Site by N.E. Stolpe

Number 9
September 11, 1999

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

Is there such a thing as a media mugging?

In several previous editions of FishNet we’ve pointed out inaccuracies, distortions and misstatements being spread by various groups or individuals. Playing on the public’s lack of understanding of complex fisheries and ocean issues, the involved governmental agencies’ seeming unwillingness to get publicly involved, and a conventional wisdom that has it that anti-fishing activists have no axes to grind other than representing the fish or the oceans or some other such vacuous nonsense, they are carrying on a relentless onslaught against the domestic commercial fishing industry while the fishing fleets of other nations continue to fish, to export their fish to the U.S. and to rake in U.S. dollars at an ever-increasing rate.

Recently the Standard-Times of  New Bedford, Massachusetts (the center of the sea scallop fishery on the Atlantic coast) published an op-ed piece by Ron Huber, identified as the director of the Coastal Waters Project in Rockland, Maine. Mr. Huber’s article contained some of the most obvious misstatements relating to the fishing industry that we have been unfortunate enough to come across. It isn’t our intent to lend any credence to his assault on commercial fishing in general and scallop dredging in particular by discussing it here. However, because he uses many of the specious arguments that have become the vocabulary of the anti-fishing activists, and uses them in an attempt to paint an even more dismal picture than is usual for that group, we thought it would be helpful to FishNet readers if we took a closer look at what he wrote.
Note: For those readers not familiar with the New England fisheries, Georges Bank is a raised area on the sea floor off Cape Cod that has been the focus of the offshore commercial fishing fleet of New England for centuries. Initially supporting groundfish fishermen harvesting cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder, in recent years it has also provided large catches of sea scallops. In a cooperative effort by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the commercial fishing industry and researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a large area on Georges that was previously closed to fishing was recently reopened to limited and controlled scallop dredging. This fishing is rigorously monitored. 

Starting out, Mr. Huber claims “As is painfully obvious from underwater video footage, a century of continuous scraping by the incredibly primitive, completely inappropriate drag and scrape technology has flattened the once complex seafloor environment of Georges Bank almost beyond recognition.”  The “drag and scrape” technology he refers to is that employing bottom trawls and dredges and in use in possibly three-quarters of the world’s fisheries for generations  (actually, from farther along in Mr. Huber’s article we see that this technology has been in continuous use for over 600 years in the United Kingdom). The bottom of most of Georges Bank could be accurately described as “flattened.” However, the flattening isn’t the result of trawls and dredges, but rather of a combination of open-ocean storms and strong currents constantly working on the bottom (see the note at the top of the following page), which is composed almost entirely of sand, gravel and cobbles that were left by the last glacier. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of marine biology can attest, such unconsolidated bottom sediments are not capable of supporting any “complex” biological communities when they are in the kind of high energy environments that are exemplified by Georges Bank. Stated most simply, the bottom is so unstable, being moved around so much by wave surge and currents, that no organisms can achieve the necessary foothold (or invertebrate equivalent) to colonize the surface. What is sand, gravel and cobbled bottom on Georges Bank today has been sand, gravel and cobbles since the sediments were deposited there by the last glacier. Trawling and dredging haven’t done anything beyond moving those sediments around a bit, and that’s only been a fractional amount compared to the average Nor‘easter.

Mr. Huber then goes on to bemoan the loss of “...thousand-year-old stands of tree coral that covered hundreds of square miles of the Georges Bank plateau.” The physical characteristics of Georges Bank argue persuasively against the establishment of the tree coral colonies that are found in some deep water canyons off the coast of Nova Scotia. In his brief paper on these corals (in Effects of Fishing Gear on the Seafloor off New England, Conservation Law Foundation, 1998 - Link to Effects of Fishing Gear on the Seafloor off New England), Mark Butler reports “except for a couple of places, these corals occur out on the edge of the continental shelf in water deeper than a hundred fathoms.... the corals live attached to a hard substrate.” This is difficult to relate to Mr. Huber’s “hundreds of square miles of the Georges Bank plateau” or of hundreds of square meters, for that matter. In the same report cited above, Editor Ellie Dorsey describes the shallower areas of Georges as made up of ridges and dunes composed of medium-to-coarse sand and migrating “ variable rates, up to 60 meters in three months.... on deeper parts of the bank, the sea floor is smoother and the grain size becomes finer.” It would seem that, for Mr. Huber’s contention that large areas were covered by tree corals to hold up, the characteristics of Georges, including the sediment types it is composed of, would have had to have changed completely. They didn’t. Georges is still covered with the same glacial deposits - minus the finer sediments that have washed off into deeper water - that it was built of thousands of years ago.

