As a New England native with Massachusetts and Maine roots, I consider it home,” he says.

As a kid, Palmer was always drawn to the water, fresh or salt. His college interests took the meandering road from whales to aquatic toxicology and finally to fisheries oceanography. He joined NOAA straight out of grad school, drawn by the opportunity to do science with immediate relevance. A lot of Woods Hole staffers dread survey duty, but Palmer signs on for one leg every year. Considering the firestorm his data creates, he wants to see where those numbers are coming from, to identify any possible sources of uncertainty. That, and he loves being at sea.

Until 2011, the low point in NOAA’s industry relations was a 2002 episode known as “Trawlgate,” which took shape when a commercial fisherman standing at the dock in Woods Hole noticed that the wires dragging the net behind the Albatross IV, the Bigelow’s predecessor, were mismatched, meaning that for years the net might have been towed at a cockeyed angle. NOAA immediately embarked on a program of self-flagellation. It invited commercial fishermen aboard the Albatross to critique the net, which they did with gusto. Then it engaged in an exhaustive study of the net and found the difference in catch between the cockeyed position and a perpendicular one to be negligible.

It didn’t matter. With NOAA continuously slashing the number of cod that fishermen were allowed to catch each year, no fisherman was ever going to trust the Albatross again.

[ May 4 ]
TRUXTON SWELL

We fish in places where no other ship would dare. The bottom of the Gulf is covered with wrecks, lost fishing gear, and boulders; it can put you out of business pretty fast. Every commercial fishing captain keeps his own “hang book” of places to avoid and dreads fishing anywhere new. But we onboard the Bigelow must fish whatever spot the computer hits on the dartboard.

“When I first got here, I couldn’t believe they’d just drop their net anywhere,” Martyn-Fisher, the bosun, tells me. We’re in the Acoustics Lab with Shook, gazing at a wall of monitors. With his scruffy white hair and ruddy cheeks, Martyn-Fisher seems like a seafarer straight from central casting. When the fishing went to hell in 2006, he applied to NOAA, and he still has mixed feelings about becoming what the industry calls a “paycheck fisherman.”

“I miss the adventure of it,” he says. “Being your own man.” And he’s never adjusted to getting the same paycheck no matter what comes up in the nets: “This can get pretty goddamned tedious. Every now and then I go home and tell my wife, ‘That’s it, I have to go back to commercial fishing.’ But then I watch her face fall, and I don’t do it.”

Still, he’s proud of his ship. The Bige­low was NOAA’s $54 million answer to Trawlgate. With the weight of the 40-year-old Albatross hanging around its neck, NOAA lobbied for a ship that could produce unassailable science. It got the Bigelow, whose twin-beam sonar rivals anything in the Navy’s possession. When we reach a new station, we scout the route with our sonar firing. I watch as the Technicolor map of the bottom scrolls into existence. It makes a typical sonar readout look as though it were scrawled in dull crayon. Everything looks clear, so Martyn-Fisher heads to the back deck to let out the net.

The Bigelow’s net uses an auto-tension system so that its wires are constantly self-adjusting to match one another: no more Trawlgates. The net is studded with sensors that monitor everything from depth, speed, and position to wing spread and distance from the bottom, feeding it all back to the monitors. For a tow to count toward the estimation of fish biomass in the Gulf, it has to conform to all required parameters for 16 continuous minutes. Shook watches the monitor for signs of rips, loss of contact with the bottom, collapsed doors (the metal plates that hold the net open), crossed bridles, improper rigging, or any other snafu. This time, after 15 minutes 33 seconds of perfection, the net goes haywire. “No!” Shook shouts at the monitor, softly punching it. “Bad tow.” I wonder aloud whether the Trawlgate crowd has any idea how exacting the science is. “We’ve had articles come out that directly slam the way we do our surveys,” Shook says as he taps buttons to try to see what went wrong, “that directly slam the Bigelow. And it’s frustrating to see that stuff when you know it’s not correct.”

Shook is a creature of the coast, fishing and sailing in his spare time, and I think it must feel strange to be denied the easy camaraderie with so many others who share that lifestyle. Not long ago, he bought a new house next to a Cape Cod Bay lobsterman: “When I moved in, I was wearing a NOAA shirt. He came over and shook my hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you.’ Then he looked down at my shirt and said, ‘Oh, God, don’t tell me you work for them.’”

