Hello, I Must Be Going
Outside magazine, December 1997
Hello, I Must Be Going
Dire forecasts predict the end of the all-u-can-eat seafood buffet, as the world’s fisheries fall victim to big fleets and a fragile nature. But if the waters are really emptying, why is your local market swimming in fish?
Exactly 500 years ago, the Italian mariner John Cabot stood on the tip of Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland and looked out over a teeming new world. Like his fellow Genovese Columbus, who had reached Hispaniola five years before, Cabot
If you stand on the tip of Cape Bonavista now, up on the pedestal with your arm around the statue of John Cabot, you look out on the remnants of that world. Few fishing boats head out from Bonavista anymore, and none that fish for cod — there’s been a near-total ban on cod fishing in Newfoundland since 1992, when stocks finally collapsed completely. Before the ban,
You’ve heard this story before, of course — the story of recklessness, mismanagement, and human folly that have devastated this fishery and many others. You’ve read about pitched battles over declining catches, about international flash points of conflict and intimidation on the high seas. Canadians have seized Spanish vessels and blockaded American ferries. Icelandic
But like the now-familiar sagas of tropical rainforests, global warming, and the earth’s fragmenting wilderness habitats, these tales of depleted fisheries and disappearing wild salmon and despairing fishing communities somehow manage to seem both dire and irrelevant. No matter how often we hear about limits, they never really seem to impinge on our lives. And fish are no
The tip of Cape Bonavista is a good place to start unraveling this mystery — to start figuring out how the world can be so damaged and our lives so little changed. But the view from that rocky headland, I warn you now, is sobering. At the very least, it looks out on a world far more daunting than the one in which the cod swam by the tens of millions.
Just as the sun comes up, a little wind ruffles the swells. “The old guys call that wind ‘the pride of the morning,'” says Bill Donovan, who grew up fishing the North Atlantic with his dad. “It’s just to let you know not to get too
We’re aboard Donovan’s boat, the Danni J., a few miles down the Newfoundland coast from Bonavista, plying the water off the tiny town of Melrose. Donovan is using his handheld GPS unit to steer toward the spot where his buoy floats at the end of his line of crab pots. “I like this gadget because those satellites cost somebody $26 billion,” he tells
Which is not to say that Donovan is happy. He’s a big, genial, 44-year-old native of Melrose, and he clearly enjoyed the sunrise this morning (“same as drugs, it is”), and the puffins that flew by in a little squadron, and the minke whale that sounded off the starboard rail. But whenever he sits down for a smoke and a talk, he shakes his head. For one thing, he’s not making any
And he’s watching his community crumble — when we return to the dock, almost everyone in Melrose is there to help haul the crab boxes up to the scales, which seems a pathetic reminder of how little there is to do now that cod fishing is banned. “Two years ago we had 118 guys in our bar baseball league,” he said. “Forty-eight of them don’t play anymore. They’ve moved
Most of all, though, he seems blue because he’s not fishing for cod. He takes me into his workshop at the end of the wharf and picks up a wad of black netting. “Smell that,” he says, thrusting it toward my nose. It smells like new plastic. “That’s a cod trap,” he tells me. “It’s never been in the water. I spent $4,000 on them the winter before the moratorium. It’s like to turn
But again, it’s not the money — it’s the not fishing. Donovan worked on freighters for a few years in his twenties, but fishing is all he’s ever wanted to do. “Hey, crabbing’s the easiest fishing you’ll ever do,” he grants. “It’s the cleanest. But we count crabs. With cod, we’d go to fish six or eight rocks in a day, try to find the best-aged
If you understand what happened to the codfish, you’ll more or less know what happened to the redfish and the swordfish and the bluefin tuna and the orange roughy, to the long list that grows longer after each fishing season. But the cod will do. For that story, I visit Richard Haedrich, a fish biologist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital, where he
“For about 300 years after Cabot, fishermen took between 100,000 and 200,000 tons of cod a year, caught by hook and line from small dories,” Haedrich begins. “Then, in the 1870s, the cod trap was invented — a piece of fixed net that was very effective. There
But the net slowly became the backbone of the industry — it was the tool Donovan and his dad used to make their livings. And the catch stayed about the same, slowly increasing toward 200,000 tons a year. “Even with the nets, it was very seasonal,” Haedrich says. “You’d wait for the capelin to come, and then the cod to chase them. The cod were landed in these tiny ports
Then, in the 1960s, the distant-water fleet appeared — the draggers that could hunt the cod down out at sea, that could fish year round. The catch suddenly quadrupled, to 800,000 tons, most of it going to European boats that didn’t even have to dock in Newfoundland before the voyage home. Canada, along with many other nations, quickly declared a 200-mile limit,
