The World’s Fisheries: A State of Emergency – Part 2

The crisis comes home:
Declining catches in New England and the Gulf Coast

Fishing Communities Learn to Cope With Diminished Expectations
in New England and Texas Gulf Coast


While about 75 percent of the one billion pounds of shrimp that Americans consume each year is farm-raised and imported, the predominant domestic production area for wild shrimp remains the Gulf of Mexico. Commercial landings in 1992 were worth $480 million, making Gulf shrimp second in value among all fish species caught in U.S. waters. According to the Texas Shrimp Association, that state’s industry alone employs some 30,000 people. But in recent years, the Gulf Coast shrimpers have faced problems on several fronts – competition from low-wage shrimp farms in South America, habitat loss and further degradation caused by agricultural and factory discharges, and regulations to curtail the tremendous waste of other species caught in their trawls.

One fourth-generation shrimper from Seadrift, Texas – 47-year-old Diane Wilson – decided in 1989 to do something about the wastewater discharges polluting the Lavaca Bay’s rich shrimp and oyster breeding ground. The seafood landed by 1,400 fishermen in Wilson’s county is valued at $55 million a year. Founding the Calhoun County Resource Watch, Wilson first took on the Formosa Plastic Corporation, a manufacturer of polyvinyl chloride and other chemicals. Her organization sued both the EPA and the company, charging that the Taiwan-owned firm was dumping 10 million gallons of wastewater daily in violation of the Clean Water Act.

“I also went on three long hunger strikes,” says Wilson, “and even tried to sink my 42-foot shrimp boat right on top of their discharge point. Unfortunately, right at midnight, the Coast Guard apprehended me and accused me of terrorism on the high seas.” By July 1994, however, Wilson’s crusade had garnered enough attention to force Formosa into an agreement with the EPA and her organization – establishing a plan to recycle the company’s entire waste stream, with a goal of zero discharge into the bay.

Wilson’s next target was Alcoa Aluminum, whose discharges of mercury had been halted in 1970 but high levels were continuing to show up years later in the tissues of oysters, crabs and finfish, forcing the Texas Department of Health to close large areas to fishing. The Alcoa plant, whose refining of bauxite into aluminum continues to result in other chemicals entering Lavaca Bay, signed an agreement with Wilson in March 1996 to install equipment designed to achieve zero discharge.

Most recently, in June, Wilson embarked upon another hunger strike looking to force DuPont to conduct an independent feasibility study of zero discharge at its Victoria, Texas plant. DuPont currently disposes of 20 million gallons of wastewater a day through seven underground injection wells, and is seeking permits from state authorities to dump up to 80 tons of toxic pollutants annually into the Guadalupe River just before it enters East San Antonio Bay. The EPA has already ranked that bay among Texas’ “watersheds of greatest concern,” citing contamination by heavy metals and possibly chlorinated solvents from petrochemical plants. “The bay is dying,” Wilson says, “and I am prepared to fast as long as it takes to stop DuPont from adding more poisons to it.”

The Dead Zone

Pollution problems are equally bad as you move out from the bays into the western Gulf, whose broad, muddy-bottom shelf offers migration and spawning habitat for shrimp. In recent years, up to 7,000 square miles of this region have experienced oxygen-deficient waters – a “dead zone” believed to result largely from agricultural discharges into the Mississippi River that feeds the Gulf. Shrimp leaving the estuaries can’t pass through the “dead zone,” and so often journey instead through a near-shore corridor – which puts shrimp, sea turtles and the fishery together in a small area at the same time.

This, in turn, has resulted in shrimpers being mandated under the Endangered Species Act to install Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) on their trawling vessels. Although the industry initially fought against the requirement, shrimpers ended up devising the TEDs themselves and, with compliance estimated at more than 95 percent, the “bycatch” of snared turtles has fallen dramatically in the past couple of years.

Still, discards of finfish remain a huge problem in the Gulf shrimping industry. Even with TEDs helping to reduce overall bycatch, the latest National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) study estimates that 4.3 pounds of finfish are still being hauled in – and thrown back dead – for every pound of shrimp landed. Thirteen species are affected, most notably the red snapper, the most popular commercial and recreational variety. Studies indicate that 90 percent of the mortality of juvenile red snappers is caused by shrimping, with some 35 million still being killed annually. Little wonder that the fish’s population is in a severe decline; commercial landings fell from 10 million pounds a year in the early 1980s to 2.7 million by 1990, and sports fishermen similarly were bringing in only one-fifth the previous numbers. If managed appropriately, the long-term potential red snapper yield has been estimated at close to 30 million pounds per year.

