A Conspiracy Afloat?

Bottom trawling destroys habitat. Large swaths of New England's protected waters are now at risk. Photo credit: Brian Skerry

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

There appears to be a conspiracy in our midst. Or so, some would think. Saving Seafood, “a 501(c)(6) association organized as a non-profit corporation funded by the fishing industry,” appears to have become rather discomposed by uncovering the fact that some people in New England believe that the practice of ripping up the ocean floor with heavy bottom trawling fishing gear might have deleterious effects on ocean fish and wildlife and the habitat that these species depend upon. Clearly, CLF is mistaken, Saving Seafood claims, as they go to a wide-ranging and energetic attack today on a two-week old blog post of mine titled “Destructive Trawling and the Myth of Farming the Sea.”

The point of my blog was to call into question a reference that New England Fishery Management Council member Laura Ramsden made during a Council meeting that protecting habitat areas (i.e. “closing” to trawling) might cause “damage” and the potential risks of not tilling the soil.” (Ms. Ramsden replied to my blog with a cordial note, and I responded. It’s still posted if you want to read it.) In the blog I also make the point that not dragging heavy bottom trawls and dredges across sensitive seafloor habitat (i.e. “habitat protection”) benefits the health and productivity of our region’s fisheries.

To be clear, the Conservation Law Foundation doesn’t have any particular beef with the practice of bottom trawling that hasn’t already been made – and documented – previously. We’ve read the studies that show protecting habitat from bottom trawling helps to produce a larger abundance of commercial fish stocks. We know that even sandy areas scoured by strong currents produce “biogenic structures” that are important habitat for fish, but still vulnerable to trawling. We have learned that protecting habitat from bottom trawling has beneficial aspects beyond just controlling the mortality of cod and other groundfish. One might also observe the documented evidence that fishermen often fish along the boundaries of protected areas for a reason.

There are actually quite a few impacts that my previous blog post didn’t even touch on. Heck, I didn’t even mention the issue of bycatch and the fact that scientists have documented significant rates of accidental catch of whales and dolphins in trawls for years. But, we won’t get into that.

Saving Seafood claims that some areas of the ocean are “highly dynamic” and that strong currents and high winds can move around sand and gravel on the seafloor. To this claim we say: “Agreed.” We also maintain that protecting ocean habitat from bottom trawling is a common sense measure for managing productive fisheries and a healthy ocean that is recognized in New England and across the globe by scientific research, anecdotal information from fishermen and photographic and video evidence. In the face of the crisis with groundfish like Atlantic cod, areas excluding heavy fishing gears should be expanded, not eliminated.

We can compare the impacts of some fishing gears to others; we can compare codfish to scallops; and we can compare apples to oranges. We agree the wind can be fierce and currents strong. In the end you can’t ignore the obvious fact and common understanding that dragging heavy pieces of fishing gear that sweep up or destroy both the sea life and the physical structures of the bottom of the sea is going to take a long-term toll on habitat, fisheries productivity and industry sustainability.


17 Responses to A Conspiracy Afloat?

  • Peter says:

    These arguments coming from SavingSeafood are consistent with their strategies on a number of fisheries. They have been a mouth piece for the menhaden reduction industry, the draggers, and the big scallop dredgers. They were founded and funded by some New Bedford processors that for years have fought against conservation, they are staffed by a lobbyist who is a former Bush administration staffer, and they pay folks like Nils Stolpe who have made their living attacking conservation groups. At some point it comes down to who you trust: conservation groups working in the public interest or industry lobby groups working for self-interested private businesses? From my point of view, CLF and other conservation groups have been right time and again while the advice of the processors and their lobbyists has led to less fish, less fishermen, and less communities in the fishery, but more and more control of the industry by the shoreside processors and fleet owners. Which seems to be what they desire.