Of course, there’s a conspiracy theory
Of the fishing industry and the government “conspiring” to keep secret what trawling and dredging are really doing to Georges Bank, Mr. Huber writes “the industry has forbidden our government to videotape or photograph them while they are carrying out their crude and destructive scrape fishery.” Georges Bank has been the locus of a tremendous amount of research over the past several years. Much of this research has been accomplished by fishermen, academicians and government researchers working cooperatively and openly. In referring to Mr. Huber’s words, Michael Pol of the Conservation Engineering section in the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, wrote to FishFolk, an internet listserve “In cooperation with fishermen, independent scientists, and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, undersea and deck footage of scallop dredges has been collected as recently as last month. Several hours of scalloping footage are available for viewing by the public at our office. (One tape was a gift from Jim Kendall.)” - Note: Jim Kendall is on the New England Fisheries Management Council, is an industry leader and an ex-scallop fisherman.
Note: In a paper presented at the recent American Fisheries Society’s annual meeting three University of Rhode Island researchers (Skrobe, DeAlteris & Hammond) presented a paper titled Seabed Disturbance by Mobile Fishing Gear Relative to Natural Processes: Application of a General Model to the Southern New England Continental Shelf. Among their conclusions were “In shallow waters along the coast and around the southern tip of Block Island, seabed disturbance is dominated by unsteady, wave generated bottom currents, wheras in other deeper areas, steady storm generated bottom currenrts are the controlling force disturbing the seabed.”
Scallops as weeds?
In what is probably the most startling paragraph in the whole article, Mr. Huber contends “Sea scallops are the early sucessional ‘weed’ of choice that marine nature prefers offshore. As these animals live and grow, their shells pile up and form a healing scab upon the scraped-over sea floor. Sea anemones, corals, sponges and other animals find these bumpy living and non-living carpets suitable to grow upon. The more cover, the more groundfish survive their youth. That’s why there was no offshore sea scallop fishery in the earlier part of this century. They simply weren’t out there in any appreciable numbers until the vast coral forests and other living sea floor environments were torn away. Check the records.” We did. There was certainly no offshore scallop fishery in the early part of this century. However, according to Auguste Foote Arnold, author of the 1901 classic naturalist’s handbook The Sea Beach at EbbTide (reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc. in 1968) “In Maine these large (Sea) scallops are eaten, but they have not found wide favor in the city markets.” He then explains how sea scallops could be caught by simply dragging a fishing line along the bottom until a scallop shut its valves on it and could then be drawn into the boat. He later describes the bay scallop as the “true scallop of the Boston and New York markets.” According to Mr. Arnold, sea scallops were available in the early part of this century in such numbers that they could be caught on a fishing line and were not harvested commercially because there was no market demand for them. But Mr. Huber’s version sure props up his anti-fishing argument a lot more effectively, doesn’t it?
How about those 400 invading ships?
In Mr. Huber’s words “scrapists in more than 400 ships have invaded Georges Bank” to catch scallops in the formerly closed area.  The National Marine Fisheries Service has gone to the trouble of providing us with a website documenting the progress of the closed area fishery [Link to NMFS Closed Area II scallop fishery page]. It’s too bad Mr. Huber didn’t take advantage of the information NMFS had provided. As of August 27, one hundred and fifty vessels have participated. The largest of these “ships” is about 125 feet long, and the average length is not over 80 feet. While the dramatic impact of Mr. Huber’s “400 ships” can’t be denied, 150 boats is an accurate representation of the scallop fleet working in Closed Area II.
And they’re killing the baby scallops?
Not to miss a beat, Mr. Huber then writes “At a scant four years of age, the Bank’s still-juvenile scallops had reached a size where they could be killed legally. Scallops can live at least 18 years. They don’t produce that many eggs until they reach 10 years of age. That the scrapers would be killing juvenile scallops didn’t matter.”  The literature we reviewed [Link to Rutherford's Scallop Biology page] indicated sea scallops can spawn in their second year and by year five or six may produce millions of eggs. At maturity their shells measure 12 to 15 cm across, which is the size of the scallops being taken from the closed area of Georges today.

The final point we’ll cover is Mr. Huber’s “People have been trying to get rid of draggers and dredgers for more than 600 years. Back in 1376 A.D., hook fishermen appealed to England’s King Edward III, begging him to outlaw the wondyrchoun, the newly invented beam trawl that was laying waste the Thames River estuary.” While we weren’t there, looking at analogous situations today it appears as if this might have been an example of fishermen using one gear type - hooks - trying to unfairly eliminate fishermen using another. It wasn’t game keepers or fish wardens or proto-environmentalists that were begging the king. It was competing fishermen. Mr. Huber’s right in one thing, at least. History has certainly repeated itself.

Mr. Huber has pushed all the hot buttons; loss of a pristine coral “forest” by an “invading” fleet of ships, killing baby scallops, the natural ecosystem altered beyond recognition, an industry-forced conspiracy of silence, historical opposition to what’s always been recognized as a ruinous practice, and (and most cleverly) a gradual segue into the use of the term “scrapists.” How much of it is accurate? We’ll let you decide. How much of this type of writing, perhaps more cleverly crafted, is used by the major anti-fishing groups? Again, you be the judge.

Note: See also "Conservation Status of the Barndoor Skate (Raja laevis)"
[Link to Dr. Kenchinton's Barndoor Skate artice reviewfor the article]
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