One of America’s most productive fishing grounds is under siege
By midafternoon, the summer sky that emerged pale blueover Scituate Harbor is weighed down with gray, coal-rimmed clouds. Thewind carries the smell of low tide and the clanging of mooringssecuring the yachts and powerboats of the wealthier citizens of thiscoastal Massachusetts town. But this is a working harbor, too, and overat the pier, Frank Mirarchi is mending a net at the stern of his 55-foot fishing trawler, the Barbara L. Peters.
For nearly half a century, Mirarchi has been pulling cod, haddock, andflounder out of the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from the tip of CapeCod to Nova Scotia. But he’s worried that his son Andrew, who works thetrawler with him, won’t have anywhere near that kind of longevity atsea.
“We’re hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” saysMirarchi, a stocky man in his 60s wearing grubby olive pants and awhite T-shirt. To Mirarchi, and to many fishermen like him, the reasonis simple: New England fishermen are being regulated to death. Therestrictions on when, where, and how they can work began piling up inthe mid 1990s, when overfishing had reduced many stocks to criticallylow levels, and the government set species-by-species recovery targets.The results of those recovery programs are mixed at best. But forfisherman, and potentially for the region’s maritime heritage, thestatus quo may threaten disaster.
Now, a growing group ofscientists is urging a new approach, one that moves away from blanketrestrictions and the focus on individual fish and whale species infavor of a system tailored to an understanding of how marine ecosystemswork. One of the leading proponents of the idea, known as areamanagement, is Les Kaufman, a College of Arts and Sciencesprofessor of biology and associate director of the Boston UniversityMarine Program (BUMP). For years, Kaufman has studied the ecosystems ofStellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary,an area in the Gulf of Maine the size of Rhode Island, whose richbiodiversity is a magnet for commercial fisherman, recreationalanglers, and whale watchers. His research helped shape the draft of afive-year management plan for Stellwagen issued in April by the Officeof National Marine Sanctuaries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA). The first two thirds of the document, which will be revisedinto final form sometime next year, is an ecological audit that paintsa grim picture of the sanctuary’s health and argues for the principleof ecology-based restoration that Kaufman endorses.
The draftis the result of a lengthy consensus-based process involvingscientists, fishermen, industry and environmental groups, and about20,000 citizen comments. Naturally, it satisfies almost no one.Fishermen and other commercial users feel unjustly blamed for thedegraded state of the sanctuary and fear that the findings may be usedto drive them out of business. Meanwhile, although the plan embracesthe ecosystem-based management approach that Kaufman’s sciencesupports, it proposes almost no concrete actions, leading Kaufman andmany environmentalists to disparage it as toothless. Hovering over allis the question of whether the other government agencies that overseemost human activities on Stellwagen and the Gulf of Maine will back aswitch to ecosystem conservation. If they do, Stellwagen Bank could bea major test case for a new approach to restoring the health of the seaand the livelihoods, such as Frank Mirarchi’s, that depend on it.
What’s wrong with Stellwagen?
Stellwagen Bank sits about 25 miles east of Boston. Beforethe last ice age ended, about 11,000 years ago, Stellwagen was abovewater and connected to the mainland, a dry, cold expanse marked bybeaches, lagoons, and seaside cliffs, probably covered with spruceforests and tundra grasses. When the glaciers retreated and Stellwagendisappeared beneath the sea, its diverse topography and mix of sand,mud, and rocky habitats gave rise to an unusual level of oceanicbiodiversity. Today, the 842-square-mile Stellwagen sanctuary is hometo more than 80 species of fish, 34 types of birds, and22 marine mammals, several endangered whales among them.
In1992, the U.S. Congress placed Stellwagen under the protection of theNational Marine Sanctuaries, which consists of 13 marinesanctuaries. The Stellwagen sanctuary, whose agents occupy awhite-shingled building at Scituate Harbor, is home also to the NOAAresearch vessel Auk, a 50-foot aluminum catamaran. And when the Aukheads out to tag whales, test water quality, or track fish withunderwater cameras, it is rarely alone. The same lush environment thatlures marine life attracts humans — lots of them, from commercialfishermen to whale watchers to divers checking out historic shipwrecks.
Between1996 and 2005, commercial fishermen harvested an average annual catchworth nearly $16 million. Meanwhile, a growing whale-watch industrygenerates about $24 million annually in Massachusetts alone.
“Ifyou go out there in the summer, there are boats everywhere,” says RickMurray, a CAS professor of earth sciences and the director of the BUMarine Program, who is one of five Scituate selectmen. “It’s an amazingconfluence of civilization and natural habitats.”
