John Tierney wrote this piece for the NYT Magazine based upon his research into fisheries management successes and failures. Good work John! Here’s a few excerpts from John’s essay:
(…) Sorlien, like the other fishermen in this harbor just west of Newport, is surviving thanks to New England’s great cash crop, lobsters, but he wonders how much longer they’ll be around. ”Right now, my only incentive is to go out and kill as many fish as I can,” Sorlien said. ”I have no incentive to conserve the fishery, because any fish I leave is just going to be picked by the next guy.”
(…) Most stretches of open ocean are governed by state and federal governments, which is why the fish are in so much trouble. Tuna do not vote. Lobsters do not make campaign contributions. There may be future benefits from limiting this year’s catch, but politicians don’t want the fishing industry to suffer while they’re up for re-election. Even when fish populations start to decline, officials are reluctant to impose strict limits. Instead, they have often tried to help struggling fishermen with subsidies, which merely encourage more overfishing. The Canadian and American governments devastated one of the world’s most productive fisheries, the Georges Banks off the coast of New England, by helping to pay for bigger boats. Now, even as scientists urge limits on lobstering, state and federal governments continue to offer tax breaks and other incentives to the lobstermen at Point Judith. John Sorlien was docked at a wharf financed by the taxpayers of Rhode Island. ”It’s not a sane system,” Sorlien said. ”We work with the government to break fisheries, and then we ask the government to subsidize us when the fish disappear.”
(…) Allen first found the way in the academic literature of fishery management, and then he saw it in operation. He journeyed to a port in Australia and returned with stories of a place with thriving lobsters, plenty of fat tuna, lots of prosperous fishermen — and no Soprano strong-arm tactics. It sounded like the maritime version of the Happy Hunting Grounds.
(…) When Spencer got his own boat in 1984, he bought his first trap licenses for $2,000 apiece in Australian dollars. Nowadays, they would sell for $35,000, which means that Spencer’s are worth a total of $2.1 million, or about $1.2 million in American dollars. He has done well by doing good: his licenses have become more valuable because the lobstermen are conservationists. They pay for scientists to monitor the fishery, and they have imposed strict harvesting limits that allow the lobsters to grow into sizable adults. (…) . Like any property owner, they began thinking about resale value. ‘‘Why hurt the fishery?” Spencer said. ”It’s my retirement fund. No one’s going to pay me $35,000 a pot if there are no lobsters left. If I rape and pillage the fishery now, in 10 years my licenses won’t be worth anything.”
(…) Fishing may be the only economic activity in which you can make more money by doing less work,” said Rick McGarvey, a biologist who monitors the fishery for the South Australian government. ”By fishing less, the fishermen leave more lobsters out there to produce more eggs, which will make it easier for them to catch lobsters in the future. It’s a win-win for the fish and the fishermen. The lobsters are thriving and the fishermen are spending more time at home with their families.”
(…) Because tuna were decimated by the old open system, in the 1980′s the government imposed limits on the annual catch. Now each fisherman owns what is called an individual transferable quota — the right to catch a certain percentage of the yearly haul. These quotas, which can be bought or sold like stock shares, are not cheap, so fishermen have changed their strategy. No longer able to slaughter fish at will, they have looked for ways to make the most of each fish. The result has been the world’s premier tuna ranches.
When the tuna are first caught in a net far out at sea, they are shepherded by the thousands into floating pens. The pens are slowly towed to Port Lincoln in an enormous tuna drive that lasts about two weeks. Once the pens are anchored in a bay near Port Lincoln, it is the ranch hands’ job to produce a fish good enough to become sashimi in Tokyo. ”It’s just like a feeding lot to fatten up cattle,” Cuddeford said as he pulled up one of the pens, which consisted of a closed net dangling more than 40 feet below the surface. The net was attached to what looked like a huge inner tube, a floating ring of rubber about 200 feet in circumference. Cuddeford tossed in the frozen blocks of herrings and anchovies. As the blocks began melting, you could see the flashes of blue fins below the surface as the tuna snapped up their meals.
”We’re giving them herring to get the oil content up in the meat,” Cuddeford explained. ”A bit more oil changes the color. The Japanese are fussy. They eat with their eyes.” The tuna would be fed for several months as the ranchers monitored their weight and watched the price of tuna on the Tokyo market. At a propitious time, divers would jump into the pen and guide the fish — gently, because any bruise would mean a lower price — on to a boat, which would whisk them to shore and on to an airplane for Tokyo. The 2,200 tuna in this pen were worth more than $2 million. At night, armed guards patrolled the waters for larcenous humans and hungry seals.
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