A media mugging of
commercial fishing, Florida style
Last month Jordan Kahn, the Outdoors Editor for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, attacked the com-mercial fishing industry in general and the domestic pelagic longline fishery in particular in an article re-plete with over-the-top bombast and using and misusing carefully filtered information to wrongfully skewer commercial fishing and commercial fishermen.
Among the most egregious of his assaults was the charge that the Fisheries Research Institute, a not-for-profit corporation established by the longline industry, was “essentially a longliner lobbying group.” Of course Mr. Kahn was using the unpopularity of lobbyists (at this point probably the most unpopular pro-fessionals in the United States except for journalists) to bolster his anti-commercial fishing, anti-longlining arguments. However, Mr. Kahn – who claims to have been trained as a “scientist” – failed to turn up in what to him must pass for research (keep reading), or perhaps failed to report, the fact that the Fisheries Research Institute is prohibited by law from lobbying. This was pointed out to him.. (For a real-world view of what the Fisheries Research Institute actually does, see the profile of Nelson Beideman, its president, starting on page 3 of the December 2003 NOAA Report available at http://www.publicaffairs.noaa.gov/nr/pdf/dec2003.pdf.)
He used other, and equally misleading, “facts” and figures to further what is difficult to see as anything more than a personal vendetta against anyone efficiently catching and selling (or affordably buying and eating) fish from what he seems to consider his private playground – the world’s oceans. These were pointed out to him as well.
Thus, when he had a follow-up piece in the May 13 News-Journal, we thought that we were about to see Mr. Kahn setting the record straight. Not quite! What we read was more of the same old same old, packaged slightly differently but with the same nebulous connections to objectivity.
Because such strident exercises are occurring more frequently in the advocacy “journalism” practiced by recreational fishing writers, and because Mr. Kahn is so emphatically and demonstrably wrong on so many counts, we thought that a point-by-point refutation of his latest column might aid our readers in evaluating his and similar scribblings.
• He started out with a labored exercise designed to show that the pelagic longline fishery was so small as to be inconsequential when considered in relation to the total production of seafood by the domes-tic commercial fishing fleet. He wrote, more or less correctly, that longlining accounted for just 0.3% of that total. (Actually, from the context it appeared as if he was only writing about edible seafood but was using a total production figure for edible and industrial seafood combined. Considering only edi-ble seafood, the longline proportion would be almost 0.4%, but what’s precision when you are on a mission?)
This is an interesting argument. So interesting, in fact, that we decided to adopt it and extend it to the newspaper business.
According to the Newspaper Association of America, in 2003 the total daily circulation of U.S. newspapers was 55,185,351. Going to The Readership Institute at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, we found that the Daytona Beach News-Journal has a daily circulation of 100,582. It appears as if Mr. Kahn’s newspaper accounts for only 0.18% of the total daily circulation of newspapers in the U.S. – or that Mr. Kahn’s newspaper is significantly more negligible in the do-mestic newspaper industry than pelagic longlining is in the domestic fishing industry. Based on Mr. Kahn’s “reasoning,” shouldn’t we be questioning the News-Journal’s right to continue publishing?
• He then writes, after throwing around some really, really big and impressive numbers, that in the U.S. “more than 10 times the amount of food than the entire 2003 U.S. commercial fishing catch was just thrown away.” While this might be an interesting fact to some folks, what does it have to do with anything that Mr. Kahn is addressing? This is followed by “Maybe American consumers don't depend on longlined seafood after all.” Of course they don’t. Nor do they “depend” on steak or fast food or white truffles or corn flakes. If the fact that we aren’t dependent on a particular kind of food can be used as an argument to deny us that food, then we’re all going to be left with very meager diets.
• He lists the longliners’ chief catch as “sharks, swordfish, other billfish like marlin, and real giant blue fin (sic) tuna, not canned tunafish or skipjack steaks.” Au contraire, he was right on the sword-fish and skipjack steaks but dead wrong on everything else. Domestic longliners target swordfish, yellowfin tuna, albacore tuna and bigeye tuna, and their catch at the end of a trip reflects this. With the proper permit and until a miniscule quota is reached, longliners can possess and sell a maximum of three bluefin tuna per (two to three week or longer) trip. Longliners can’t possess or sell any billfish other than swordfish and no Atlantic billfish other than swordfish can be sold in the U.S.