    • Peter Shelley says:

      The failure of fishery managers to protect and sustain healthy fisheries is self-evident. Many of the supporters of Saving Seafood are the same industry representative that have opposed virtually every attempt to responsibly reduce fishing effort over the last 20 years. They are the reason so many of these low fish populations can no longer support the fishing communities. They have gambled the future of this fleet over and over and have lost virtually every time. A little less denial and a little more responsibility on their part would be refreshing for a change but I’m not holding my breath.

    • Peter says:

      In looking at his online resume, it seems the director of savingseafood worked for the republicans in congress rather than the Bush administration, which he denies. I stand corrected on this point, though I recall him telling me otherwise in person.

    • Joseph says:

      Saving Seafood’s real motive is to save industrial fishing, not seafood. Another example is their ironically named “Saving Menhaden” effort which has focused exclusively on preventing any steps to limit the reduction industry, even though menhaden produce more seafood, jobs, and income when left in the ocean.

    • Peter says:

      The Director of SavingSeafood wrote to tell me today that though Nils is a correspondent for them, they do not pay him.

  • Jdearr says:

    I think you’re on false premises anyway. I think the fish are abundant they’ve just moved. They might come back east they might not but not catching them is ridiculous. If they’ve moved then you’re trying to rebuild something that can’t be rebuilt. If every cod on gb or in gom is taken so be it. It has nothing to do with sustainability. They’re sustained in the North Atlantic. When they decide to come back here it’ll look empty back there. Then they’ll have to look for different species. I think you’re just flat out wrong about biomass.

    • Andy says:

      Exactly the same sentiment was expressed in 1874 about sea otters in California, in 1963 about blue whales in the Antarctic, and in 1992 about northern cod in Newfoundland. The fish (or otters or whales) are still abundant – they have just moved.

      To paraphrase, ‘Humans have an inordinate capacity for self-deception.’ Especially humans involved in an industry that has time and time again chosen short-term gain over long-term sustainability. Kind of like Upton Sinclair said…

  • Frank Mirarchi says:

    I regret that you have chosen a low road in what should be a principled discussion of alternative fishery management strategies.To begin, the photograph you have chosen to illustrate your blog depicts neither New England fishing gear nor a seabed typical of our fishing grounds.

    The quotation attributed to Upton Sinclair is insulting and patronizing. a fisherman’s pay, in fact his life’s fortune, depends not on winning a public relations debate, but rather on the long term sustainability of the fish stocks he harvests. Cuts such as are being imposed on cod and yellowtail flounder will bring financial ruin to many fishing families.

    There is far more substance to “Saving Seafood” than a few fat-cat fish processors and public relations flaks. As members of Northeast Seafood Coalition fishery sectors, over 300 vessel owners and crews contribute to its operation each time we unload a catch of groundfish. “Saving Seafood” is a valuable source of information but, more importantly, it is our voice.

    Finally, regarding the substance of this debate, NEFMC is not wantonly opening heretofore protected areas. In reality, it is reconfiguring a now partially obsolete series of closures which were designed in the 1990’s to reduce fishing mortality under an “input based” management strategy which was replaced in 2010. In addition to retaining those portions of existing closures which scientific evaluation has determined to require continued protection, the Council is proposing additional closures of similar habitats.

    It is becoming apparent that your positions are based more on ideology than pragmatism. Continuing references to “bulldozing a forest” and “ripping up the ocean floor” betray a willful ignorance of the complexity inherent in managing a fishery. Hyperbole might be an asset in fundraising but it adds not one iota to a reasoned debate over fishery management.

    • Peter Shelley says:

      What is really interesting is reading Captain Mirarchi’s comments after spending two days talking with scuba divers at a local trade show who have seen the damage from mobile gear on the ocean floor with their own eyes. Few of them would disagree with the blog’s characterization of the impacts of that gear. There is a place for heavy, mobile fishing gear, I suppose, but only so long as it doesn’t interfere with the recovery of the health of this terribly damaged ecosystem. More likely, people in the future will reflect back on these indiscriminate fishing technologies that already date back hundreds of years and ask: “what were they thinking?”

