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Saving Maine
Page 2

Twenty-five years ago, James Wilson served on a scientific committee that advised the New England Fisheries Management Council, a 17-member body charged with managing the region's fisheries. Among other regulations, the council every year laid out the tonnage of each species -- or quota -- that fishermen were allowed to catch. Although a few scientists and federal regulators from the National Marine Fisheries Service sat on the council, it was dominated by fishing-industry representatives and state fisheries officials, who regularly set quotas higher than Wilson or the national fisheries service recommended; in any case, quotas were unenforced and frequently overrun -- sometimes by 100 to 200 percent. But this fox-guarding- the-henhouse scheme was only part of the problem.

"We had a theory that said the only thing that mattered was the number of fish," says Wilson, who is now a professor of marine sciences at the University of Maine in Orono. "In 1977 we walked in -- myself included -- with the idea that we could manipulate the stocks, that we could set their quotas or figure out the right number of boats necessary to harvest them and create 'maximum sustainable yield' fisheries. It was scientific hubris."

Then and now, fish were managed not as wildlife, but as if they were commodities, like soybeans or pork bellies. Wilson recalls how fisheries scientists on his committee and at the national fisheries service were overly confident in their population and harvest models -- though they lacked the technology to test their predictions against what was really happening in the Gulf of Maine. Their surveys "counted the fish, and nothing else," he says. "We didn't think it was necessary to learn their ecology and behavior."

Scientists didn't know, for example, how changing ocean currents and water temperatures affect the food supply of the silver hake. They never considered the possibility that plummeting populations of cod and haddock might lead to an explosion in the population of their competitors, a small shark called the spiny dogfish. They didn't study the effects of bottom trawlers, which dragged wide nets across the floor but also razed plants and sponges -- organisms the juvenile cod needs to hide from predators (see "High Seize," page 20). Scientists also failed to count the millions of pounds of "non-target" marine animals that fishermen killed, or measure how losing them might affect the ecosystem. Untold numbers of baby cod, undersized flounder, adult crabs, skates, sharks, and starfish were tossed overboard, leaving great waves of dead fish floating on the surface of the gulf (see "Lost Haul," opposite). The scientists' models simply didn't begin to account for all the ways fishermen damaged the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

In December 1994, the National Marine Fisheries Service, backed by a court order, mailed notices to some 5,500 New England fishermen to announce that it was closing 6,600 square miles of ocean to fishing. Included were parts of the famous Georges Bank, a particularly productive continental shelf where cold, nutrient-rich Labrador currents meet the warmer Gulf Stream. It had been fished out. Parts remain closed today and aren't expected to recover for decades. Trawlers moved onto Cashes Ledge and other minor fishing banks, and the situation repeated itself. Today the fisheries service has imposed rotating closures of fishing grounds across the gulf, and instituted strict limits on how many days a vessel can fish and how much it can haul.

Hundreds of fishing vessels, dozens of processing plants, and upwards of 20,000 jobs have been lost as a result. In York, Maine, most of the fishing piers have been converted into seaside restaurants, and retirees have erected multimillion-dollar homes along its waterfront, a fate shared by distressed fishing ports across New England. "If the fish came back we wouldn't be able to handle them because the factories and the people and the skills are gone," says Frank O'Hara, Sr., of Rockland, who has sent his fleet of three trawlers to the richer waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Young people are avoiding the fishing industry altogether.

Wilson no longer advises the New England fisheries council. In the late 1980s, as fish populations started crashing, he began expressing doubts about the dominant theory that fisheries could be adequately managed by numbers alone. Consequently, he was driven off the scientific committee. "Nature is a messy place," he says, much messier than the mathematical formulas that managers have tried to use to predict how many fish the seas will produce. Wilson has come to the same conclusion as many independent fisheries scientists. "We can't predict what an ecosystem is going to do in any sort of precise way, any more than economists can predict what will happen next year," he says. "We need to focus on creating the right conditions, and that means doing the least damage to the ecosystems that the fisheries depend on." It's not that fishing quotas will disappear; on the contrary, with so few fish out there, they are probably more important than ever. What needs to change, Wilson and others argue, is how those quotas are set.

Most of the nation's ocean policies are woefully out of date. The bulk of them were created more than 30 years ago during the Johnson administration, at a time when the word "ecosystem" was still technical jargon. When he formed the Stratton Commission to review the state of U.S. oceans, Johnson wasn't especially concerned about the overall health of marine habitats: He wanted to find ways to increase our capacity to tap the seas' seemingly endless resources. This year, the Pew Oceans Commission, an independent body of marine scientists, policy experts, fishing-industry representatives, and environmentalists, is releasing the first comprehensive report on U.S. oceans in more than 30 years. Among the report's recommendations is that the United States fundamentally alter the way it manages its seas and the life within them. "We need to reorient our thinking toward protecting and restoring healthy ecosystems," says Lubchenco, who served on the 18-member commission.

Figuring out how to do that before the age of computers, however, posed a formidable challenge. Until recently, even the most basic data on ocean ecosystems had to be collected manually by divers, submarine pilots, or dredge crews. Keeping track of constantly changing currents, wind patterns, and nutrient levels would be impossible without systems like the one in the Gulf of Maine, and gathering enough information to see the big picture would have proven a futile task.

Not anymore. Larry Mayer will always remember the day he showed a group of Nova Scotian scallop fishermen what his high-tech sonar-mapping technology could do. At his University of New Brunswick lab, he sat the fishermen down in front of a 12-foot glass screen. There, Mayer displayed a high-resolution, three-dimensional model of Browns Bank, a key scalloping ground at the entrance to the Gulf of Maine. Using a joystick, the fishermen flew through seascapes they'd fished their whole lives. They saw rocks and crannies as small as seven or ten feet across and toured hilly terrain more than 300 feet below the surface in search of potential scallop habitat.

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Illustration: Ron Carboni

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council