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The Catch

What happens when industry insiders write their own regulations? Welcome to the fishing business.

With haddock selling at a market price of $1.37 per pound, just one haul could bring owner Lane and his crew a gross payment of $4,110. Four days of such work could load the hold with 50,000 pounds of haddock, which, when off-loaded and weighed at a dockside processor back in New Bedford, would garner a check to the captain of $68,500. The payout goes this way: Money is deducted for overhead—20 tons of crushed ice, crew supplies, and 5,600 gallons of diesel fuel—then something for the boat, an allotment for the owner, and shares for the captain and the crew. That’s good money for the people who do the wet dirty work, and good fish for us, America’s millions of seafood consumers. All well and good?

No. Commercial fishing is a deeply troubled industry, caught between a freebooting past in which high seas fishing was a free-for-all among fishermen who behaved as if the fish in the sea were inexhaustible—and a future in which fish populations are known to be finite, with many threatened or even facing extinction. The world’s oceans—including U.S. waters—have been overfished for decades, causing long-term disruption to marine ecosystems. Many commercially important fish stocks, like the legendary Atlantic cod, are seriously depleted despite many years of federal and state regulation. According to the latest numbers from the Department of Commerce, at least 28 percent of the fish stocks are officially “overfished” and another 19 percent are “subject to overfishing.”

The crisis isn’t uniform: Atlantic cod are overfished. Haddock are currently plentiful. Red snapper are chronically overfished. Sea scallops are not. So are we actually running out of fish? “No,” says Paul Rago, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We don’t utilize the ocean resource very well, but we haven’t altered the productivity of the world’s oceans.”

But we have been catching and consuming a significant number of important fish species faster than they can reproduce. Demand for seafood is growing worldwide, and U.S. consumption is climbing to record levels. In 2004, demand rose for the third straight year as Americans ate 16.6 pounds of fish and shellfish per capita. Though farm-raised fish now supply a large portion of that consumption, U.S. fisheries can no longer meet demand; more than half our seafood is imported from all over the globe.

Coastal nations like the United States are struggling to manage their ocean fisheries sustainably but without much success. Regulating commercial fishing is a devilishly complex challenge featuring many compelling— and competing—commercial, environmental, social, and political interests. This year has seen the biggest surge of federal legislation in a decade, with a number of bills pending in Congress. But the biggest question persists: how to manage an essential but vast and atomized industry in which the stocks are wild, the stakes are high, the science is uncertain, and the regulatory tools are not only arcane but anachronistic?

A factory trawler fishing for pollack discharges ground-up bycatch.A factory trawler fishing for pollack discharges ground-up bycatch.

OCEAN FISH are a commonly held natural resource. Fish are wild animals. The haddock swimming on Georges Bank theoretically belong to the American public but actually belong to no one until caught by the crew aboard a boat like Lane’s trawler. Moreover, catching ocean fish is an act of hunting, an oddly atavistic method of securing food supplies for the modern world. Unlike domestic animals, wild fish can’t really be “managed.” “You cannot control the fish,” notes Tom Nies, a senior fishery analyst with the New England Fishery Management Council. “You can only control the fishermen.”

And that isn’t easy. States rule the fishing in their waters up to three miles out. Beyond that, to a distance of 200 miles, our Exclusive Economic Zone, commercial fishing is regulated by the U.S. government, specifically NOAA’s Fisheries Service. Mostly a conventional federal bureaucracy, NOAA also conducts the scientific research upon which all regulations are purportedly based, through its six research centers such as those in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and La Jolla, California.

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