  • Peter says:

    Frank: NMFS is about to publish a rule, known as Framework 48, that would give them the ability to allow sectors access to groundfish closed areas BEFORE the Omnibus Habitat Amendment is done. Thus they are considering allowing access before the “reconfiguring” you laud is completed. Worse, they are considering doing this without an environmental impact statement so the public will not know the full impacts of their decisions. Clearly, allowing trawling in these closed areas that have not been trawled in more than 15 years will have a major impact on the environment. NMFS has a responsibility to do a full environmental impact statement before they allow commercial trawling in these areas.

  • Peter says:

    JDEARR: Your comment that “If every cod on gb or in gom is taken so be it” is not only a bad idea but it is completely inconsistent with the law.

    • Peter Shelley says:

      JDEARR: I guess I don’t care much if you use up your own property like that if you want but fishermen don’t own these cod; the public does and the public will not stand for it.

  • Peter says:

    Here’s SavingSeafood’s announcement of bringing Nils Stolpe onboard, which they now deny on their website:


    It reads: “Nils Stolpe’s “Another Perspective” Moves to Saving Seafood

    We are pleased to announce that Nils Stolpe’s well-regarded column Another Perspective is moving to Saving Seafood. Since 2005, Nils’ column has appeared in the pages of National Fisherman magazine.

    We welcome Nils to the Saving Seafood team.

    In addition to writing Another Perspective for Saving Seafood, Nils serves as communications director for the Garden State Seafood Association, he has been a consultant to the fishing industry for over two decades, and he operates the FishNet-USA website.”

    • Nils Stolpe says:

      Peter (Shelley, that is)
      Peter –

      I assume that the author of this post is Pew’s Peter Baker, but regardless of which Peter he is, for the record I have never been paid or rewarded by Saving Seafood for anything. Perhaps someone “like me” has been paid by them – assuming that there is anyone like me, though I kind of doubt it – but I don’t make my living “attacking conservation groups,” any more than he or you makes a living attacking fishermen, but by representing the perspectives of real (as opposed to foundation subsidized) commercial fishermen.

  • MB-Y says:

    The effect of bottom trawling on sea bottom has many faces: it depends on the sort of the bottom, the sort of the trawl-gear, and the near-bottom local hydrographic regime. It may be destructive in some areas and reviving the demersal biota in others. Historically, where there’s no overcapacity/over-capitalization in the operating trawling industry, the same grounds keep producing stable catches sustainably for many decades. It must be always remembered, however, that fluctuations in catches depend to a large degree, often more than on fishing, on the dynamics of oceanic conditions and consequent fish migrations, of predation and of prey availability. To look for rational approach, the effect of trawling should, therefore, be regarded separately for each fishery.

  • Thaddeus Bigelow says:

    “Clearly, allowing trawling in these closed areas that have not been trawled in more than 15 years will have a major impact on the environment.”

    If we are going to have a debate, let’s at least stick to the facts that are indisputable.

    Much of the area that may be opened (if NMFS approves the Council’s proposal) has been trawled by groundfish boats or fished by scallop dredges since the early 2000’s. Most of the parts of CAII that will be open has been trawled as part of groundfish special access programs (in 2004, and then since 2010), or as part of the scallop rotational management program. A good part of CAI that will be open has been fished by scallop dredges, and so has part of the NLCA.

    Of the areas that may be opened, it is only the WGOM area and the Cashes Ledge area that have not seen any mobile gear activity since they were closed, and Cashes Ledge was not closed year round until 2002 – so it hasn’t been 15 years.

  • Thaddeus Bigelow says:

    “The failure of fishery managers to protect and sustain healthy fisheries is self-evident.”

    Just as self-evident is the success of the very same managers in rebuilding GB haddock, pollock, redfish, GB winter flounder, white hake, sea scallops, monkfish, herring, several skate species, GOM winter flounder, dogfish, and, according to NRDC, making significant progress on several other stocks.

    But I suppose Peter will argue that all these were just accidents.

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