Regulations that limit what fishermen can catch are a necessary measure to end overfishing and avoid the catastrophic scenarios some scientists say face fish populations around the globe. But making fishing sustainable for fishermen, as well as fish, is no mean feat. While many fishermen in New England have complained that strict catch limits and a new management scheme known as catch shares are strangling the life out of the region’s traditional fishing communities, another segment of the fishing industry says things are looking up – different, but up. Harwich fisherman Greg Walinski recently told me “There are guys out here quietly having the best [fishing] year of their life.” Here are three ways New England fishermen are getting creative about how they catch and market fish so they can get more (money) for less (fish).
1. Cut costs
Earlier this week, I attended a seminar where Steve Eayrs, a research scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, talked about his work conducting energy audits for groundfish fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine. The goal is to increase the profit margin on each trip out to the fishing grounds by reducing the significant – and rising – cost of fuel without putting a dent in the catch. Eayrs pointed to two actions that can have significant impacts.
The first is a simple suggestion that many drivers have heard before: slow down. Eayrs said slight changes can have big impacts. Allowing just a few extra minutes each hour – maybe an hour more for a day trip – won’t affect the freshness of the fish, but could translate into big cost savings. Eayrs points out that the new catch shares system gives fishermen the opportunity to slow down a bit because they’re not under time constraints imposed by the previous days-at-sea system; fishermen now have all season to catch their allotment of fish.
The other area Eayrs is focusing on is finding ways to modify fishing gear to reduce fuel consumption and possibly also get a better price for fish. Using trawl nets with larger openings made out of thinner twine reduces drag. Shortening tow times means that fishermen aren’t hauling a heavy, full net through the water for long periods of time; that directly cuts fuel usage, but also reduces the chance that the net will get bounced or dragged along the bottom. That, in turn, reduces the need for heavy chafe gear, making the nets even lighter, reducing drag even further. The icing on the cake, though, is the fact that fish don’t get crushed in the net so fishermen can ask a higher price.
Eayrs has been working with fishermen to test his ideas – installing fuel meters on boats and having fishermen try out prototypes of new gear. He said that, for him, the proof that his research is bearing fruit isn’t in his graphs or numbers. It’s the fact that fishermen are continuing to incorporate the new gear and techniques, even when it’s not part of an experiment.
2. Catch the right fish
Another area where gear modifications can help is in targeting specific kinds of fish. Obviously, a net with larger openings will tend to catch larger fish. But it goes beyond that. For example, a diamond-shaped opening can stretch in ways a square opening can’t, allowing flat fish (or tall, skinny fish) – even larger ones – to wiggle through while retaining fish with rounder bodies. By getting creative with gear designs, fishermen may be able to bring more fish to market.
Why? Fishermen have to stay within catch limits, not only for the fish they want to take to market (target fish), but also for fish they catch unintentionally (by-catch). If they hit the limit for by-catch, they have to stop fishing, whether or not they’ve caught all the target fish they were allotted. There’s also the fact that the catch limits for different species vary depending on factors like how big their populations are, and how quickly they grow and reproduce. Developing gear that specifically catches the species with the highest catch limits – not the weaker stocks or by-catch – would enable fishermen to exploit those stocks to the greatest allowable extent. To paraphrase Tom Dempsey, policy director for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association: making fisheries sustainable for both fish and fishermen means catching every last fish allowed, but not one over.
In Port Clyde, Maine, The Nature Conservancy has bought fishing permits and leases them to fishermen who are willing to test new gear designs. The Cape Cod Fisheries Trust (a project of the Hook Fishermen’s Association) also buys fishing permits to lease to local fishermen. But director Paul Parker recently told me that the Trust wants to take a slightly different tack; rather than making the use of specific gear a requirement of permit leases, they plan to set ambitious goals for reducing by-catch (and other environmental impacts) and let fishermen figure out how to meet them. The idea is to empower fishermen to use their creativity and knowledge of the business to develop their own solutions, rather than having actions dictated to them.
3. Get paid more
Of course, catching all the fish in the world won’t keep fishermen afloat if they get paid pennies for them. I recently sat down with Greg Walinski and Eric Hesse – both long-time fishermen and members of the Hook Fishermen’s Association’s Board of Directors – to talk about some innovative ways they’re finding to get paid more for the fish they catch. Part of the strategy is finding and exploiting niche markets.
One interesting example is bringing cod in alive. Asian restaurants pay nicely for the ability to offer their customers a coveted culinary experience – picking the fish they want for dinner, and knowing that it is as fresh as physically possible. What’s more, Greg told me, they put a premium on single-serving-sized fish – the smallest fish it’s legal to catch, and fish that typically nobody else wants.
Another example is Community Supported Fishery programs. You’ve probably heard of Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, where you pay up front for a subscription and then pick up fresh, locally-farmed produce each week of the growing season. Well, this is the seafood version. Port Clyde fishermen started a CSF a few years ago, and the Cape Hook Fishermen’s Association piloted a program here on the Cape last year. Eric told me the response was overwhelmingly positive, and that people were even understanding on the occasions when they had to tell them they didn’t have fish that week because of bad weather or bad luck. They plan to restart the program again later this year. But Eric and Greg told me there’s a lot to be done in terms of educating the public, for example, about the fact that seafood – like produce – is seasonal, and that Cape Cod’s waters have more to offer than just the cod and haddock most people are familiar with.
Still, there’s a limit to what niche markets can do for fishermen. After all, niche means small. Eric and Greg both said that it will be key for fishermen to find ways to market and distribute their fish more broadly, while still maintaining the emphasis on the Cape Cod brand – fresh, sustainable fish caught by individual fishermen. They’ve recently started working directly with Whole Foods . They also talked about things like labeling fish with the date and location it was caught, even a picture of the fisherman who caught it, or developing the capacity to distribute fresh-frozen fish.
It’s safe to say it’s early days for all of these initiatives, but Tom Dempsey told me he considers them demonstrations of the great potential that exists in the catch shares management system and in New England’s fishing fleet – a glimpse of the future of sustainable fishing in New England.