Number 19
April 11, 2001

Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page


The truth is out there
(and it's available if you look for it!)

We recently saw a copy of a June press release issued by a New Jersey legislative office in support of a ban on harvesting menhaden - a small, oily fish that is available in greater abundance than any other species off the East and Gulf coasts - for fish meal and oil in state waters out to three miles. In part the release said “Waterways off the New Jersey coast attract thousands of out-of-state processing boats which continually harvest menhaden and wreak havoc on the local underwater food chains. Menhaden are harvested by factory ships not for human consumption, but rather to be incorporated in fertilizers, cosmetics and cat food.” Because menhaden are only found in estuaries and close inshore, closing the fishery in state waters would effectively close it completely.

For the record, 1) there are less that two dozen boats, not “thousands,” on the East coast (from Maine to Florida) that are capable of participating in the menhaden reduction fishery, 2) There are no “processing” boats in the menhaden fishery at all (the less than two dozen boats in the fleet catch the fish and transport them to shore-based facilities for processing), 3) The menhaden reduction fleet, which has been actively engaged in harvesting on the East coast and in New Jersey waters, with many more boats and a much higher level of landings than in recent years, for well over a century is “wreaking havoc” on neither the “local underwater food chains” nor anything else in our local waters – at least if we can believe all of the recreational angler’s claims about “the good old days,” 4) menhaden are no more harvested by “factory ships” than by “processing boats,” and 4) as well as making their way into some commercial products, menhaden are harvested for use in livestock feed (the resulting livestock destined for human consumption) and, increasingly importantly, the production of omega 3 dietary supplements, which modern medicine has determined are among some of the most valuable additives available to health-conscious consumers.

The glaring inaccuracies in the release could have been revealed with one or two phone calls, half an hour in a well-equipped library or fifteen minutes of research through credible sites on the internet. And yet the legislative staffers and whoever else was involved in preparing, editing and distributing the press release weren’t interested enough in its accuracy to put forth even this minimal effort. (A well-referenced article describing the fishery and real management concerns, “Of fish meal, crab bait, a public resource and a disregard for science,” is available on the internet at Link to piece on menhaden management)

In a nutshell, this illustrates how severe distortions can and have been used to skew public perceptions in fisheries issues.

We’ve been pointing out over the past several years that capitalizing on doom-and-gloom pronouncements about the status of our commercial fisheries has greatly outgrown the cottage industry phase (see “Who puts up the money” Link to piece on menhaden management). As the N.J. legislative release so accurately indicates, so too has the scope of the disinformation being used in support of these pronouncements. With seemingly limitless funding from multi-billion dollar foundations on one hand, and with the full gamut of communications from scores of recreational anglers intent on grabbing all of the fish that they can on the other, environmental and angling organizations have become adept at convincing targeted elected officials and media representatives that commercial fishing is totally out of hand and that commercial fishermen alone are responsible for the degraded condition of our coastal and ocean fisheries. Strategically, this is a wise move on their part. The management system that we have in place is staffed by fisheries professionals who aren’t swayed by missapplied, skewed or totally fabricated “facts,” but are committed to decision-making based on the best available science, which the commercial fishing industry is committed to making better. Some of our elected officials, however and unfortunately, have been known to respond to focused political pressure, even if brought by a very small group of constituents and even if based on information that is far from factual. 

In the face of all of this anti-fishing* bluster, we thought it would be timely to reacquaint our readers with the benefits derived from a viable domestic commercial fishing industry, with some of the most widespread anti-fishing arguments, and why these arguments are less than convincing.

As far as the pluses of having a healthy commercial fishing industry in the U.S., consider the following:

     As is becoming increasingly evident, there are a myriad of health benefits associated with a diet rich in fish – particularly saltwater fish. 

·    As successful “marriages” between working commercial fishing operations and successful tourist attractions in ports like Cape May and Barnegat Light on the East coast and San Francisco and Seattle on the West demonstrate, there’s an ongoing public fascination with working fishermen and how they harvest the sea’s bounty.

·    Particularly in the context of our heavily developed coastlines on the Atlantic, it’s difficult to imagine any type of coastal development more environmentally benign than a working fishing port, nor any that would be more effective in demonstrating to the public the importance of healthy coastal and ocean ecosystems.

·    Domestic production of fish and shellfish reduces the trade deficit by billions of dollars each year. 

