Last week I spent 5 days in Hatteras visiting my parents before we move there in October. I was able to go commercial fishing with my dad, something I really enjoy because I think most people who eat seafood or visit coastal tourist towns have no idea about the commercial fishing industry. I’ve written about it before, and encouraged people to do some research on where seafood comes from, whether it was wild caught or farmed, and whether it was caught in American waters or imported from overseas. There is a massive disparity in quality between wild caught and farmed fish, and major environmental implications that most people know very little about.
This trip with my dad was illuminating because I saw first hand how regulations on the industry that are meant to preserve fish populations often fail in the real world. You’ll see what I mean, but first, let me tell you a little about how fishing regulations work in the U.S.
Government regulation of commercial fishing didn’t begin until the passing of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976. The act established 8 regions in the U.S. that could further govern themselves using data on fish populations gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Basically, they look at data such as the overall number of fish and the number of mature females who will be able to breed, and set an annual quota – how many pounds of fish are allowed to be caught in that region in that year. In some regions, there is no daily limit. You can bring in as much fish as you can catch until the overall quota is met. It becomes a race between boats to try and capture the largest share of the quota. Once the quota is met, fishing for that species is done for the season. In my dad’s case in North Carolina, there is a weight limit per day, per fisherman.
At the time we went fishing, the daily limit for bluefish was 150 lbs per commercial fishing license. That number started higher, and will continue to be reduced as the season goes on, until one day there will be an announcement that the season is over and no more bluefish can be caught.
It is possible that the number can be raised as well. The state allocates a certain amount of the total number of fish to be caught to two different sectors, commercial and recreational. If it looks like the recreational sector won’t take in their portion of the overall quota, the commercial quota will be adjusted to allow for the extra. To give you a real life example, in 2017, the quota for bluefish caught in North Carolina was 1.6 million pounds. 83% of that was allocated to recreational fishermen, and only 17% to commercial fishermen.
The allocation system is a whole other topic, but let me just say that, like everything else, you have to follow the money. All of the companies that make recreational fishing gear (boats, boots, apparel, tackle, rods, etc…) have an interest in more and more people fishing recreationally. In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that recreational fishing generated $36.08 billion to the U.S. economy, far greater than the commercial sector. For every pound of fish landed by a recreational fisherman, he spent 25 times more money in the American economy than his commercial counterpart. It’s simple; sport fishing is big business and big business has a bigger lobby.
That’s just a little background about how the industry works, how the government regulatory agencies are trying to prevent over-fishing. It sounds great in theory, totally reasonable. Let me be clear that I do believe fishing should be managed. It shouldn’t be a free for all that results in crashing fish populations. But it is much more complicated than the average person realizes. Sometimes the regulations that are meant to preserve a resource waste it instead.
The problem is, fishing is not an exact science. My dad can’t go out and catch an exact number of fish. He sets a net and hopes for the best. Sometimes he doesn’t catch enough to meet his daily quota. But sometimes, he catches too much. And this is where any person with a lick of common sense will get irritated with the system. If you care about the earth, it will break your heart.
On the way out, my dad talked to a couple guys on the radio who gave him some intel on where they were catching fish. Because of the daily limit system, the commercial fishery in Hatteras is much less cutthroat than it is in somewhere like Alaska, where they are usually racing to hit a quota. Since my dad can only get 150 lbs of fish, he may as well help his buddy catch 150 as well.
We headed out to a spot where bluefish and Spanish mackerel were said to be running and waited til just before sundown to set the net. We were gill netting, a type of fishing that gets a bad reputation for bycatch, meaning that other species of fish, sharks, and dolphins sometimes become trapped in the net and die needlessly. Here’s the thing though; bycatch is a much bigger problem in large scale fishing operations that set miles of net in the ocean and leave it too long. Smaller operations like the one or two man boats in Hatteras are setting a few hundred yards, letting it sit for about an hour, and then hauling it in. Some of the fish is still alive and if there is bycatch, it can be thrown back into the water. That’s another reason I’m in favor of small, local fisheries.
