Dispatch #10, A Report for the J.M.Kaplan Fund on the Transborder Effort to Create Marine Protected Areas in the Gulf of Maine

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      We drove down to the coast, and poked around for a while in St. John, a big port with the faded redolence more prosperous days from whaling and other fisheries. Up the coast was a residential area of very modest houses were perched on a magnificent bluff. Such prime oceanfront would have had multimillion-dollar mansions, but the local economy was not capable of generating such extravagance, and the frugal local mindset probably would have frowned on it. We continued down the western shore of the bay to St. Andrew’s, the headquarters of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, where we met with Steve Chase, its vice-president in charge of lobbying the government.  This outfit, an umbrella group of  some 150 conservation organizations whose aim is to improve the lot of wild, sea-running salmon, has old money with deep pockets on its board  :  Englehard, Molson, Ford, Winthrop, Reed, many of whom have camps on   the Cascapedia and the Restigoose and other salmon rivers in the Gaspé, where a whole ritual of catching the fish with special fly rods, reels and flies cast from canvas coracles that descend from pool to pool has evolved. “There are only a hundred thousand large salmon left in the Atlantic,” Chase told me. “Commercial fishing in the U.S. ended in l948, after the runs up the Penobscot were too poor to be economically viable. In the early nineties the Canadian government spent 72 million (Canadian) to buy up its fishery, which caused a major shift of lifestyle. Thousands shifted to other fisheries, anything from cod to snow crab. But codfishing has gone the way of the dinosaur. We just signed a deal with Greenland that they suspend commercial salmon fishing—a major coup. We bought out the fishery for a quarter of a million, which is very reasonable when you look at the number of salmon saved : 25,000 to 40,000 fish, two thirds of which are North-America bound, and five percent of these to U.S. waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with us on this initiative. Every fish at this point is important. 

       Sixty-one factors have been implicated in the decline of the Atlantic salmon. Chase was reluctant to rank them in terms of their relative importance. Some comes into play in the ocean, some in the rivers. Among them  are :  predation by seals and cormorants; the last remaining commercial harvest on this side of the Atlantic, in the French provinces of St. Pierre et Miquelon; the quasi-commercial harvest by the residents of Labrador, who are so dispersed the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is unable to regulate them; global warming, which is changing air and water temperatures, the movement of shrimp, krill, and caplin (a 3-5” fish that used to beach itself by the millions on the Newfoundland coast but doesn’t any more),    and the pattern of the salmons’ return to their spawning rivers (there used to be strong runs in June and July, but now hardly any fish come, but the fall run  has been extended and now lasts into mid-October). Also the salmon aquaculture industry : 50,000-100,000 fish escape from their cages and enter the spawning rivers every year and compete with the wild salmon for food and habitat, infect them with sea lice and other diseases, and interbreed with them, reducing their  ability to survive. The most intense area of salmon aquaculture is in the Passamaquoddy area on the New Brunswick-Maine border—just where we were. In Europe there are still commercial fisheries in Denmark’s Faeroe Islands, Ireland, Scotland, and the U.K., which impacts the French and Spanish river runs. A few summers ago the fam. and I  danced on the famous Pont d’Avignon and right under it several very big salmon were finning in place beneath it. In l968 I spent a few days in Inistioge, County Kilkenny, a little village where the big moment of the day was when the dozen or  so salmon that had come up the river  were taken out of the wiers and brought to the main square in a donkey cart and the villagers bartered and haggled for the fish and then everybody repaired to the pub. The village depended on this daily run. I wonder if it is still happening.

        While the wild Atlantic salmon is down to the wire, there are still millions of the five species of West Coast salmon, despite damming of their spawning rivers, logging, urbanization, and fishing wiping out more than half the genetically distinct units, the populations of salmons that home to specific rivers or creeks. There are only four individuals of Snake River salmon left, for instance, but the species as a whole is not endangered. In l966 a college buddy and I spent the summer on the Kenai peninsula in Alaska and lived off the king, silver, and sockeye salmon that choked its rivers and in places were so thick we could have almost walked across the river on their backs. The U.S. and Canada are together putting $400 million into restoring the Western salmon spawning grounds, but efforts to get a fraction of that for the Atlantic salmon have not been successful. Chase said that recreational salmon fishing in Canada is a two hundred million dollar industry that employs two thousand people, including guides and camp staffs in Quebec and the maritime provinces. “If we can return the fish to abundance, this income will multiply. Recreational fishing should be taken more seriously. It contributes more to the economy than groundfishing in Atlantic Canada, because the cod are effectively gone, and the haddock, redfish, and halibut are depleted. Natives are still catching salmon on handlines in Atlantic Canada. They have the aboriginal right to do so, and the good this is that they mainly taken grilse, a genetic variant that doesn’t grow more than 23 inches and contributes only 2% of the eggs. Last year the Cascapadia Society voted to have catch and release only on the river, but the Quebec government overturned it, bowing to pressure from those who want to keep their fish. Fishermen are on their honor to return salmon they catch in their gillnets, when they fish for spring-running shad; but often the salmon are bleeding and too damaged to recover.” For more information on the Atlantic salmon and the ASF, see its Web Site, www.asf.ca (this website will open in a new window).