Ottawa started subsidizing boatbuilders, erecting fish-processing plants, establishing a huge fishery. Quasi-public companies built fleets of trawlers, and for a few years jobs were easy to find and life was cushy. “But as a result of all the capital investment, the fishing couldn’t be seasonal anymore,” Haedrich tells me. “And there were new advances in fish-finding
Until 1992. All of a sudden the boats went out and came back — empty. No fish. At all. What had happened, apparently, was that the success of the new technologies had disguised the decline of the cod. As the electronics had become better and better, the fleet had managed to search out the fish wherever they remained, and therefore the catch had remained steady year after
And so now Canada pays out millions in welfare checks — via the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy, a program expected to expire this spring — and buys up boats. It retrains fishermen to operate computers or style hair. The dragger boats have been sent
But the cod aren’t coming back — not yet anyway. “There’s a certain amount of theoretical support for the idea that they might never come back, at least in their former abundance,” Haedrich tells me. The sea-floor ecology has been altered in many places by all the draggers, and new, less valuable fish such as skates and dogfish are thriving where the cod once reigned. The
The same story, in different accents, is told on every seacoast on earth. In 1990, the London Daily Telegraph reported that every square meter of the sea bottom in the Dutch region of the North Sea was being dragged by a beam trawler at least once each year — some spots were hit seven times — and the trawling chains were plowing the
In his forthcoming book Song for the Blue Ocean, which will be published next month, Carl Safina, director of the National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program, uses the past tense to describe our time: “The last buffalo hunt was occurring on the rolling blue prairies of the ocean.”
In at least one place, there’s a different story.
Early in this century, more than 400 years after Cabot landed in Newfoundland, the first commercial fleets and packing plants began setting up business along the shores of Bristol Bay, on Alaska’s southwest coast. It’s no longer a new frontier on Bristol Bay — the hulking ruins of decades-old canneries stand alongside more recent operations on the shoreline — but
At the King Salmon airport, I meet up with Scott Quist, a state trooper who’s agreed to take me to see Bristol Bay’s frenzied July fishing season. Quist needs only about a hundred yards of tarmac to bounce his Supercub into the air; his plane is built for patrolling the Alaska Peninsula, for landing on beaches and frozen ponds. From the sky, the peninsula looks as deserted as
But then you break over the edge of Bristol Bay and the scene changes. The north edge of the Egegik fishery is simply an invisible set of loran coordinates. In early July, however, during the height of the sockeye salmon run, it’s easy to tell just where the line falls. Four or five hundred boats — fancy, high-powered boats — jam themselves in a wall that stretches
Quist puts the plane down on the bumpy strip outside the small, roadless settlement of Pilot Point. He’s come to check out a caribou killing; I’ve come to solve a bit of a puzzle. Even though it sounds as if the Bristol Bay salmon fishery should be in as much trouble as the Newfoundland cod stocks — after all, the same combination of high technology and economic
While Quist investigates, I climb onto the seat of a late-model all-terrain vehicle, pretty much the only transportation in a place you simply can’t reach on wheels. I roar down the makeshift beach road, past the shacks of the set-netters who come from around
Today, however, the state has temporarily closed the fishery, and so the couple I’ve come to visit, a pair of veteran fishermen named Tom and Cate Bursch, have time for an excursion. Tom and Cate winter down in Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula, and spend their summer up here harvesting salmon with their children and their boat crew. We unload the nets from their skiff, pack
Ten minutes each hour, one of them climbs a rickety scaffolding next to the river, sits down on a plank, and stares into the water. As he sees the flash of a salmon swimming upstream in the clear water to spawn, he clicks the clicker in his hand, like the ticket-taker at a high school dance. And then he climbs down, returns to his shack, and radios the numbers to Jeff Regnart,
Regnart’s job is fairly simple: to see that enough salmon make it upstream past the fishermen to the spawning grounds to guarantee that there will be a good run when this class returns to spawn four years hence. You don’t need all the fish, or even most of them, heading upstream. On a good year, six million fish might return to the Ugashik, of which 700,000 are needed for a
The easiest method of regulating the fishery would simply be to count from the towers until the first 700,000 are safely past and then let everyone go fishing. But biologists suspect that the fish come in waves, with subpopulations heading for certain streams traveling in pulses; so to protect each strain, Regnart works out a complicated system of “openings,” allowing an hour
Last summer was slow in Bristol Bay. The fish weren’t coming back in their expected abundance; the count at the tower was by ones and twos, not tens and twenties. And so the openings were few and far between. The captains who were deep in hock for their boats