[ May 5 ]
JORDAN BASIN

We’re in the deep Gulf, 100 miles east of Portland, fishing in 400 feet of water. Big, slow, spruce-colored rollers rise up to cuff the Bigelow, and we newbies ricochet down the hallways like billiard balls.

Did I say I dreaded the sorting? Actually, it’s wicked fun. It’s like a video game, your eyes flitting over the catch as it rolls by, hands grabbing whatever species you’re collecting. Then it’s a game of “go fish” as we consolidate our buckets. “White hake. Anybody want white hake?” “Female dogfish? Send me your female dogfish.”

After a while, the fish take on personalities. Mackerel are sporty, with oil-sheen sides and black racing stripes on their backs. They feel firm and rubbery in your hand, like yuppie dog toys. Herring are like money, pouring down the conveyor belt in piles of shiny silver. Dogfish are small sharks with evil-cat eyes that glint yellow or green in the light. Cod are like hogs, gluttonous and catholic in their tastes. Haddock have faces like young Disney protagonists: wide eyes, button noses, soft emotive lips. They look like boys turned into fish by some sea hag, surprised to have been caught in our net. Monkfish are the baddies from the same flick, living bear traps waiting to snap shut on the unwary.

One night, the unwary is Nikolai Klibansky, whose finger is seized by a huge monkfish that was playing possum on us. With Klibansky attempting to extricate his finger from the razor jaws, I jab the white plastic handle of a fillet knife into the jaws to pry them open. Instead, the monkfish seizes the handle, yanks it away from me, and thrashes around the table, slashing with the blade.

The whole episode leaves me with a grudging respect for monkfish, the feel-good antipode to cod. A trash fish in the 1970s, then a high-priced and badly overfished delicacy in the 1980s–90s, it became carefully managed, and the population was declared fully rebuilt in 2008. This is the face of successful fisheries management, and what a face it is.

[ May 6 ]
Bigelow Bight
A slow night at last! The belly of our net has been gutted like a fish by a snag that somehow eluded the sonar. Hours of repairs await Martyn-Fisher and his team. I can’t say I’m sorry for the break. We linger over lobster macaroni in the galley, catch a few innings of the Red Sox on the satellite television. I ask Mike Palmer to tell me the cod story. He cracks open his laptop—turns out he has a presentation prepared for anyone who cares to listen. As our coffee mugs skitter across the swaying table, he explains how in 2006, Gloucester fishermen began catching massive amounts of cod, and their attitude toward NOAA softened. “Whatever they’ve done to this point appears to be successful,” one oldtimer told the Gloucester Times. “This is the biggest run of cod I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Then NOAA’s 2007 spring survey caught more cod than ever before in its history, and the 2008 survey was nearly as good. All that data fed into the 2008 cod assessment, which elicited a round of hallelujahs along the New England coast. The assessment estimated a spawning-stock biomass of 33,877 metric tons, the highest in decades. “Everything was rosy,” Palmer says. “Everything was adding up.” The fishing industry’s sacrifices were paying off, everyone believed; cod would soon be fully recovered, and New England would once again be minting money in the seas.

“Then,” Palmer continues, “we did a benchmark assessment in 2011, and the bottom fell out.” He was in charge of that assessment, which used a more sophisticated model. Instead of a surging biomass of 33,877 metric tons of cod, it estimated a pathetic 11,868 for the entire Gulf—near collapse. Instead of the anticipated quota of around 8,551 metric tons, the controversial assessment would’ve limited the 2012 catch to just a fraction of that, 1,000 mt.

That’s when New England flipped out. The industry, which was seeing no dropoff, concluded that NOAA had lost its marbles—a position shared by its representatives. “This GOM [Gulf of Maine] cod situation is further proof that the entire research and data process needs to be completely overhauled,” Senator John Kerry wrote to NOAA.

So Palmer decided to pick through those 2007 and 2008 surveys that had found so many cod. What he saw stunned him. As in other years, most tows on the 2007 survey yielded no cod or just a handful of fish. And then, on April 24, on Stellwagen Bank, the net came up with 800 cod, the most ever seen in 44 years of surveys. The pattern repeated in 2008: Only three tows produced more than 10 cod. One netted 15, another 42, and the other caught 578. “Should’ve been a red flag,” Palmer says.