• And he asks how many people have ever eaten these longline caught fish, arguing that he’s “never even seen these fish in the grocery store, and as it turns out, most of these types of fish go to the highest bidder….” We can’t account for what Mr. Kahn does or doesn’t see in the grocery store (considering the blinders he’s so obviously wearing when he writes, if they are still on when he goes shopping we wouldn’t be surprised by anything that he doesn’t see), but having fish, or any other product, going to the highest bidder has a nice capitalist ring to it that most people – at least those benefiting from a capitalist economy – would find more comforting than threatening. To get back to the News-Journal, how much of the advertising in their 100,000 daily papers do you suppose wouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder?
• “…these types of fish go to the highest bidder, which would be Japan.” Mr. Kahn obviously doesn’t like exports. With a trade deficit of monster proportions we find his anti-export bias somewhat puzzling, but here again Mr. Kahn is woefully off the mark. Most of the longline-caught tuna and virtually all of the longline caught swordfish stay in the U.S. and are sold to U.S. consumers. Anyone who shops outside of Mr. Kahn’s neighborhood, or anyone who shops in his neighborhood but is better at identifying the fish in the seafood section than he is, will know that in the U.S. we have been blessed in recent years with an influx of fresh sushi-grade tuna, for example. Most of this fresh tuna is caught by longliners, and our palates and our cardio-vascular systems are better for it. (On this point we’re purposely giving him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a bit of Japan bashing going on here as well.)
• Apparently scorning all of the “eat fish high in omega 3 fatty acid” advice we’ve been getting from the medical establishment for most of the last decade, he then informs us that the inclusion of longline caught tuna and swordfish – both of which are way above averager in omega 3s – or any other fish in the average American’s diet is even less important because “on average, Americans ate a total of 200 pounds of meat per person in 2002.” So keep chowing down on those Big Macs, folks. Jordan Kahn evidently thinks it’s the right thing to do.
• Then, in what must be his gratuitous nod to the bizarre, he relates that “a few pounds of fish seems like even less when you consider that 130 pounds of food per person ended up in landfills.” It would be really interesting to find out what intellectual contortions Mr. Kahn went through when determining that there was a relationship between discarding moldy bologna, spoiled milk and stale bread and enjoying twelve dollar a pound fresh swordfish steaks, wouldn’t it?
• Moving right along, he then segues into an interpretation of the world of fisheries management as seen through his demonstrably effective blinders, starting with “the fact is, the U.S. commercial fishing industry as a whole isn't even close to being eagerly compliant with regulations.” Now, Mr. Kahn and/or his employers at the newspaper might be “eagerly compliant with regulations,” but we somehow doubt that. In fact, we doubt that there are any individuals or businesses or institutions that are eagerly compliant with regulations. The significant point would be whether they complied or not. On the whole, most fishermen – both recreational and commercial – comply with regulations, and just like in the rest of the world, a few don’t. (Here we are compelled to mention that managing commercial fisheries today often requires “regulatory discards.” These are fish that are inadvertently caught that must be returned to the ocean, even if it is obvious that they won’t survive once they are released. We hope that even Mr. Kahn wouldn’t be eager to comply with a regulation that mandated such gra-tuitous waste.)
• He then bemoans the fact that there are only “about 150 agents” charged with policing fisheries in federal waters. Though he doesn’t make it clear, we guess he does this to demonstrate an incentive for commercial fishermen to not be eagerly compliant with regulations. But somehow he fails to mention that these federal agents work hand-in-hand with the Coast Guard and with state fisheries enforcement people, resulting in a reasonably effective – and much larger - enforcement presence than he would have his readers believe actually exists. At the same time, he totally ignores the fact that recreational anglers – who it seems, in his eyes though not in most others’, neither can nor will do any wrong – are subject to the same enforcement as commercial fishermen, as adequate or inadequate as it might be.
He also fails to mention that the 16,568 federal cases he cites that were filed in the last five years include recreational fishing as well as commercial fishing violations. Likewise he somehow misses the fact that, because at-sea enforcement is so expensive and potentially dangerous, the trend has been and still is to do it at dockside. It’s relatively easy to police a few thousand commercial fishing boats landing fish at a few hundred commercial fishing docks, particularly when the boats and docks must document the catch and the docks must document their sales, but try keeping track of who’s catching what when your target group consists of tens of millions of recreational anglers fishing from millions of boats or thousands of miles of shoreline. Yet in Mr. Kahn’s opinion the level of fisheries enforcement encourages rampant cheating by commercial fishermen.