Gill nets are mesh nets that catch fish in the holes. The fish doesn’t see the net, swims through a hole and can’t fit the rest of his body through the opening. Typically fish are trapped by the gills, hence the name. Smaller, juvenile fish and little fish that are no good for eating swim right through. Because my dad doesn’t leave the net in the water very long, he doesn’t have much of a problem with sharks or dolphins showing up looking for a free meal. In the event that a shark or dolphin is entangled, every effort is made to free it alive. Fishermen do NOT want to deal with that, because the net gets ripped up and has to be mended. It’s not like they’re out there just catching whatever and killing what they can’t sell. They are targeting specific fish species and don’t want to deal with bycatch. It creates work and wasted time for them.
As soon as we set the net, fish began hitting it. My dad told me to grab the top line of the net, a piece of rope that the net hangs down from, and see if I could feel the fish hitting it. The rope was buzzing and zinging with vibration. We were definitely catching fish!
We only set 400 yards of net, even though we had 700 yards on board. My dad did not want to catch more than his quota of 150 lbs because (here’s the part that will blow you away), he would have to throw them back into the water, dead or alive. If he catches more than his 150 lbs, he cannot legally bring them aboard. Not only can he not sell them, he can’t even have them on his boat, which means he can’t bring them home to feed his family, or give them away to friends, or establish some sort of fish food bank for times when local people are hard up, like say, I don’t know, a global pandemic or something. And here’s the really awful part- even if they are ALREADY DEAD, he can’t keep them. They must be thrown dead back into the water. That’s the most wasteful, ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in all my life!
If you have an impression of fishermen that they are calloused, environment haters, then let me tell you that it breaks my dad’s heart to throw a dead fish back into the water. My dad takes pride in feeding people. The fish he catches, the part that doesn’t go to island restaurants, is shipped immediately to New York City, and then to markets all over North America and Europe. My dad takes pride in providing healthy, sustainably sourced fish. Throwing a fish overboard that is already dead, instead of allowing someone to eat it, hurts him to the core.
Even though we only set about half our net, we were still over our limit and had to throw fish back. When we realized we had hit our limit, we began pulling in the net as quickly as possible to try and find fish still alive and get them back into the water before they died.
I felt a profound sense of waste in throwing an already dead fish back into the water instead of taking him home to eat, the same way I would feel if I shot a deer in the woods and left it to rot. Its death served no purpose, fed no one, was just a waste. I am an animal lover so it tears me up to see an animal die needlessly, even a fish. My dad doesn’t get warm and fuzzy about it. He looks at it from a common sense ethical point of view. Waste of a resource is immoral.
You’re probably asking why we didn’t break the law and bring the fish in anyway, if we feel so strongly about it. Well, if my dad gets caught with illegal fish on board, he faces thousands of dollars of fines and possible revocation of his license, which is his livelihood. So perfectly good fish gets tossed overboard for the crabs to scavenge, because that’s the law.
There are no easy answers to regulating the commercial fishing industry. Everyone agrees that it should be regulated, but how and to what degree are debated ad infinitum each and every year in every coastal region. What I would like for this post to do is show people that the lines of good and evil are not so easy to discern as some environmental groups would like you to think. Some environmentalists would like you to think that people like my dad are bloodthirsty fish slaughterers who indiscriminately kill all sorts of marine life to make a dollar. They would like you to think that every commercial fisherman is Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, consumed by his own bloodlust. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The next night my dad went out again and set only 300 yards of net, 100 less than the night before. He caught less than his limit, but wasted no fish. He voluntarily made less money so that he would not waste the resource. That right there is why you should buy wild caught, American fish. Small boat commercial fishermen CARE. They take pride in their work and recognize that they need a properly functioning ocean ecosystem in order to continue their heritage.
The American fishery is the most heavily regulated in the world, and because of our nation’s ample coastlines, one of the most abundant. There is no reason for any restaurant or grocery store to sell imported or farmed fish when we have such a plentiful resource right here at home. If you’re interested in eating local, knowing where your food comes from and protecting the environment, eating wild caught American fish is a great way to start.