·    Harvesting by professionals is the only way to make the fish and shellfish that are a public resource belonging to all of us available to people lacking either the time, the money or the inclination to harvest them themselves. While it’s a hard concept for the most zealous anglers to grasp, somewhere around 95% of our citizens would never consider catching their own seafood, yet they all have an equal right to enjoy a fresh fish dinner - and the health benefits that come with it - whenever they wish. 

·    Locally caught, ocean-fresh fish and shellfish taste better than products that have been frozen or refrigerated and shipped halfway around the world.

The most common anti-commercial fishing arguments seem to be variations of:

·    Recreationally caught fish are far more valuable to the economy than commercially caught fish because they cost so much more to catch. (In actuality, a recreationally caught fish is the end product of a “fishing experience” while a commercially caught fish is the primary input for a seafood meal which is generally eaten in a restaurant. On a pound-for-pound basis, fish enjoyed by patrons at a mid-level restaurant easily generate as much economic activity as fish caught by anglers on vacation, and well over half of the seafood enjoyed in the U.S. is enjoyed at restaurants.)
·    Anglers employing “catch and release techniques” can catch the same fish over and over again, multiplying its “value” far beyond that of the commercially harvested fish that is caught once and eaten. (In actuality, because of catch and release mortality, which is generally agreed averages out at around 20%, anglers catching and releasing as many fish as they can in an outing can – and do – kill more fish than anglers who catch and keep their limit and then stop fishing. See The big lie -

·    Commercial fishermen are dollar-driven resource exploiters with no regard for conservation who will “cheat” whenever the opportunity arises while recreational anglers are conservation minded to a fault and are incapable of damaging a fishery. (In reality commercial fishermen, with a full spectrum of regulations controlling every facet of how they ply their trade, can and do live within management-imposed restrictions as a matter of course, while – as exemplified by the last several years’ fluke landings in the mid-Atlantic – unlimited numbers of recreational anglers can far exceed management-mandated quotas no matter what other restrictions are in place.)

·    Without adequate controls, commercial harvesters are likely to drive overfished stocks into extinction. (We have not been able to find any examples of species that have been “fished” to extinction. As a matter of fact, modern fishing communities are in far more danger of extinction resulting from overzealous legislative mandates than any fish or shellfish species are from overzealous harvesting.)

·    Commonly used commercial harvesting gear is unselective and/or destructive to natural ecosystems (With a rational management system in which there was no such thing as a “regulatory discard – an otherwise usable fish landed as bycatch which the fisherman is forced by regulation to discard – and gear with designed-in selectivity, many of the problems with selectivity would disappear. Fishermen agree that some areas should be protected from some types of fishing gear. However, the efficient harvest of many species can only be accomplished with gear that does have some impact on particular types of bottom. Just as we accept modifications to terrestrial ecosystems for enhanced agricultural production, we are going to have to accept corresponding changes in the oceans if we are going to efficiently utilize the fish and shellfish they are capable of producing.

Today virtually every facet of commercial fishing is regulated, at least for U.S. fishermen. There are regulations controlling the size and type of gear they use, the size and horsepower of their boats, the hours they fish, where they fish, the amount and the size of the fish they catch, which fisheries they can participate in, the size of their crews, etc., etc. A cumbersome and complex network of management regimes at the state, regional, national and international levels (sometimes managing the same fisheries through overlapping jurisdictions) each establishes and enforces various restrictions on commercial harvesters. While impossible to quantify, on the average a commercial fisherman today is probably fishing with less than half of the total effectiveness (based on the ability to harvest fish of a particular species) that he was fishing with twenty years ago. And in many of our commercial fisheries there are significantly fewer fishermen and significantly fewer boats. On top of this, many commercial fishermen are involved in efforts to further reduce bycatch (non-targeted fish that are inadvertently caught along with the quarry), impacts on habitat and interactions with protected and endangered species. 

This is in stark contrast to the recreational fishing fleet, which is allowed to increase unhampered by any regulations whatsoever, resulting in a (largely unmeasured and unremarked) steady growth to the point where on-the-water traffic jams are a common occurrence in heavily fished areas. 

Yet for the anti-fishing crowd, the management- and self-imposed controls on commercial fishing aren’t enough. In instances where a stock of fish is rebuilding from depressed levels, they pressure the system to accelerate the rebuilding process. Despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible to reduce bycatch in some fisheries (and despite the fact that in many instances bycatch mortality has at most a negligible impact on the involved species) they insist that every fishery be 100% “clean.” While the concept of Marine Protected Areas being effective tools in fisheries management is totally unproven in non-tropical waters, they support their extensive establishment in all of our coastal waters, with the only “protection” afforded being that of protecting the fish from fishermen. Even where it’s common knowledge that particular areas have over the years consistently yielded healthy catches of particular species, they argue that commercial fishing gear is “damaging” the bottom, reducing biological diversity and negatively impacting productivity.

