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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bypassing Bycatch

Air Date: Week of

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As fisheries across the nation face closures and cuts that could bring economic disaster, regulators are trying to balance the needs of fishermen and the needs of fish. Others say regulation isn’t the only answer. Some scientists and fishermen in New England are looking instead at fishing gear as a way to solve the problem. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Congress is in the middle of rewriting the law that governs America’s fisheries. And those fisheries continue to be in turmoil. From the Pacific Coast to New England and the Gulf of Mexico, citizens, scientists and regulators are struggling with declining fish populations and a declining fishing industry. In some cases, it’s a problem of over-fishing; in others, a concern for endangered species.

Over the past decade, many fishing grounds have closed. Many fishing boats tied up, perhaps for good. The traditional response to these problems involve fishing limits. When, where and what quantity of fish may be caught. Now, the industry is looking at how fish are taken to see if gear can be modified to keep stocks healthy, and boats in business. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports from off the coast of Massachusetts.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Twelve miles east of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the small green fishing boat, Dolores Louise, is the only vessel as far as the eye can see. On her deck, Joe Scola and Vin Manfridi stand ankle-deep in flounder.


SCOLA: What do you need? What do you need?

MANFRIDI: No, I think it’s okay.

SCOLA: Are you sure? I don’t want to lose anything, have to go dredging for it.

Joe and Vin are trying to attach a camera to one of Joe’s new nets. Even with a couple of fingers half missing, Joe deftly threads the twine. He pulls it tight, knots it off. But he’s impatient. The boat’s burning fuel, and his nets on deck, catching nothing.

SCOLA: Hey, come on, work like an animal, will ya?

MANFRIDI: All I gotta do, Joe, is clip that off, I just need some,

SCOLA: What do you need? Speak to me. Is this your first time?

MANFRIDI: Yes, it is.

SCOLA: Okay, you’re doing a good job, let’s throw it overboard.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Joe and Vin are having one of the most amicable tiffs I’ve ever witnessed between a fisherman and scientist in the New England Fishery. Joe fishes out of Gloucester. Vin works for the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: And the reason the Dolores Louise is the only boat out here is that these fishing grounds are closed to help stocks recover from a near collapse in the early 1990s. Joe and Vin have an experimental permit to test fishing nets they hope will reduce the need for closures by solving one of the Fishery’s major problems, bycatch.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Bycatch is trash fish, like skate and dogfish that get caught in nets, but won’t get bought at market. Bycatch is also fish like cod, fish so popular, they’re strictly managed to protect them from over-fishing. Here on Stellwagen Bank, if Joe and Vin net more than 400 pounds of cod while fishing for flounder, they have to toss the excess or bycatch back into the sea. By then, most of the cod are dead.

SCOLA: Okay, we’re gonna press record and then go out and take care of the rest.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Joe’s experimental net and the camera are heading toward the ocean bottom. Vin is a little nervous.

MANFRIDI: This is the first time I’ve actually deployed the whole system on my own. I’ve helped out with it a lot. But I’ve never been the chief operating scientist, I guess you could say.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Joe and Vin wade through the fish, and scurry into the pilot house. They fix their eyes on a small black and white monitor that’s attached by a long cable to the camera on the net they’ve just dropped. That gives them a view of the ocean bottom.

MANFRIDI: There’s a flounder. There he goes into the sweep. See that flounder trying to get away.

SCOLA: He ain’t going to make it. I’m going forward--

MANFRIDI: Joe, this net is amazingly low. I’m surprised this net actually caught cod at all.

SCOLA: It does sometimes when they’re down on the bottom feeding. That’s the only time you get them.

MANFRIDI: This is what it’s all about. I’m happy that we got this footage. Let it roll, baby.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Vin hopes the tape will prove that Joe’s experimental net can help reduce unintentional cod catch. The design is simple. The mouth of a typical net measures about ten feet from top to bottom, where it drags along the seabed.