The old assessment model had taken those two huge tows at face value, but Palmer’s new model gave less weight to freakish outliers, positive or negative. That, along with the low cod numbers seen on the 2009, 2010, and 2011 surveys, was behind the massive downgrade.

Still, the mystery remained: How could NOAA’s estimates be so at odds with what the fishermen were seeing? A clue arrived in the spring of 2012, when one of Palmer’s colleagues noticed that Stellwagen Bank had experienced a population explosion of sand lance starting in 2006. Sand lance like to hide in sandy bottomland, which makes Stellwagen Bank one of their favorite places on earth, and,cod love to eat sand lance: “He came to me and asked, ‘Is there any potential that what we’re seeing in the fishing industry is being driven by sand lance abundance?’”

Palmer didn’t know, so he analyzed where fishermen were catching their cod. That result was his next shock: Almost half of the cod landings for the entire Gulf of Maine were coming from a tiny area on the northern tip of Stellwagen Bank, not two hours’ steam from Gloucester—the exact location of NOAA’s massive tows in 2007 and 2008. “They were all on Stellwagen Bank,” Palmer marvels. “Right where the sand lance were, right where our surveys were finding all the cod.”

Instead of a cod recovery in the Gulf of Maine, there had been a tragedy: a once-in-a-generation blowout of sand lance on Stellwagen Bank, right in front of Gloucester’s nose, causing an extraordinary percentage of the remaining cod to gather themselves tightly in that one spot, where a few lucky fishermen had easily scooped them up, leaving the rest of the Gulf bare.

Sadly, the past year has played out just as Mike Palmer’s 2011 assessment would have predicted. Both NOAA and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts found fewer cod during their surveys than ever before, and even fishermen struggled to find fish. That didn’t stop Massachusetts’ attorney general, Martha Coakley, from calling the new quota “a death sentence for the Massachusetts fishing industry,” when she filed suit in federal court against NOAA, arguing that “the federal government has shown a callous disregard for the well-being of Massachusetts fishing families.” But no rhetoric can disguise the stark reality: New England’s 500-year run of cod is over.

[ May 7 ]
JEFFREY’S LEDGE

Near the Isles of Shoals, the fog finds us. We glide through a wet, white world, blowing our foghorn every two minutes, white lobster floats ghosting past, seagulls calling behind the boat like lost souls. Thousands of fishermen out of Portsmouth and Gloucester have vanished in such conditions. It was always a knife-edge existence, yet for centuries the fishing was so fine that it kept luring us back.

And I can vouch that the fineness of the fishing still makes a difference. When your nets are empty, there’s no pleasure in flat seas. But when they’re full, the snottiest weather in the world fades into the background.

Off Jeffrey’s Ledge, we hit loads of haddock—big, beautiful haddock. And the lobsters—200 in one haul. Klibansky and I work up buckets of longhorn sculpin that turn our hands into pincushions. We measure the cloaca depth of more skates than I care to recall. And still the fish come. Pollock, dogfish, octopus, shrimp, Jonah crab, spider crab, scallops, ocean pout, alewife, shad, Atlantic herring, mackerel, monkfish, Acadian redfish, white hake, silver hake, red hake, witch flounder, winter flounder, yellowtail flounder, four-spot flounder, window­pane flounder, American plaice, halibut, sea raven, brittle sea star, wolf fish, argentine, alligator fish, butterfish, cunner, four-beard rockling. So many beautiful fishes. It’s like a drug, an injection of pure living energy, and I can see how it would get very hard to do anything else.

The bridge keeps threading the needle of lobster pots with aplomb, and one catch piles onto the back deck faster than we can finish the previous one. “Stomachs off, everybody,” Shook calls out. “Stomachs off!” We override Fiscus’s protocol so that we can move faster. Mike Palmer rips through piles of yellowtail flounder; he’s a fish-gutting machine. “Bud,” goes Fiscus.
“Bud … Bud … Bud.”

Through the night, the stations pile up. “Haulback!” comes the call through the loudspeakers, again and again. By midnight, when the night watch drags us off the floor, we’ve finished seven stations, thousands and thousands of fish. I pound a peanut-butter sandwich and collapse on my bunk, my dreams haunted by the eyes of haddock.

