Fish Sermon by Jonathan Labaree – May 8, 2011

Anyone who has been to sea in a fierce storm can, I suspect, identify with those disciples who, terrified, woke Jesus up from his happy slumber and pleaded with him to save them.  The sea can be a scary place and it’s no coincidence that many stories of tested wills take place out on the ocean.

Here’s a passage from one such tale about a guy who, like another famous mariner, ended up in the belly of a whale.

One morning the cock crowed, “Cockety-doodle,” and Leela rattled her stove lids klinty-klink, shouting, “Hit the deck, Burt, time to eat!”. And Burt came downstairs winking and blinking his sleepy eyelids and ate his breakfast.

He tossed the giggling gull a popover – “Tee-he-he-hee!” – and went down to the cove to pump out the Tidely-Idley, slush-cashloss, slish-cashloss.

He gently felt the tender spot between the pink plank (the color of Ginny Poor’s pantry) and the green plank (the color of the floor and doors in Doc Walton’s waiting room).

“Giggling gull,” he said sadly, “‘twon’t be long before the Tidely-Idley gets planted with geraniums and Indian peas.”

Then he started the make-and-break, clackety-BANG! clackety-BANG!  And, firm hand on the tiller, giggling gull flying along behind, he headed out of the cove, going clackety-bangety down the bay to fish for cod.

If Robert McCloskey were to write Burt Dow Deep-Water Man today, he’d be hard pressed to spin the same yarn.  The whole notion that someone could set out from a small coastal town in Downeast Maine in a tiny open boat to fish for cod is as out-dated as the old make-and-break engine in the Tidely Idley.

The sad fact is that codfish, once so abundant along our shores, is now hard to find within sight of land even if you just want one for the table, as Burt Dow no doubt was.  The furthest east that you’ll find a community that fishes for groundfish these days is Port Clyde and they land precious little cod.

How could that be?  How could such a once-abundant fish practically disappear?

Just as early American pioneers discovered to their surprise (and perhaps relief) that the wilderness was not limitless, so too have fishermen discovered that despite its vastness, the sea’s bounty can be depleted.

While codfish were of legendary abundance during colonial times, by the time Rudyard Kipling wrote Captains Courageous in 1896, the crew of the We’re Here headed to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland – a thousand-mile journey from Gloucester – to fill their 100’ schooner with cod.  Although they were still fishing with hook and line, 19th Century fishermen had developed a highly efficient technology, the tub trawl – a long string of hooks anchored at either end – that allowed one or two fishermen do the work of hundreds.  Such efficiencies and the sheer vastness of the fleet led to depleted stocks and longer journeys to find replacements.  More recent developments, such as the otter trawl, combined with insufficient knowledge has left the vast Grand Banks themselves utterly devoid of cod.

The good news is that although cod haven’t returned to Maine’s coastal waters in any great numbers, they have returned elsewhere.  Stocks on Georges Bank (off Cape Cod) and in southern parts of the Gulf of Maine are rebounding.

If it takes concerted, ingenious effort to deplete a fishery, it takes an equally concerted, ingenious one to bring it back.

Starting in the mid-1970s, most commercially harvested fish in the US have been managed under a strict set of ever-evolving guidelines.  Federal law stipulates that the best available science be used to understand what level of harvest each species can endure while maintaining populations large enough to sustain themselves.  Federal scientists conduct trawl surveys.  They dissect fish out on fishing vessels and on the docks once the fish have been landed.  They undertake tagging studies to understand where fish go.  They use stable isotope analysis to determine the origins of the prey.

It’s hard to count something that you can’t see and moves constantly.  Add to that the intricate interactions among species that either eat each other or compete for the same prey – or both – and you quickly realize how hard it is to figure out the size of a fish population.  To further underscore this complexity, listening to NOAA’s scientists present their findings and recommendations is like dip-netting in a bowl of alphabet soup – Fmsy, OY, Bmsy, OFL, TAC, ABC, ACT, ACL.

Once scientists have determined a sustainable harvest level, managers must then devise regulations that keep the collective commercial harvest at or under that level.  The process to develop those rules involves a dizzying array of committees, panels, teams, and councils.  In a laudable effort to make the process transparent, federal guidelines stipulate that the public has full access to all decisions and have the right to comment both in writing as rules get drafted and in person at meetings where new ideas are hatched, debated, and accepted or discarded.

Recently, the modern descendants of Burt Dow and Disko Troop have seen a dramatic shift in how managers ensure groundfish – cod, haddock, flounder – are harvested at sustainable levels.  The old system limited the effort you could put into fishing.  There were strict days-at-sea limits along with daily catch limits on certain vulnerable stocks.  The system was unwieldy, inefficient, and wasteful.  For the past year, the groundfish industry has been regulated not by their effort, but by the actual number of fish they can pull from the sea.  They are organized into fishing cooperatives, or sectors, that receive an annual allocation of fish.  Managers can now be more precise with harvesting limits and fishermen now have more flexibility in how they conduct their business.  The new system isn’t perfect, to be sure, and it has many detractors.  But many fishermen also see it as their best hope to sustain both the fish stocks and their communities.

Fishermen are still innovating.  But rather than focusing on catching the most fish, they now develop sophisticated ways to target certain abundant stocks while avoiding more vulnerable ones.  In the new system, you receive allocations for individual stocks.  So while you may have a lot of haddock to catch, you probably have a relatively limited amount of cod.  Cod and haddock swim together, so how do you get haddock while avoiding cod? (Under the new rules, if you catch too much cod, you have to stop fishing altogether).  Turns out that cod and haddock behave differently when they realize they’re headed to the wrong end of a trawl net.  Haddock tend to swim up while cod hunker down.  Fishermen have developed nets designed to allow the cod to escape, while the haddock end up on deck.  Pretty neat.

I often get asked which fish are okay to eat.  It’s a hard question to answer.  There are a lot of conflicting opinions.  A lot depends on your view of fishing.  But my view is that pretty much any fish harvested from the Gulf of Maine is either at sustainable levels or on a clear path to get there and is therefore okay to eat.  I like to tell the cod/haddock story because it is a great example of what we humans can achieve when we realize that the same inventiveness that has imperiled our natural resources can be redirected to save them.

Who knows, maybe Burt Dow’s great, great, great grand-daughter will one day head down the bay in her ultra-efficient twin-hulled catamaran with its diesel-electric hybrid whirring quietly and find a cod or two for dinner.


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