Joe has sewn his net much smaller so the top sits only three feet off the bottom. The idea is to scoop up the bottom fish, like flounder, which spend their time on the ocean floor, and avoid the cod, which generally swim up higher. To Vin, the goal is ambitious.

MANFRIDI: I do believe that if we deconstruct the wheel a little bit and make gear a little less efficient or more efficient at catching target species, we can let these guys fish almost as much as they want.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The notion of trying to avoid cod in the waters off New England seems almost farcical. Once, these were the richest cod grounds in the world. There was so much cod, they named a cape after the long white fish, and hung a wooden replica of it in the State House in Boston.

But the 20th century brought engines and big boats, then faster engines and bigger boats. By the 1950s, floating fish factories from Spain, Portugal and Russia were sweeping the ocean floor of everything in their path.

The U.S. government kicked out the foreign fleets in ’77. Then it subsidized its own fleets to get bigger and faster and more efficient. Sonar, computers, even spotter planes were used to track fish down.

By the earlier 1990s, codfish were growing scarce. Regulators closed many fishing grounds. Tough limits were set on days at sea, and fish size, and net size. And many boats were tied up at dock, losing money.


GLASS: This is quite a unique cod end.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Chris Glass is working to get the boats out to sea again. Chris makes fishing gear at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences on Cape Cod Bay. From a tall pile of green mesh, he pulls out his latest design.

GLASS: And, you’ll see in a minute, when I lay it out, why it’s different from other nets.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: A standard net is made of a diamond-shaped mesh which shuts tight as it pulls up fish.

GLASS: What we’ve been doing is experimenting with this very new netting, which is called hexagonal mesh, which you can see, when it goes under strain, it doesn’t close up. The meshes remain open which allows fish to escape even when there’s a lot of fish in the net.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Chris says his new mesh design is yielding good results.

GLASS: We’ve been reducing cod by catch by up to 70% in some cases.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Chris thinks fishermen will try experimental nets if it means a stronger fishery in the long-run. He tells the story of one group of fishermen he met up in Portland, Maine.

GLASS: We got there, and there were five or six trucks sitting on the pier. And it transpired that these were fishermen from all over Maine who had heard that we were going to be there, and starting a research program. And they got out of their trucks, and they started looking at this design. And they asked questions. And five hours later, most of them were still there helping to rig the net even though they weren’t part of the program. That was a truly fantastic day for me.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But not all fishermen are convinced that new nets will save them.

MARCIANO: We can modify our gear. And there’s a point to what we can do. But again, where are we going to go with this?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: On Rose’s Wharf in Gloucester, Dave Marciano is getting ready to fish for grey sole. He’ll be out for at least a few days. He’s only allowed about 80 for the whole year. If he could, he’d fish a lot more. Like most Gloucester fishermen, Dave says the fish are back in numbers sufficient to ease up on restrictions.

He doesn’t believe scientists who say he must be patient and let the stocks recover. He’s also skeptical that new nets, like the ones Chris Glass and Joe Scola are designing, will truly benefit fishermen. For starters, he says it’s an insult to the entire profession to make gear that’s purposefully inefficient.

MARCIANO: Where I see this going is, somehow, we’re supposed to devise a net that, in spite of the fact that we have an ocean full of fish, I can still throw it in the water and catch no fish. Is this what we want?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Dave thinks there could actually be an adverse environmental impact using nets that catch fewer fish.

MARCIANO: If you’re going to go out there and fish with inefficient gear, it’s going to take longer to get the trip done. So if you have habitat concerns, or bottom concerns, you would want the boat to go out, fish as efficiently as possible, catch its fish, and come home. That’s less impact on the environment overall.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But if you follow the coast south from Gloucester, and then east out the length of Cape Code to the end of its curved tip, you’ll meet a man who made gear modification work for both fish and for fishermen.

