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Overfishing: A Fished-Out Sea

June 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY KAYE: Each morning on the docks of Eureka, California, the ocean’s bounty is on display, as fishing boats unload their catch — a catch which, since the gold rush days has provided dollars and jobs for this community on the state’s rugged North Coast. Fishing has also meant an often hardscrabble way of life for the men and women who crew the vessels. A monument in the harbor to local fishermen lost at sea is a testament to the dangers of commercial fishing.

But increasingly there are other perils– environmental and economic. Eureka fishermen are catching only a third as much fish as they did 20 years ago. On the waterfront, anxiety seems to be as much in the air as the smell of sea salt. Curt Meng captains a 75-foot trawler.

CURT MENG: Money is really tight. We’re not driving new cars and stuff. Bank accounts are really low, having a hard time paying taxes, but I don’t know another fishermen that can say anything different about the industry and the way his income is right now.

JEFFREY KAYE: Eureka’s troubles are not unique. From New England to Alaska, American fishermen have witnessed a fishing boom go bust as they face dwindling fish stocks, increased competition and tightening government regulations. The crisis in America’s multibillion-dollar fishing industry is often summed up as too many boats chasing too few fish.

ELLIOT NORSE: Fishery management in our country is a disaster. Fisheries depend on fish and we can’t keep killing more than the sea can provide.

JEFFREY KAYE: Elliott Norse is president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, an environmental group.

ELLIOT NORSE: The number of boats should reflect the number of fish. But the number of boats is higher as the number of fish are fewer than ever before. That doesn’t make sense. That makes sure that fishermen are always skirting the edge of economic disaster. That is not the way they want to live, and that is not the way marine life can live.

JEFFREY KAYE: A record 107 species of fish in U.S. coastal waters are now considered threatened because of over fishing. They include such seafood staples as red snapper, flounder and swordfish.

Paul Pellegrini’s family has been fishing Northern California waters for three generations. Fishing has brought his family both success and tragedy. The names of his brother and his wife’s brother are both chiseled into Eureka’s monument to fishermen lost at sea. The men were killed in a single freak shipboard accident. Pellegrini’s way of life is a continuing struggle.

PAUL PELLEGRINI: There’s always been competition. Fishermen are competitive by nature, you know.

JEFFREY KAYE: Right. And now?

PAUL PELLEGRINI: They still are, but it’s more intense because they’re fighting for that fish that you’re catching. So you know, they want to catch every last one, as much as you need to catch it to survive, too. So it’s a fight for the fish.

JEFFREY KAYE: That fight increasingly keeps Pellegrini out on the open ocean looking for fish…

RONNIE PELLEGRINI: When are you going to be back? That’s the important question.

JEFFREY KAYE: …Instead of at home with his wife Ronnie and their two daughters.

RONNIE PELLEGRINI: You just get used to him being home, “Hi, hon. How you doing?” You know, hugs and kisses and then he has to go again. So, you know, it gets kind of bad. The kids cry, I cry. It’s tough.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hard times also affect the businesses that rely on fishing. The Eureka Fisheries plant is one of the largest seafood processors on the West Coast. In the last 15 years, the plant has cut two-thirds of its workforce, according to company President Peter Hall.

PETER HALL: We would be operating five or six days a week filleting and processing fish. And now we’re operating two to three days a week, and we have half or a third of the personnel that we would have had. So there’s been a huge change.

JEFFREY KAYE: What’s gone wrong with America’s fishing industry can be traced back to government policies created more than a quarter of a century ago. Policies intended to turn the U.S. into a fishing superpower may have worked all too well. In 1976, the U.S. government shut out foreign competition off the coast by extending American territorial waters from 12 to 200 miles. The move essentially put up “do not enter” signs for foreign vessels and gave U.S. ships exclusive fishing rights.

BILL HOGARTH: We really did a good job in the government, I think, of getting that industry up to one of the leaders.

JEFFREY KAYE: Bill Hogarth, acting director of the Department of Commerce’s Fisheries Department, remembers when the fishing boom began.

BILL HOGARTH: We had programs that encouraged fishing, we had programs that encouraged increased technology, we had programs that encouraged export. It was a united government effort to make America one of the leading fishing nations. And like I said, we did it.

JEFFREY KAYE: To promote the fishing industry, the government spent millions of dollars on tax credits and low interest loans that encouraged boat construction and equipment purchases.

PAUL PELLEGRINI: The money was real easy to get. Guys just built bigger and better boats with more sophisticated equipment and the basically the government threw the money at them.