     Continuing to St. George,  we saw our fourth bald eagle, circling right over the town, and drove the car on to  the ferry to Deer Isle, which slid past huge whirlpools eddying and churning and seething in the fog. On Deer Isle we visited with the Mitchells, a family of herring fishermen, who have been living there since the early 1800s. The first member of the family we met was twelve-year-old Judson, who sometimes helps his father on his “sardine boat.” A sardine is a juvenile herring (in some places; in others it is any phase of members of the genera Sardini and Sardinops). The original sardines, of course, are the ones off Sardinia. There are about three hundred species of herring. The common Atlantic herring is Clupea harengus. The ones that are caught in the North Sea are known as pilchards. The ones that are caught off Peru and in the Black Sea are called anchovies. A 12-14-inch picked herring is a kipper.   A sprat resembles a herring but is much smaller, and  it also swims in huge shoals. The herring that the Mitchells catch are 6-8 inches— sardines in the local parlance. They fish at night, when the herring come toward shore in the millions, and seine them in weirs and then suck up the fish with a pump that holds sixty hogsheads. There are twenty-two cases in a hoghead, and 100 cans in a case, and ten herring in a can, so there are twenty-two thousand fish,  1240  pounds of herring, in a hoghead, which sells for eighty to a hundred and fifty dollars depending on fish size—the smaller the better. A typical night’s catch is about twenty hogsheads, split three ways, about five hundred dollars a day (Canadian; to convert to U.S., multiply by two-thirds). Judson said he may be a fisherman when he grows up; he wasn’t sure yet. A lot of the younger generation—the ones who are going into fishing at all--- most are into gameboys and chilling at the mall--  are going into salmon aquaculture which offers a steady paycheck. Judson said his Dad caught a thirty foot basking shark and gets lots of bluefin tuna which can fetch up to 65 thousand dollars for a prime fish, but he has to throw them back, because you have to have a tuna license, which costs two hundred thousand dollars, to keep them. The herring season runs from June to September. From October to December, the Mitchells catch lobsters. The absence of cod, their main predator, has caused an explosion, an unprecedented superabundance of lobster, in the Gulf of Maine.  The last six years have seen the best harvests many seasoned lobstermen have ever experienced; another silver lining, I suppose.  But now  fishermen are reporting that the cod are coming back, starting to recover from the hammering of the inshore systems especially around Gloucester. 

      From January to March the Mitchells drag for scallops with metal bars that scoop up the scallops and everything else on the bottom, causing devastating habitat damage, according to  marine conservationists. I spent several hours drinking coffee and munching beavertail, or fried dough, and talking fishing with Justin’s dad Dale, a proud, jocular example of the dying breed of small independent fisherman. He and his wife Lois met  eighteen years ago, when she doing research for a dissertation called  “Making It Pay : The Organization and Operation of the Deer Isle Fishing Economy” for a doctorate in sociology at the University of New Brunswick. “I didn’t know what a Phd. was until I met her,” Dale said. “By then she had already been on the island for three years. In those days herring were the big thing. Purse seine fishing for herring started in the Bay of Fundy in l940. The premise was that there were so many herring they could never be outfished, like the anchovies in the Peruvian trench [whose exploitation began after World War II after the California sardine industry collapsed due to overfishing].  Up till l900 it had been strictly groundfishing. Now there isn’t single groundfisherman here, and a lot of the herring weirs are being converted to salmon cages because of greed and shortsightedness. Now there’s this mysterious explosion of lobster. I caught more lobster the first day of  last season than I did  the entire one before. I think it has more to do with good fishing practices--- protecting spawning lobsters and having to throw back the gravid females with v-notches in their tails, and the 2700 licensed lobstermen in the bay agreeing on size limits to their catch—than the absence of cod predators.”

        Elliott Norse, commends the lobsterman for exercising the most self-restraint. “They are the best fishermen, but the lobster explosion is not entirely to due to their good management. It’s an intensive fishery. They catch 93% of the lobster in their first year of eligibility, once they are big enough. In addition to good lobster management in Maine and some other places, I suspect that the explosion is due to a combination of increased growth rates and diminished predation after recruitment.  The production of recruits—baby lobsters after they’ve settled to the bottom from the plankton-- has benefited enormously from putting prime lobster food in baited traps which small lobsters can walk in and out of with impunity. We’ve created lobster feed lots up and down the Maritimes and New England, boosting reproduction and providing an abundance of food to growing little lobsters that was not as available to them in natural conditions. Added to feeding is elimination of one of the lobster’s key predators—the Atlantic cod-- and both of these are helping lobster managers withstand the heavy fishing pressure on the eligible adults. More than in most fisheries, we’re modifying two key factors that benefit lobsters : how much food they get and how fast they can grow when they are vulnerable youngsters, and how many predators there are.” 

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