Fishermen, scientists, environmentalists respond to most recent assault on traditional fishing gear

In a lecture at Boston’s New England Aquarium on December 9, marine scientist Elliott Norse tried to draw a parallel between widely used methods of harvesting fish and shellfish from the sea bed and the logging practice known as clearcutting. 

To a background of slides of extinct species like dodo birds, bleeding whales and factory trawlers of a size not seen in East Coat waters since the 1970s, Dr. Norse attempted to paint a catastrophic picture of the effects that trawls and dredges had on the ocean’s bottom communities. Citing the collapse of the Canadian codfish fishery — an example that he admitted when questioned later could not be attributed to dredge or trawl effects — he projected slides showing that certain bottom communities were indeed changed after being intensively worked by fishing gear. Then he discussed the increased size of the Netherlands’ fishing fleet and argued that increased fishing effort would have increased bottom impacts. But, since this was a New England forum, one might logically ask why Dr. Norse didn’t cite changes in the New England fishing fleet instead. Perhaps the fact that the New England fleet has been reduced dramatically over the last decade had something to do with his choice of data sets? 

Without question, fishing activities do affect the ocean environment. The consensus in the scientific, environmental and fishing communities is that some gear does impact some bottom types during some fishing operations. There isn’t, however, anything approaching a consensus on the effects — positive or negative — of those impacts.  

According to the experts: 

  • “The relationship between bottom trawling/dredging and fish production isn’t well understood. To compare trawling or dredging with clearcutting is inaccurate at best and incendiary at worst.”  (D.W. Bennett, Executive Director, American Littoral Society)
  • “In over 40 years of extensively exploring the bottoms of the world’s oceans I haven’t seen anything approaching the clearcutting conditions that I heard described on Wednesday night.” (Arne Carr, Senior Marine Biologist, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and co-author of Sound Underwater Images, the “Bible” of sonar imaging and interpretation)
  • “The rapid recovery of fisheries after intensive trawling or dredging occurring over decades logically argues against Dr. Norse’s clearcutting comparison. Without question there are some bottom communities that we should be protecting from intensive fishing activities, but our efforts should be focused on identifying them, not in hysterically condemning fishing techniques that have been in use for decades and can without question be part of sustainable fisheries in many areas on many types of ocean bottom. These issues should logically be explored as part of our national agenda leading to sustainable fisheries.” (Jack Pearce, Buzzards Bay Marine Lab, North American Editor of Marine Pollution Bulletin and Scientific Editor of Fishery Bulletin)
  • “Dr. Norse appeared to have left his scientific credibility at the door. In the area of fishing gear impacts there is no consensus within the scientific community and he has obviously ignored opinions differing from his own. The fact that heavily fished areas have produced fish continuously for generations illustrates the illogical nature of his views. I hope reason will prevail, and that by having scientists and fishermen working together, more sustainable seafood production will result.” (Cliff Goudey, Marine Advisory Leader at the Massachusetts Institute of  Technology Sea Grant College Program)
  • “We’ve been fishing the same areas with the same gear for years, and they are still producing scallops. What we’re doing isn’t any more like clearcutting than growing wheat or corn in the Midwest. The corn, the wheat and the scallops are continually produced year after year.” (Marty Manley, Scallop fisherman, F/V Mary Anne, New Bedford, Massachusetts)
Fishing has involved some degree of bottom disturbance and interference with the behavior of non-targeted species since that time in history when fishermen first moved beyond the subsistence level. Any fishing method allowing a level of harvest beyond the fisherman’s personal needs is bound to have some impacts. Commercial fishing, after all, is about supplying consumers by removing fish and shellfish from their natural habitat, and that is going to have an effect on the assemblage of organisms left behind. 

Trawling and dredging are the primary means of harvesting seafood from the world’s oceans. In many areas they have been in continuous use by generations of fishermen. They are still being used because traditionally fished areas are still producing seafood in a process much more akin to sustainable farming than alarm-inspiring clearcutting of forests. Congress mandated in the Sustainable Fisheries Act that regional management councils assess the impact of these and other fishing activities on critical ocean bottom areas. Each of the councils is in the process of doing that. Commercial fishermen, oceanographic researchers, fisheries managers and the environmental community have all committed to a balanced and rational examination of these effects. This subject cries out for such an approach, but presentations such as Dr. Norse’s unfortunately threaten to contribute more heat than light to the dialogue. 

Note: This release was distributed by FishNet USA via fax, email and PR Newswire on December 13 and 14, 1998. 

Link to gear effects directory