One Fish, Two Fish, No Fish
A new approach tries to save the sea's bounty—and those whose jobs depend on it
CHATHAM, MASS.—Bob St. Pierre is grateful just to keep what he can catch. On a recent July morning in this postcard-perfect Cape Cod village, St. Pierre's haul amounted to 3,100 pounds of codfish. Most of his peers are limited to 1,000 pounds a trip. That restriction is supposed to save fish, but in this inexact profession where any day a net can bring in nothing or hundreds of pounds, catching extra fish is inevitable. Whatever exceeds the limit is thrown back, often dead. Last year alone, U.S. and Canadian fishermen threw overboard about 1 million pounds of codfish from the premium hunting ground of eastern Georges Bank, about 100 miles northeast of here. "The amount of discards you end up with at times [is] sickening," says St. Pierre.
The discards are one unintended consequence of government rules regulating the fishing industry. Trip limits, net size, restricted areas, and an overarching days-at-sea system are all meant to keep U.S. fishermen from sweeping the oceans clean. But it is a system that is failing—47 of 187 fish stocks remain overfished. A recent study in Science says if trends persist, seafood stocks will collapse by 2048.
Meanwhile, the rules are driving fishermen mad. New Englanders pursuing the 19 species of bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as codfish and haddock, have seen the number of permitted fishing days slashed from 250 a year in 1996 to fewer than 50. And even that number is halved when they fish in sensitive areas. To stay in business, some have paid six-figure sums to buy days-at-sea permits from others.
In a new approach, St. Pierre last year signed on with a fledgling fishing cooperative, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, that had struck a deal with regulators. Its members are exempt from trip limits so long as they abide by an annual cap on cod. (For all other fish, the usual rules apply.) So far, it's working. Members of the association boast discard rates at just 5 to 10 percent. For many fishermen like St. Pierre, a 25-year veteran who uses nets suspended deep underwater, discard rates otherwise can hit 30 percent or more.
Unkempt, lean, and broiled from exposure to sun and sea, St. Pierre is the roguish embodiment of the Bush administration's plan to chart a new course for fishermen. In January, President Bush signed into law a little-noticed reform of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs the domestic fishing industry. In a bid to end overfishing by 2011, the measure for the first time forces the nation's eight regional fishery councils to cap how much fish can be removed from federal waters.
The law is also pushing cooperatives, formally known as "limited-access privilege programs," as a way to end the race for fish. "The best way to manage a fishery is to allocate a share of the fish to a set number of fishermen," says Sam Rauch of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a part of the U.S. Commerce Department. "It allows them to engage in a very safe fishing practice and to bring the fish to market at the most opportune time." Maybe so, but many people are fearful that cooperatives may save the fish but destroy the fisherman.