RIVAS: My name is Luis Rivas. I’m a fisherman from Provincetown, or in Provincetown. I come from Portugal.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Twenty-five years ago, Luis Rivas left Portugal to work on German factory trawlers. Then he came to the States. Now, he owns two small boats of his own. A few years ago, the Whiting Fishery here was shut down because fishermen were bycatching too much flounder and lobsters.

So, with the help of state scientists, Luis designed a net with a raised foot rope that targeted whiting that swim above the ocean floor and avoided the bottom-dwellers. The net reduced bycatch to five percent. And the Whiting Fishery was reopened. Then, Luis turned his attention to cod. He won a grant to design two new nets.

RIVAS: To try, you know, the best that I can for avoiding the codfish because these closures all because of codfish.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Luis set to work on his nets, both with altered tops to let cod escape. The results have been impressive. One day, he used a traditional net for one haul and caught 20,000 pounds of cod. Then he rigged the experimental net. When it came up, Luis still had a good load of flounder, but only 200 pounds of cod.

RIVAS: No more close. It is enough. No more cut days at sea. It’s enough. I no want to be a hero--but what I want is sea let me go fishing. I can use this net. Let me go. That’s it.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Luis says his nets may reduce his overall catch. But what he catches, he can keep. He tries to explain this to other fishermen. Some are interested. Others aren’t. Ultimately, Luis says, very few will ever try his nets unless they’re required by law. But fishery managers say they’re not ready to take that step.

David Sissenwine directs the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He says new gear can help stocks recover, but it won’t solve the problem.

SISSENWINE: The problem is that there aren’t a lot of other species in which you could increase the catch. But if we develop new gear which allows more fishing without catching cod, but more catch of the other stocks, then we’ll have the same problem in those other stocks.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Sissenwine says the main problem is simple: too many boats and too few fish.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Back on the Dolores Louise, Joe Scola is hauling up his experimental net. Yard after yard of green mesh winds back onto the winch. Finally, Vin Manfridi’s camera appears. He cuts it free.

MANFRIDI: It looks really good. No damage to anything whatsoever.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Then the winches roll again.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It’s a tense moment just before the catch comes into view. Then, it’s up. The bag is straining with flapping, shining fish. Joe reaches a hand under the net. He grabs on and pulls. A mass of fish hits the deck. It’s a good catch, about 2000 pounds, and mostly flounder like they wanted, and not very many cod.

But Joe’s boat is only one of a handful the state has the staff and money to work with on their gear. And Massachusetts is one of the most advanced states in fishing gear research. Elsewhere, fishermen have taken it into their own hands to modify their nets and traps.

Long-lined fishermen, from Alaska to Hawaii, created devices to ward off sea birds like endangered albatross that were getting snagged on their hooks. In the Gulf of Mexico where the government imposed turtle exclusion devices, shrimp fishermen came up with their own design, one that would keep more shrimp while still allowing the turtles to escape.

Despite the success stories, Vin Manfridi says the conservation engineering gang, as it’s called, has a hard time getting respect.

MANFRIDI: I think that it’s difficult to get the faith that is required from not only the legislature, but from the National Marine Fishery Service itself. I have a feeling--and I’ve been at many meetings--and I am kind of convinced that, at this point, they still view us as sort of a juvenile project. And, that’s not the case.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Making such innovation mainstream will require a change in attitude at the top. Congress is now working on the next major fisheries law. One provision would offer $10 million a year in grants to fishermen and scientists to do gear research, not only to reduce bycatch, but also to reduce the gear’s impact on the seabed.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Whether or not the gear money makes it into the final bill, you can be sure someone, somewhere, out at sea will be fine-tuning their nets, mesh by mesh, knot by knot, until they can convince others it’s all worthwhile. For Living on Earth, I’m Anna Solomon-Greenbaum on the Dolores Louise.




Reporter Anna Solomon-Greenbaum talks about the story behind her fishing story.



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