A `great gulf' exists in our region, too

ON THE BAY

Book: While fisheries regulators and watermen squabble, the risk to resources grows greater.

April 25, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

SUPPOSE PEOPLE who are overeating were regulated like commercial fishermen who are overfishing.

They'd know in their pudgy hearts that they should cut back on the calories, and they'd have some good ideas how they could do it, in ways that worked with their lives, their bodies.

But the National Diet Board (I just invented it) is not much interested in what mere dieters think.

Its experts know nutritional science, also what your ideal weight should be and precisely how you will reach it. Ultimately, the diet czars will make people healthier, and many will hate them purely for how they did it.

Such a scenario is at the heart of David Dobbs' The Great Gulf - Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World's Greatest Fishery (Island Press, 2000).

The Great Gulf is literally the Gulf of Maine, stretching from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. But it's also the great gulf between fishermen and fish scientists during years of bitter argument over how to manage New England's collapsing cod fishery.

"How could two groups who spent so much time on the same water differ so profoundly on the population count of its major species?" Dobbs wonders.

Anyone who has suffered through similar disputes over whether we're catching too many shad, striped bass, oysters and blue crabs on the Chesapeake has asked the same question.

In fine, concise prose, The Great Gulf takes a clear-eyed look at how the failure to reconcile the two perspectives cripples attempts to harvest the seas sustainably. It's must reading for those concerned with the future of seafood and watermen here on the Chesapeake.

Dobbs offers no easy answers or simple solutions, nor is he primarily interested in declaring a "winner" in the wars over codfish regulation that have raged for decades in New England waters.

He leaves no doubt that overfishing caused fish stocks to collapse elsewhere in the region a decade ago. And there's no doubt, either, that accurate warnings of impending disaster in the gulf had been coming for years from surveys of fish populations by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, pronounced "nymphs").

But commercial fishermen also had valuable information and insights about the number and movement of the cod - information largely dismissed by the cumbersome, federal regulatory process, Dobbs shows.

Altogether, there was so much knowledge, even wisdom about the best-studied species in the Atlantic, with a history of fishing going back four centuries - why couldn't it save the cod fishery?

Partly it was mammoth distrust between scientists and fishermen, born of failure to reconcile the different universes in which they operate, one bent on statistical accuracy, the other on making a living.

NMFS' mathematical modeling of cod stocks assigned little value to the "anecdotal" information the cod fishermen possessed. It was profoundly disrespectful, even when it was right.

"You want to [upset] a room full of fishermen, just say the word, `anecdotal,'" a NMFS official told Dobbs.

A large part too, The Great Gulf argues, is the pressure on fisheries scientists to produce immediate catch predictions and fishing quotas, turning them into number crunchers.

This slights research that leads to understanding the larger ecosystems within which fish operate - what drives their movements and causes long-term fluctuations in their reproduction and numbers.

"In a very real sense, scientists stay so busy counting fish that they don't know where they're coming from," Dobbs writes.

The Great Gulf is as good a primer for laymen on fisheries management as I've seen. It also contains a nice account of Henry Bigelow, a pioneer researcher of gulf fisheries who seemed to bridge the gap with fishermen in a way today's scientists don't.

It recalled the late L. Eugene Cronin, a Chesapeake researcher who also had the respect of watermen and scientists alike. Both were extraordinary men, but fisheries on both bay and gulf are now more overexploited, and lines between catchers and regulators more sharply drawn.

Dobbs spent considerable time afloat, with NMFS scientists and cod fishermen, and portrays individuals on both sides who know and love fish and fishing.

Dave Goethal, a fisherman out of Ipswich Bay in Massachusetts, has a college degree in marine biology and on off days reads scientific journals at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in nearby Cambridge.

Jay Burnett, a NMFS scientist, laments: "We're the fisheries service, not the fish service. We're supposed to manage the fishery, ... work with the fishermen ... not just protect the fish."

Dobbs was still writing the book in 1999 when one of those incidents occurred that ages regulators fast. Cod, after another dismal forecast by NMFS, suddenly seemed everywhere.

Fishermen were throwing them back, often dead or dying, to comply with strict quotas. The NMFS official answer was that the remaining cod were just unusually concentrated, but the numbers seemed too large for that to explain the surplus.

"I don't know how the science missed so many fish, but they did. ... It'll take a decade for the bitterness to wear off," Dave Goethal told Dobbs.

I called Dobbs last week. In the past year or two he says he has seen the beginnings of cooperative research with fishermen, some modest progress overall.

On the Chesapeake, there are some efforts to bridge our own "great gulf." The University of Maryland has sponsored dialogues between watermen and scientists, and the state has used watermen to collect data on crabs.

There's a long way to go, and no easy answers, but The Great Gulf points to some useful directions.

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