Most recently some anti-fishing activists have turned their attention to the “ecosystem impacts” of commercial harvesting. Their arguments revolve around the idea that the effects of fish harvesting aren’t limited to the species being harvested but can also trickle either up or down (depending on your philosophical perspective and which group of commercial harvesters you’re intent on skewering) the food chain. The recent “Ancient overfishing” article in the journal Science is an attempt at “top down” skewering (see Critique of Science Ancient Overfishing article). The “close down the menhaden fishery” crowd’s fatuous theory that an unfished (except for bait) menhaden population is the only thing saving our estuaries from perishing due to eutrophication** is it’s “bottom up” corollary. 

The reason for the anti-fishing efforts by some of the people and organizations in the recreational angling community is obvious. They want more – or all – of the fish for themselves. In keeping with the “professionalization” of many of our recreational activities, an angler who spends tens of thousands of dollars on his or her hobby every year is unlikely to admit that he or she is inept at fishing. It’s much easier - at least on the ego - to blame any lack of performance on the activities of those “netters” off the beach or over the horizon. The reason for the corresponding efforts by the various so-called environmental organizations is equally clear. There are seemingly bottomless (at least to us in the fishing industry) buckets of tax-free dollars available from multi-billion dollar trusts/foundations to pursue their anti-fishing agenda in Congress, in the courts, and in some of our most respected institutions of higher learning. What isn’t clear is why these “charitable” trusts and foundations are so seemingly intent on destroying an industry that has existed in harmony with the environment for generations.

We’ve got a large and growing population. Every day we’ve got more people to feed – a relative few in the U.S. and other developed countries, a staggering number in much of the rest of the world – and it seems as if we’re provided every day with yet another example of the many health benefits of having more seafood in our diets. For the first time since aquaculture’s been touted as the solution to looming protein shortages, we’re starting to realize that its development at any significant scale comes with significant environmental costs. From a number of perspectives we can’t  afford to turn our backs on the domestic commercial fishing industry, nor can we afford to manage it with anything less than the application of the best available science, which while sometimes woefully inadequate is always better than “Chicken Little” rhetoric employed by the anti-fishing groups. The real information is available, all that’s required is that those who are involved in fisheries issues take the time to ferret it out.

*Many of the involved individuals will argue that they are not anti-fishing, that they are simply against allowing fishermen – in their collective and distinctly skewed opinion - to continue to “plunder” living marine resources and undersea habitat with little or no regard for the effects they are having on the coastal or offshore ecosystem or the future of the fisheries. Considering what we have to lose if we lose our commercial fishing industry, this is a well-considered argument for them to make. However, the vast majority of fishermen and industry reps we deal with on both coasts have no doubts about what they see as an anti-fishing campaign, and neither do we. If the anti-fishing groups were truly interested in conserving fisheries or in maintaining healthy estuarine or oceanic ecosystems, they would certainly be interested in much more than the activities of the commercial fishing industry. They aren’t.

** In a letter being sent to New Jersey legislators, the anti-menhaden fishing forces are claiming that menhaden, which filter copious amounts of algae out of the water column, are primarily responsible for maintaining the water quality in our estuaries by removing excess nutrients via their dietary habits. Supposedly the algae metabolize the nutrients, the menhaden eat the algae, the nutrients disappear. While this makes a pleasing story - particularly if your goal is to shut down a fishery that depends on catching menhaden - it might be a little more convincing if we didn’t know that the same anti-fishing folks were claiming to the same audience a year or two back that the menhaden fishery was responsible for the starvation of all of the rebounded striped bass stocks. Another pleasing story, except for the fact that after two years of “starvation” the striped bass stocks are in better shape than they’ve been in for the last 50 years. When you are out to unjustly skewer a fishery or to mislead a legislator or two, it’s best to be flexible.

Supported by the Fishermen’s Dock Co-op, Lund’s Fisheries, Atlantic Capes Fisheries, Viking Village Dock, Export, Inc., Agger Trading Corp. the Belford Seafood Co-op and Hi-Liner Fishing Gear.

Seafood For Consumers logo