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

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

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.

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