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

“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 ]

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.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

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