JEFFREY KAYE: In Eureka, as in other seaports, Uncle Sam’s generosity spawned a fishing gold rush. Eureka’s docks were teeming with investors and government officials, says the executive director of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association, Peter Leipzig.

PETER LIEPZIG: Not only were the doctors and lawyers coming in and investing and purchasing boats and they would look for crew to run these boats for them, but we had people from the National Marine Fishery Service making trips up this way trying to convince existing fishermen to take out loans to buy a new boat. That was their job: fisheries development. And they went out of their way to find these people.

JEFFREY KAYE: Eureka’s commercial fishing fleet doubled as fishermen like Gib Hunter took advantage of government assistance. Hunter, who started as a whaler in 1948, is the patriarch of Eureka’s wealthiest fishing family. Federal assistance helped him buy a boat and retrofit his eight-vessel fleet with the latest technology.

GIB HUNTER: I bought new electronics, new navigational equipment and better equipment on the boats. Sure, some of my boats were old.

JEFFREY KAYE: And what did the equipment do for you?

GIB HUNTER: Well, it made them much more efficient.

JEFFREY KAYE: You could catch more fish?

GIB HUNTER: Catch more fish, yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: Science and subsidies allowed fishermen to replace guesswork with technology.

CURT MENG: And then you see the bottom coming up, and you can adjust the net with the throttle.

JEFFREY KAYE: On today’s fishing vessels, computer skills are as essential as basic seamanship.

JEFFREY KAYE: So this would basically show the net and the fish, and the relationship between the net and the fish?

CURT MENG: Yeah. Oh yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: And so you can put the net where you need it to go?

CURT MENG: Right.

JEFFREY KAYE: While technological advances made the U.S. fishing industry efficient and productive, they also helped devastate American fisheries, according to critics.

ELLIOTT NORSE: As fishing boats have become bigger, faster, better at finding and catching fish, the fish have not gotten any smarter, have not gotten any better at reproducing their numbers. And so the war between people and fish has continued to tilt in favor of people.

JEFFREY KAYE: Many American fishermen blame climate changes and over fishing by foreign fleets for reducing the fish populations. But U.S. government officials now acknowledge that past policies that encouraged over fishing were shortsighted.

BILL HOGARTH: Everybody thought the ocean was big. You couldn’t over fish the ocean. It is a massive amount of water, you could go anywhere, and you can catch fish. I think as we learn more about the movement of fish, the habitat requirements, we find out that that’s definitely not true. And so we are learning more, and at the same time, we realize we made mistakes, if you want to call it, in management.

JEFFREY KAYE: To make up for those mistakes, the government has imposed tougher regulations in recent years.

BILL HUNTER: They are far too strict. The regulations are bogus. It seems we are in a running battle with the federal biologists. They just want to keep cutting us down. They want to win every small battle. They don’t want to give at all.

JEFFREY KAYE: With livelihoods threatened, the fishing industry must resolve a serious dilemma. It’s made huge investments in fleets of boats and sophisticated equipment, but now faces serious limitations on where to fish and how much to catch. So the industry has a solution, which, like solutions of the past, again involves the government.

PETER LEIPZIG: I think it completes the circle. We got into it, the federal government assisted people under good-meaning policies to get us here. Under some new good-meaning policies, I think we should be helping people get out of it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Leipzig, like other industry leaders, now wants the government to lure fishermen off the water. They propose a national, multimillion-dollar program to buy back fishermen’s boats. Leipzig says most of the 150 trawlers in his association could be mothballed, if the price were right.

PETER LEIPZIG: The people who remain in the fishing industry will be able to be economically viable harvesting units once again, and contribute to their communities and the management process.

JEFFREY KAYE: The government is exploring the feasibility of buyback programs. Where they’ve been tried in the past, however, there have been problems. Federal investigators found that some fishermen used their boat sale profits to buy other vessels. But a buyback program has little appeal for many fishermen like Paul Pellegrini.

PAUL PELLEGRINI: I put a lot of elbow grease into my boats, and I care about them as much as I do a person, you know. And I would hate to see someone go destroy this boat, just because I’m not allowed to go fishing with it anymore.

JEFFREY KAYE: As for environmentalists, they want expanded restrictions– namely the establishment of marine- protected areas — underwater national parks where fishing would be prohibited. Off the coasts of California and Florida, government-funded scientists are studying the feasibility of the proposals. As America charts a public policy course to protect its fish and its fishing industry, the sailing is likely to be anything but smooth.