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