• Predictably he trots out all of the old, hackneyed bycatch tales. We won’t argue with the United Nations’ estimate of total bycatch worldwide, but we will argue that commercial fishermen in the United States are among the world’s leaders in developing bycatch reduction gear and techniques, and that the domestic pelagic longliners and folks in a few other commercial fisheries have been leading the pack.
For one example of what the U.S. longliners are doing to reduce bycatch, see http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/mediacenter/turtles/, and don’t forget that the proposed, temporary reopening of the closed - to longlining, not to angling – areas that got Mr. Kahn started initially was to allow an experimental fishery aimed at further bycatch reduction. (For the record, bycatch is by definition stuff that a commercial fishermen can’t keep or sell. Catching it causes unnecessary wear and tear on the gear, disentangling or unhooking it and returning it to the water takes time and effort. Bycatch reduction is something that every rational fisherman is constantly focused on, not just because it’s so wasteful, but because it’s expensive to deal with as well.)
• Then, finally, he takes on the notion that commercial fishermen in general and longliners in particular are capable of making any commitment to conservation. To support his idea that commercial fishermen are the scourge of the oceans, he writes that “time and again, the closure of hundreds of thousands of miles of waters off the coasts of the United States was the result of lawsuits brought against the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect natural resources and for violating the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996.” In actuality, the closure of these waters has generally been the result of the fisheries management process, implemented by fisheries management plans created either by the regional fisheries management councils or the Department of Commerce, and approved by the Secretary of Commerce. Commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen and conservationists all participate in this process. They might argue over the details and they might bring suit (against the Secretary of Commerce, not the National Marine Fisheries Service) to effect changes, but closed areas are a result of fisheries management decisions, not judicial intervention.
• And he finally closes with “As for those international regulations that longliners would take credit for, since the International Conference for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas was established in 1966 -- this is the chief regulator of international commercial fishing in the Atlantic rim -- fisheries scientists estimate that the population of Atlantic tuna has declined by 90 percent.” First off, it’s the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), and with a charge restricted to the management of tunas, mackerels and billfish in the Atlantic, it is far from the “chief regulator of international commercial fishing” there. We don’t have the foggiest idea what the “Atlantic Rim” means, but ICCAT has 40 member nations (more properly known as contracting parties) from around the world that are involved in the Atlantic fisheries for “tuna-like” species. We doubt that there is anyone with even a superficial acquaintance with ICCAT’s operations over the last decade that wouldn’t acknowledge the U.S. delegation’s leadership in terms of conservation, or of the role played by the U.S. longliners in that delegation. If the vessels of every other contracting party were fishing to the standards of the U.S. longline fleet we wouldn’t have anything approaching the problems in the ICCAT fisheries that Mr. Kahn gloats about. The fishermen of the U.S. longline fleet were instrumental in creating those standards and they having been pressing politically to have the U.S. exercise what powers it has to force international compliance with ICCAT conservation meas-ures in effect here. (see http://www.publicaffairs.noaa.gov/releases2002/oct02/noaa02131.html).
Why all of this attention focused on one “journalist” writing in a paper that is, by his own reasoning, a negligible part of the domestic newspaper industry – particularly when he usually covers Ripley-esque subjects including a fish falling on a school bus in Montana, a basketball-swallowing catfish, and an unfortunate in the U.K. who has kept on fishing with toes surgically replacing his amputated fingers? Because so many of his cronies, while generally a bit more clever in their assaults, spend an awful lot of time attacking commercial fishermen and seafood consumers in their columns with the same kinds of specious arguments. While done by Mr. Kahn a little more clumsily than by most of the others, they all have a penchant for wrongly applying what’s going on in the world’s commercial fisheries to what’s going on in our own.
Perhaps because he’s never been able to stumble over it in his local Publix or Winn-Dixie, Mr. Kahn doesn’t want to enjoy fresh swordfish or tuna – or, we’d be willing to bet, any other fish removed from “his” ocean for reasons as crass as making a living. So he uses this as justification to shut down the fisheries that provide them so none of us can enjoy them. The readers of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, no matter how inconsequential their number in Mr. Kahn’s estimation, deserve better.
Note: In the Southern Volusia County section of this past Sunday’s News-Journal, Linda Walton has a long article documenting the decline of a once vibrant commercial fishing industry in Daytona Beach and the surrounding communities (“Commercial fishing was once big business in Southeast Volusia” at http://www.news-journalonline.com/NewsJournalOnline/News/Neighbors/DailyJournal/03AreaDJ04052205.htm). While she mentions several of the reasons for this, she left out the impact on this decline of an ongoing media campaign demonizing the commercial fishing industry and commercial fishermen.