[ May 8 ]
MASSACHUSETTS BAY

In the morning, I find Dave Chevrier in the galley staring gloomily into his oatmeal. “There’s no way I can catch him,” he sighs. On our epic shift, our watch had erased a 3,000-fish deficit. Palmer had surged past Chevrier, and on the slow night watch that followed, Chevrier had barely managed to pull even. With the final three stations hitting on our watch, Palmer needs only a few hundred fish to dethrone the champ.

Overall, the four legs of the Bigelow’s spring survey will make 407 tows, and measure 174,450 organisms. We’ll contribute 273,153 new data points to the most thorough record of any marine ecosystem ever created, in hopes that it will help us understand how to partner with the Gulf of Maine for another 500 years. The particular fish we pull up in our nets matters less than the fact that we still can pull up fish in our nets, from Sandwich to Stonington. With a little luck and foresight, that will always be the case. And perhaps one day a Sacred Monkfish will hang in the Massachusetts State House, waiting to snap shut on anyone who questions New England’s ability to bounce back.

Sometime in our last few hours of work, the golden fish had passed through Mike Palmer’s hands. It would have been around sunset, about the time Shook was telling us to take five minutes to enjoy the view. We leave a wet lab squirming with lobster and step out on deck. Rising out of the water, shining against the salmon sky, is the city of Boston. We’ve been fishing on its doorstep. To the north, I can see Cape Ann jutting into the Atlantic. Off the port side, I can just make out the tip of Race Point. We scan the shimmering coasts, meet each other’s eyes, and see the same thought reflected there: Home.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?
With cod off the table for the foreseeable future, New England fishermen must find ways to catch other species without catching cod—and to sell them for a decent price. The future lies in the development of “smart gear” that will minimize bycatch. The most promising is the “haddock-separator trawl,” developed by researchers at the University of Rhode Island, who observed that haddock try to escape a net by rising, while cod, flounder, and most other fish dive for the bottom. The haddock-separator trawl has a large, open mesh on the bottom, letting other fish escape. It should allow fishermen to target the thriving haddock populations on Georges Bank, off Cape Cod.

Fishermen can also prosper by avoiding the well-known areas near the coast, where most of the Gulf of Maine’s remaining cod tend to congregate. The Acadian redfish, which resembles a small red snapper and is sometimes sold in markets as “ocean perch,” schools in the cold waters of the deep Gulf of Maine, away from other species. A major food fish in the 1950s and 1960s (and a staple of Army mess halls), it collapsed owing to overfishing in the 1970s. Now the population is fully rebuilt, but demand is light and the price is low; fishermen have been catching less than 20 percent of the available quota. Buy Acadian redfish or ocean perch when you see it, and you’ll be keeping a New England fisherman in business.

In fact, the real future of New England fishing lies in your hands, seafood lover. For centuries, we had a direct relationship with our fishermen. They brought the fish into port, and we bought it off the boats. Then seafood became an international commodity. Today, local fishermen must compete with foreign fleets and Chinese tilapia farms, selling their fish at auction for ridiculously low prices. Now some innovative organizations are working to reestablish the relationship between consumers and fishermen. Companies such as Boston’s Red’s Best let individuals order local seafood online and have it delivered straight to their doors.

The most heartening trend has been the rise of community-supported fisheries (CSFs), such as Cape Ann Fresh Catch (profiled in Yankee’s January 2013 issue), New Hampshire Community Seafood, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, and others. (For a list of local CSFs, go to: YankeeMagazine.com/more). For a fixed price, you receive a weekly delivery of fillets or whole fish (your choice) of whatever species the fishermen catch, for an eight-week season. You get the freshest fish, and the fishermen get a much higher price for their catch, letting them make a living while leaving more fish in the sea.

Fish stocks do recover. In fact, of the 44 species that received national rebuilding plans under the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act and on which we have sufficient data to evaluate them, two-thirds are either fully rebuilt or well on their way. The system works when overfishing is stopped. No greater example exists than Norway, which implemented strong catch limits after its own cod stocks nearly collapsed in the 1970s and 1990s. The Barents Sea is now awash in cod. In 2013, Norway raised its cod quota from 740,000 metric tons to 1 million—that’s 680 times the Gulf of Maine’s 1,470.

New England gets a mixed grade on recovery success. Cod, halibut, yellowtail flounder, and white hake continue to struggle mightily, but Acadian redfish, monkfish, and Georges Bank haddock have come back strongly, and sea scallops and lobster have never been so abundant.

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