But, as in other regions, the managing Gulf of Mexico Council is dominated by members with direct financial interest in both the commercial shrimp and red snapper fleets. Rather than fight for stronger bycatch regulations or limits on the longline snapper fishery, a 1995 report by the World Wildlife Fund notes that the council has “consistently voted to maximize short-term exploitation of the fishery.” Yet a NMFS study reveals that additional requirements for Bycatch Reduction Devices on the shrimpers, which are not used extensively, could reduce the average trawler’s fish bycatch by between 53 percent and 70 percent.

“This is simply the most wasteful fishery we have,” says Ken Hinman, executive director of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. “But it will be a recurring battle to get those additional devices into their nets. The chief problem is that shrimping is a very overcapitalized industry. There are just too many boats. At the same time, the imports are what’s really killing them.”

The Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA), a sportsmen’s group founded in 1976 which eventually succeeded in conferring non-sale gamefish status on Texas’ redfish and forced a statewide ban on near-shore netting, has come under fire from many commercial fishermen. But GCCA has built the world’s largest redfish hatchery, replenishing millions of fingerlings in Texas bays. And, when it comes to opposing any increase in shrimp aquaculture farms, they have an ally in shrimper Diane Wilson.

“There is absolutely no control on these farms down here,” Wilson says. “All the shrimp they raise are coming from foreign sources, and when they escape into the natural bay ecosystem, they can introduce new bacteria and viruses. One scientist said at a big meeting in Brownsville a couple of months ago that, without doubt, there are three viruses present in every existing farm in Texas. At least one of these has attacked native white shrimp as juveniles, and they’re concerned about another because it’s jumped to crabs.” (The first portents occurred in the spring of 1995, when a mysterious virus first detected in Ecuador wiped out most of a 630-acre Texas aquaculture farm containing 45 million shrimp.)

To its credit, the Gulf Council last January called for a review by pertinent agencies of all such newly-proposed facilities before any siting or construction. The shrimp farms also use excessive water and take few steps to reduce nutrient loads or suspended solids, resulting in destruction of natural marine habitat including sea grasses.


It is a rainy day in early June on the docks of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where fishing has long been the economic mainstay for 25,000 residents. On the deck of his 85-foot wooden boat, Sam Novello is cutting away at a sprawling net, reoutfitting for a trip some 50 miles offshore in pursuit of whiting. The last active member of a third-generation Italian fishing family, the 52-year-old Novello proudly calls the trawler his father purchased in 1933 “probably the oldest rig on the East Coast.” But he realizes that its days may be numbered. “Each year my pay gets less and less,” he says. “We used to be a five-man crew, now sometimes we’re down to two.”

For years, Novello had made a decent living off the abundant groundfish – cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder – that he hauled up off the Atlantic ocean floor. He used nets with a large-enough mesh size to allow juvenile fish to pass through, and worked the best spots sparingly with his tows. “I didn’t know I was a conservationist until somebody told me,” he says, “but I believed in only taking the interest out of the bank.” But Novello watched many of his competitors make three times as much money depleting vast areas and keeping thousands of pre-spawning-size fish. And he has never forgotten the disdainful words of a local dealer: “What are you, stupid? One boat is gonna save every fish in the sea?” So, he adds sadly, “Finally I said, ‘OK, I’ll fish like everybody else does.'”

A Free-For-All

Until recently, there existed few management measures to sway Novello and his counterparts otherwise. All through the 1960s up to the mid-1970s, distant-water fleets from the Soviet Union, Japan and other nations feasted upon the world’s richest fishing grounds at Georges Banks, some 75 miles east of Cape Cod along the U.S.-Canadian maritime boundary. “Lessons should have been learned there,” says retired Massachusetts fisherman Lester Putnam. “But all we learned was, ‘Hell, if they can suck the sea dry of fish, why don’t we?'”

After Congress’ 1976 passage of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act imposed a 200-mile territorial limit and drove away the foreigners, U.S. government policies and loans encouraged development of bigger New England-based vessels with more sophisticated technology. By the end of the 1970s, their numbers had soared from 825 to 1,423. Regulatory authorities abandoned quotas and refused to limit the fleet’s size, ignoring a gathering chorus of warnings from the scientific community. A Georges Bank haddock fishery that yielded as much as 50,000 metric tons annually during the 1960s saw catches plummet to 880 metric tons by 1993. During the same period, numbers of available cod and yellowtail flounder also fell by more than 80 percent, and in the Gulf of Maine the haddock were declared commercially extinct last year. The pools of sexually mature fish in all three prime species stood at about one-fifth of what was needed to sustain their future populations.

