“Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.”

Macbeth, Act III, Scene II


I am wondering how much commercial fishermen know about acting? At a guess I’d say probably as much, or as little, as most actors know about commercial fishing, even award-winning ones. This thought arose following the recent appearance in these pages of an opinion piece on fishery management by a member of the acting profession in an attempt to wield political influence.

The thespian in question is also an Oceana board member, a well-funded environmental group antithetical to America’s oldest industry. This group has been known to advance claims which fail to resonate with real scientists. One particularly misleading report ‘Wasted Catch,’ launched by Oceana on a credulous public in 2014, drew a letter of censure from all eight of our nation’s regional Fishery Management Councils. Among other things the letter stated:

“While we acknowledge that there are no laws requiring Oceana reports to accurately represent the best available scientific information or to undergo peer review, to do so would be in the best interest of all involved parties. This is why we suggest that you retract the report until it is reviewed and corrected.” http://www.mafmc.org/newsfeed/wasted-catch

The Magnuson Stevens Act which governs fisheries in federal waters requires reauthorization and it is currently under review. Changes proposed in a bill now before Congress were denounced by this Oceana advocate as “counter factual, anti-science, anti-conservation.”

The frothy plea to our congressman is for maintenance of the status quo in fishery management. And the argument carries weight because it comes from a well-known actor? Well sir, Nature isn’t listening. And the modest proposals in H.R 200, intended to remove some of the onerous provisions burdening our fishermen, have generated a predictable response from environmentalists who dismiss realities which do not fit their agenda. Change is needed.

The act as written, for example, calls for rebuilding all stocks to maximum sustainable yield simultaneously and imposes timeline to achieve that. I called my friend Dave Goethel for his take on that. “That ignores Nature. It’s a biological impossibility,” he said. “Something will always be overfished. The reason haddock are up and cod are down now is because they occupy the same ecological niche.”

Dave is a working commercial fisherman with a degree in marine biology who served two terms on the New England Fishery Management Council. He doesn’t act but he has been fishing for 50 years. Fishermen, he said, are simply hoping to introduce a little flexibility on these rigid rebuilding timelines which were imposed more or less arbitrarily when the act was written.

Another change sought by fishermen concerns the use of the emotive, and misleading, term “overfishing.” Unfortunately ‘overfishing’ is generally believed by the public to be a consequence of greedy fishermen taking too many fish out of the water. Overfishing is defined as the removal of more fish from a stock than the population can replace through natural reproduction. Depletion of a particular species in a given area can result from factors other than fishing such as natural mortality or increased predation. Environmental factors such as changes in temperature or salinity also cause population shifts. Dave used Northern shrimp as an example. “There has been no shrimp fishery for five years and no bycatch,” he said. “Five years is the life span of a shrimp. Yet they are still considered by regulators as overfished with overfishing occurring. How exactly can that be? The answer is in the definition. ‘Overfished’ and ‘overfishing’ are currently absolute terms.”

Fishermen would like to see more realism introduced to stock rebuilding goals and timelines and it seems to me that these proposals are reasonable and their input should be valued. Oceana appears to view change as a threat to their mission which, from my perspective, seems to focus in large part on keeping people from fishing. They do not listen to fishermen. There is some irony in an environmental activist advocating for the status quo in New England in the face of major ecological changes and with fishermen such as Dave Goethel suffering economic hardship, constrained by catch limits derived from unrealistic biological expectations.

I read, this week, news of the death of Louie Kamookak, an Inuit whose precise directions, shared with Canadian archaeologists, led to the discovery in the Arctic of the ships of the ill-fated Franklin expedition. This was a mystery that confounded searchers for generations. As a boy, Kamakook absorbed the rich oral history of his Inuit elders, including the tale of white men dragging boats over the ice. His knowledge was ignored for years by European scientists and explorers while dozens of expeditions ended in failure. Paul Watson, the author of a book about Franklin, was quoted saying: “Louie showed that traditional knowledge really does mean something.” The traditional knowledge of our fishermen here in New England also means something, although it too has been largely ignored by people who seem to believe they know better and that is another change that is long overdue.