But,Kaufman notes, this level of usage has its price, with challengesranging from habitat preservation to the status of key species to thearea’s biodiversity. For instance, NOAA’s 2008 assessment of the 19 fish stocks it began trying to rebuild in the 1990s found that 13 had still not made it halfway to the target numbers — the sameas in 2002 and 2005. In addition, between 2005 and 2008 the number ofstocks being overfished jumped from 8 to 13. Meanwhile, theannual revenues of New England fishermen who pursue these stocks fellby half between 2000 and 2007.
“We’d grade it a C minus,”says Craig McDonald, the sanctuary’s superintendent, “and you shouldn’thave an area designated by Congress as one of the nation’s marinetreasures and only give its health a C minus.”
“New England is absolutely dependent on this ecosystem,” Kaufman says. “But we’ve already pretty much loved it to death.”
Who’s to blame?
The culprits include whale-watch boats thatignore speed and distance limits when approaching their quarry andlarge vessels that dump waste and collide with whales. But the biggestthreats, according to the plan, are commercial fishermen, a group thathas plied the Gulf of Maine for almost four centuries.
Commercialand recreational fishing “on virtually every square kilometer of thesanctuary,” the report states, has led to a steep decline among fishpopulations of BOFF, or big, old, fat females. That’s bad news, saysKaufman, because these larger fish reproduce more and lay healthiereggs, “and they help maintain a natural distribution of different ages,sizes, and genetic variability among fish, which is important for ahealthy ecosystem.”
Still, fishermen say they are not ultimately to blame for the loss of BOFF. They point the finger at the National Marine Fisheries Service(NMFS), a sister agency of the Office of National Marine Sanctuarieswithin NOAA that oversees fishing regulations. In some respects,Kaufman agrees. One problem, he says, is that the agency maintainsminimum size limits for most stocks, with the aim of protecting youngerfish that haven’t yet had a chance to mate. Older, bigger fish are fairgame.
“The idea is to removefish that are sexually mature, but just barely, to keep everythingturning over as quickly as possible and get what’s called maximumsustainable yield,” says Kaufman. “The problem is that it’sbiologically naive.”
Likewise, fishermen say, NMFS is partlyresponsible for other environmental sins pinned on commercial fishing,including the destruction of critical seafloor habitats bybottom-dragging trawl nets. The fishermen argue that “days at sea”restrictions, which limit how many hours they are allowed to work,drive them to more intense use of closer-in areas such as Stellwagen.
Thenthere’s the discarding of unwanted fish that die in fishermen’s nets,what’s known as bycatch. According to estimates in the Stellwagen plan,fisherman toss back nearly a quarter of everything they haul in,wasting about four million pounds of the sanctuary’s fish every year.The fishermen claim that bycatch is exacerbated by “landing limits”that make it illegal to keep more than a certain amount of any givenspecies. If you’ve caught the limit of yellowtail flounder, but haul upmore as you try for haddock, you have to throw the now-dead flounderoverboard.
“All these terrible things fishermen are accusedof doing to the environment — well, there’s nothing that we do that’snot sanctioned by National Marine Fisheries,” says Mirarchi.
Kaufman’s ecosystem focus
“Current fishery management assumes that every species isindependent of every other species,” says Kaufman. “Of course they’renot. They’re all linked together.”
Yet, defining andprotecting ecosystems is complicated, so Kaufman has focused hisStellwagen research on two big areas of scientific ignorance: thelittle “forage fish” that are the food-chain link between tinyorganisms, such as plankton, and “megafauna,” such as cod and whales,and the question of whether fish populations are sedentary enough forarea management to be effective.
For the past three years,Kaufman has been investigating an understudied forage fish called thesand lance. Working with local fishermen and with Clifford Goudey,director of MIT’s Center for Fisheries Engineering Research, Kaufmanuses underwater cameras to watch sand lances catch prey with theirtrombone-like jaws. They are using both observation and genetic data todetermine if two types of sand lance (Northern and American) live indifferent habitats or intermingle. And they have analyzed sand lancestomach contents to determine where the fish fits in the ocean’s web ofpredators and prey.
Thus far, says Kaufman, they’vedetermined that different sand lance species keep to different parts ofthe ocean and eat a wider variety of prey than was previously known.
“We’rerealizing that the forage fish community is much more complicated thanwe thought,” he says, “and it’s so crucial to fueling the larger fishpopulations and the whale-watch industry that it’s really bad to messwith it.”
Yet, the forage fish are being messed with.Centuries of industrialization along New England’s coastal rivers andstreams has devastated populations of another small fish, riverherring, which live in the ocean but head up rivers to spawn. Andfishermen harvest about seven million pounds of Atlantic herring fromsanctuary waters every year. The result, says Kaufman, is a “decreasedresilience in the system to feed the bigger fish and the whales,increasing the importance of sand lance as a fall-back prey option.”