Changing Tides : A new blog post on the marine environment written by USRESIST NEWS Reporter Katherine Cart
# 4 Fishing Boat Dispatch
On trawl vessels targeting demersal fish in the North Pacific there is always a government contracted worker – usually a recent college graduate – whose job it is to monitor fishing practices. The Observer’s duties include sampling netted fish for biodiversity, collecting otoliths, sex, length and maturity data, and among many other oddities, standing on deck while a writhing codend the size of a school bus is hauled up the stern ramp. The codend is dumped into the trawl alley; fish flood, flapping dimly, shocked to be, so suddenly, in alien air.
Deckhands begin the onerous task of pushing fish towards the hatch doors that open to the live tank. This happens at any hour, in any weather. Deckhands sort out halibut, pass them to the Observer waiting at a sampling table. Length and viabilities (a judgement call made on the likelihood of an individual’s survival) are taken, and the halibut, dead or alive, are discarded overboard. Generally, the total halibut caught per codend ranges from nil to five hundred.
For several years, I worked as one of these Observers. As I type, from the firmness and immobility of land, there are, undoubtedly, people dressed in Grundéns, checking for blood in a halibut’s gills.
Trawl fishing, sometimes, has the familiar, messy feeling of tilting back the Cheezit bag, pouring crumbs over oneself in the aim of eating the corner dust. Reliably stocked fish counters lend themselves to the fictitious notion that the ocean, too, is reliably stocked. This is not necessarily so: vessels fish (and fish) until quotas are satisfied (a topic I’ve discussed here). Bering Sea commercial vessels and others, for example, obey a quota system dubbed “use it or lose it,” which means precisely what it sounds like: if a company doesn’t catch full quota during one season, the next year, that quota ceiling will sink to match the previous year’s catch. This incentivizes vessels to fish hard and wide, regardless of abundance, until quota is met. If species stocks are found by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to be consistently low, the quota will be likewise lowered, or a fishery or fishery region closed. If, however, companies are able to scrape bottom until regulations catch up, how long before the bottom is scraped through?
The well-stocked supermarket fish counter, to the consumer, suggests consistent abundance. Such externalities as “bottom dredging fouls spawning grounds,” or “deckhand’s chest fatally crushed by snapped gear,” are not trumpeted along with “Alaskan, wild caught!” and “rich, flavorful meat,” and “straight out of the Pacific Ocean.” We buy ignorantly, blissfully from the safety of a counter’s remove.
Those halibut fillets we’re serving? If they’re wild Alaskan they were most likely caught by a longliner, a type of vessel that sets humongously long lines of baited hooks at the sea bottom. This type of fishing, like pot fishing, is relatively friendly for ecosystems. Longline and pot bycatch is low and has higher survival rates than a trawler’s. The fishermen of longliners often target halibut and black cod, two species that bottom trawlers inadvertently scoop up with their ‘cheaper’ fish, such as yellowfin sole or flathead sole.
Halibut are a no-go for Alaskan trawlers: that contractor on board reports total halibut numbers daily to NMFS. If a trawler targeting yellowfin sole consistently encounters halibut in one area, it is likely that the vessel will move to avoid penalty. This law protects the longliners twofold: the halibut stock, theoretically, will not be carelessly scraped clean, nor will the market be flooded by cheaply-caught halibut. The central protective focus of this regulation is livelihood, not preservation of ecosystem biodiversity. Healthy oceanic ecosystems, in the law’s language, are not ends but rather means to ends. This fact jars against the fantastical notion I have that the human species can persist without impacting the environs we exist in. A feat, of course, that no other species in the history of evolution has ever achieved. I eat fish. My food speak is, in part, like “Alaskan, wild caught!” theatrics. Nonetheless, that the ‘we’ that closes eyes and consumes today can do better is a no-brainer.
Last summer, near Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska, I was on the deck of a 180-foot trawl vessel targeting a small flatfish. Fishing had been very bad. We had dipped nets all across the gulf; the fishing trip extended so long that we ran out of milk, and – terror of terrors – coffee creamer. On that day, within a thirty-five minute period, I measured and discarded overboard some 970 halibut. Many were dead, choked on benthic mud, suffocated beneath several tons of sea meat. We quit discarding after thirty-five minutes; many halibut were left on deck, and would be sent through the factory. After thirty-five minutes in trawl deck swill, halibut are presumed dead.
The wheelhouse, though appalled, opted to stay in the area. They had a quota to fill. As ever, the choice was a juggling game of company numbers. Did they have room within their halibut limit to catch enough flathead sole to get the trip over and done?
The problems are complex and multifold; the solutions similarly so. Trawl fishing does not belong in a sustainably managed ocean. The waste is abhorrent. I have seen and normalized a magnitude of waste that brings to mind the lavish slaughter of the American buffalo (correlated so perfectly with the extension of the Transcontinental Railroad); the garbage can that a household fills each dinner with meat scrap, plastic wrap, wilted produce.
Regulatory measures requiring the discard of lucrative fish like black cod and halibut are necessary because, historically, these species have been overfished and stocks, currently, are low. Their meat is robust in flavor, fat, weight. They are celebrated fish. Conversely, less financially rewarding species like skates, sculpin, corals, urchins, grenadier, dogfish and starry flounder – I could go on, but I would fill pages – are discarded by trawlers every day by the tens of ton because, on shore, there is no eager, easy market, or because the vessel’s factory has not yet found an efficient mode of processing. Trawlers target mid-grade fish; the rest is a loss. The volume of discarded bycatch speaks to the blind, foolhardy nature of trawl fishing.
Billions of dollars in meat are taken from the North Pacific each year, supporting a broad financial ecosystem, families, fish traders and coastal businesses. The continuance of this ecosystem, however, requires an ocean healthy, balanced and unscarred enough to support life.
 Codend: rearmost section of active trawl net, into which netted fish are funneled. Codends, depending on the target fish, can often catch and hold between thirty to two hundred metric tons.
 Grundéns: Common brand of heavy-duty commercial fishing jackets and bibs. Quintessential (often orange) rain slicks worn by cold-weather fishermen and women.
 Wheelhouse: Command area and highest point in the vessel, from which the captain and mate guide the setting and hauling of nets, and make vessel decisions. E.g. Should we target Pacific Ocean Perch or Yellowfin? Should we fish through bad weather or shelter behind an island?