Finally, prompted by a lawsuit mounted by the Conservation Law Foundation and Massachusetts Audubon Society, the foot-dragging New England Council – established by Congress to manage the groundfishery but dominated by commercial interests with a stake in it – was forced to take steps. First came a 1994 attempt to cut fishing efforts in half for the next five to 10 years. That wasn’t deemed enough by the NMFS, which soon enacted three emergency fishing area closures. As Gloucester fisherman Russell Sherman puts it, “They’ve gone past the bandaid stage. We’re on to tourniquets and compresses now.”

Some groundfishermen are certain to be forced out of business altogether. “The question is who will be eliminated,” says Niaz Dorry, Greenpeace’s Gloucester-based fisheries campaigner. “The latest Council plan is actually promoting a race for fish, favoring whoever can catch the most the quickest.” In other words, Amendment 7 favors the large operators over the smaller family-based operations. Russell Sherman, a Harvard graduate who came to Gloucester for a summer job in 1971 and fell in love with fishing, says, “When they put in a Total Allowable Catch for so many days-at-sea, we’re limited by our size and the weather. But the big guys will be out there in the wintertime hitting the fish as hard as they can while the price is sky-high. Sammy [Novello] and I will be sitting here at the dock.”

Dragging the Sea

Another flaw in the Council’s plan is its failure to examine the impact of heavy trawls and dredges that are dragged across the sea floor by the large vessels. This practice removes attached organisms, such as sponges and tubeworms, which provide vital food for juvenile fish. Scientists estimate that, until the recent emergency closures, the entire American side of Georges Bank had been dragged between two and four times a year since 1976; once a year in the Gulf of Maine. The effect, as Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association president Mark Leach describes it, “is like strip mining old-growth forest. If we want to guarantee the building of stocks, dragging should be banned and financial assistance should be given to draggermen to switch to a more appropriate gear type.”

At the same time, swarms of dogfish and skate have moved in to replace and feed upon young cod, haddock and yellowtail. Finally, there is the potential long-term effect of global warming. Cod need extremely cold water to successfully reproduce, and won’t lay eggs if the water temperature changes even a few degrees. Haddock require a springtime layering effect of warm water settling on top of cooler water to spawn successfully. Rising ocean temperatures could alter this pattern, preventing nutrients and plankton that the larval haddock eat from reaching the surface. A team of 70 U.S. and Canadian scientists are currently studying how climate affects marine animal abundance but, if you listen to the fishermen, the trend is already becoming clear.

Asked what’s responsible for the groundfish decline, Sam Novello gazes out from the wheelhouse of his “Vincie-N” trawler, and offers a list that goes beyond just greedy fishermen, poor management and predators. “The waters are getting warmer. We’re catching yellowtails in deep water in the middle of the winter, where they used to be a shore-water fish. Years ago, we never got any monkfish around here and they’re moving this way. Something’s really wrong out there.”

Given all these dilemmas, fishermen like Novello often feel helpless – and Greenpeace, in particular, is looking to give them a voice. Campaigner Niaz Dorry has been traveling the New England coast, promoting a new community-based approach that would ultimately provide local fisherfolk a capability to determine who works out of their port. Anyone caught violating an agreed-upon series of ecological principles could have their permit revoked.

Such a model would suit Sam Novello who, driving to a nearby seafood restaurant for lunch, speaks almost wistfully of the way his nets “talk” to him, and “the way the twine is, how it touches the dirt. You always want to see a little bit of mud on your fish, so you know it’s down. Everything tells you something.” The tragedy for Novello is that, without far more attention paid to everything that the ocean is telling us, his way of life may be destined to disappear.

In the summer of 1995, after the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown signed a “Declaration of Fishery Disasters” for New England groundfish, Pacific Northwest salmon, and the Gulf of Mexico, President Clinton made available $53 million in emergency funds for the three regions. But simply throwing dollars at the problem will be no panacea. Without a rapid shift in attitude among commercial fishermen, managers, and politicians, these economies – and the fish that support them – will be, like Poe’s raven, nevermore.

Conservation Law Foundation, 62 Summer Street, Boston, MA 02110-1008/(617)266-2505
Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, 3 Beauport Avenue, Gloucester, MA 01930 / (508)281-0650
Gulf Coast Conservation Association, 4801 Woodway, Suite 220W, Houston, TX 77058 / (713)626-4222.

DICK RUSSELL is a freelance writer living in Boston.©1996 Earth Action Network, Inc.
©2004 Gale Group