Changing Tides: A new blog post on the marine environment written by USRESIST NEWS Reporter Katherine Cart
# 1 Fishing Boat Dispatch
February 22, 2021
The Gulf of Alaska last summer was warm. The edge of wind was warm. The water in Yakutat Bay, when I jumped from the boat to swim, was warm. When the July storms came, waves swamped decks. The entirety of our horizon would be green water and foam for days. At night deck lights showed rain and rime flying laterally, our flags ironed straight out, as though the wind would carry what it caught until land’s mountains put up a wall.
That storms at sea are swelling, budding like an unquittable pathogen is not news. It is the failure of fishing that felt everyday, every hour, like a hard slap to the face, and like something very old that has come very suddenly to the end of itself. In the Gulf of Alaska last summer, we dragged for spiny perch and dusky rockfish, for yellowfin sole and flathead. More than once, what the captain hauled onto deck was more black mud than fish. Deckhands with hoses broke apart mud balls the size of cars; the few fish we had caught drowned in silt and air.
We were not alone in the bad fishing. Often, on deck or from the captain’s wheelhouse, I could see many other boats on the horizon, like little floating castles, pulling up bags as empty as ours. The fleet moved generally en masse; one boat struck fish on her own, word would get out, the rest of us would follow. You can imagine us like children running between tidal pools, collecting limpets. The pools are not infinite, nor are the limpets.
It is the Magnuson Stevens Act (MSA) that provides most regulation for fishing U.S. Federal Waters. The MSA has been through several iterations since its passing in 1976, when Alaskan fishing grounds were booming and the Aleutian Basin’s “Donut Hole” had not yet been fished clean of pollock. Denoted in the MSA is regional management of waters, which specifies quota of target and bycatch species. In the Gulf, on Amendment 80 vessels (large, factory trawlers generally targeting flatfish and rockfish), there is now very little allowance for blackcod (sablefish) and no allowance for halibut bycatch. These species, however, live in the same areas as targeted flat and rockfish. Often, captains play obscure balancing acts: should I risk catching ten tons of blackcod for fifty tons of flathead sole? Or should I move, once again, and risk catching nothing? By the end of the desperate summer, my captain was opting for the first. Again and again, we hauled bags filthy with bycatch, corals, rock, mud. And, because part of my job was to document for NOAA the biodiversity of catch, I spent many hours of many days watching on a conveyor belt in the gut of boat tens of tons at a time of blackcod, sculpin, dogfish, skates be shipped overboard. These fish do not live; they have been hauled to the deck from many fathoms, suffocate in holding tanks, and, by the time they are propelled off the boat, are mangled and bleeding internally. On another boat that was targeting pollock in the Bering Sea, several years earlier, I once saw 120 tons of red rockfish floating in our teal wake. The factory on that boat could not process the fish’s spiny bodies, nor did they have a buyer lined up on shore. The captain is not autonomous, but an employee of a mega-corporation; in 2018, commercial fishing in Alaska was valued at nearly $5 billion. This is big business. We are strip mining the sea.
Our nonrelationship with food supply is the problem. The luxury of selectivity that is the modern consumer’s is the problem. The imbecilic notion that the state and federal government can predict and regulate fisheries stocks uninfluenced by lobbyists is the problem. At the fish counter, there are no records indicating the heinous waste necessitated for one fillet of yellowfin sole. A cod choking on offal is not a marketable scene. At the nice restaurant, you will choose from such a miniscule range of products that it would seem there are perhaps only five or ten species in the ocean, and all of them fat, flavorful. It is no fault of the consumer that the global food supply is teetering. Nor is it the captain’s, investor’s, conglomerate CEO’s. Solid land’s free market, in which the consumer can choose the overfished blackcod over the relatively more abundant (but still overfished) yellowfin sole, forces a snarl of regulation in fisheries. Some vessels, like longliners, can specifically target blackcod. Longliners would rather not compete with the mammoth codends of trawler vessels who can, in a few hours, sweep tons of marine meat from the benthos. This competition would drive prices down, depleting the resource further.
That Amendment 80 trawl boats have quotas at times necessitating abhorrent waste is one byproduct of the attempt to regulate the molestation of an ecosystem. To expect to find a sustainable way to pull millions of tons of matter from a marine environment is absurd, and yet – year over year – because fishermen must work and companies must oblige investors and restaurants must run and stores must stock shelves and we must eat the choicest fillets, we subscribe to shoddy regulatory dogma. Innovations of industry and market are abiotic forces, with no inherent capacity for morality or logic. Though I would like to believe that we would step away before the seas are exhausted, muddied pools, I cannot help but remember the words of my captain this summer: “I’ve fished here, right here, for forty years. Never seen storms like these. Never seen fishing so bad.”