What’s surprising is how little heat they get. It’s not that fishermen aren’t angry; in these times, fishermen everywhere are conspiracy theorists, often with good reason. One evening I sat in Tom and Cate’s neat but cramped shack, eating salmon and eggs and listening over VHF Channel 7 as one fisherman conducted an impromptu call-in show, Radio Free Ugashik, from his boat. The
And the bitching covered up some real hurt. In recent years there have been either low fish runs or low prices; a series of boom seasons in the 1980s lured in a lot of fishermen, most of whom paid top dollar for their licenses and permits. For all that, though, no one gets on the radio and demands that the state just let them fish. The escapement number is something sacred. As
It all makes perfect sense. But in most other places there is nothing sacred. Fishermen around the world relentlessly search out any fish that’s laying golden eggs and ship it to market without a second’s hesitation. To give only one example, orange roughy live to be 150 years old and don’t spawn until they’re 30, but they were nearly fished out before New Zealand imposed any
Alaska’s salmon runs are blessed because the fish must return to their rivers, and therefore you can restrict fishing to a few square miles, an area small enough to effectively enforce limits on the catch. You can easily count the fish as they head upstream; it’s not the underwater guessing game it is in Newfoundland. Combined with real political will, that’s been enough to
Bristol Bay also proves something else, however. Which is that we live in a finite world, a world that can sustain a certain number of wild salmon and no more. Over the decades, the number of fish returning has fluctuated, but within a
The moral of the story is that ecological equilibrium is an absolute limit. Even if we allowed every damaged marine ecosystem and spawning ground in the world to recover and then managed these resources with consummate care, even if such restraint could be enforced, we would still hit a wall. It’s not that we’ll run out of fish the way we’ll someday run out of oil. Fish, after
If you want to fathom this sea change, you need to take off your rubber boots and your oilskins and trade in your skiff for a shuttle flight to Washington, D.C. You need to make your way to an office building off Dupont Circle, where the Worldwatch Institute has its headquarters.
Worldwatch is perhaps the most earnest place in a cynical world; its staffers churn out report after report on “Electricity for a Developing World” or “Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy” or “Discarding the Throwaway Society.” At the long, wild economic party we’ve been throwing on this planet — our celebration of each new fiscal quarter of growth, where we
It’s a grim accounting, but it’s a chronicle that has never really seemed to matter; for all the damage we’ve done, we’ve not yet run out of food or oil or much of anything else. Our economies keep growing larger even as our populations expand. Ever since the first Earth Day, in 1970, there’s been the nervous sense that we’re close to certain limits, but for 30 years we haven’t
So here’s the fish story, at its most schematic. Decide for yourself whether the numbers lie.
In 1900, the world caught three million tons of fish. As we reached new seas and developed new technologies, that number grew steadily through the century — grew by more than 25 times. Between 1950 and 1970, the annual catch rose 6 percent a year, reaching 80 million tons. And then, in the early 1970s, the Peruvian anchovy catch, which was then the largest fishery in the
For the next two decades, the global catch grew much more slowly — just over 2 percent a year. In 1989, it peaked at 86 million tons, and then fell by 7 percent over the next three years. Since 1992 it’s hovered at about 80 million tons. We are, in other words, catching less fish now than we did ten years ago — and because over the past decade the human population
If you look behind the numbers, it gets even worse. To catch that 80 million tons, fishing fleets are working harder each year, employing more expensive technology and more extreme measures. Iceland recently developed a trawling net whose mouth is large enough to engulf 12 Boeing 747s. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the world’s fishing fleet
Or forget the numbers entirely and look at the plain fact that fishermen aren’t netting the same kinds of fish they once did. By the 1990s, as cod and haddock and hake fisheries declined, the trawlers were keeping the catch at the same level only by hauling in huge amounts of Chilean jack mackerel, Japanese and South American pilchard, and various species of anchovy. Cod and
According to the UN, all 17 of the world’s major fishing regions are now fished at or above sustainable levels. If we go through all the pain of buying back licenses and decommissioning trawlers and enforcing sound limits, and if nature cooperates by allowing these
That’s the new world you contemplate from the tip of Cape Bonavista — the end of abundance, the end of growth. “I think that the world fish catch is the first global limit we’ve reached,” Lester Brown, Worldwatch’s founder, remarked as we sat eating crab cakes in a Washington restaurant. The question, then, is this: Are there more limits on the way?
Or maybe there’s another question first. How could we afford to eat crab cakes for lunch? Why is there still seafood in your supermarket? Why, in fact, are Bristol Bay salmon fishermen getting less per pound for their catch now than they did a few years ago?
A large part of the answer is that we’ve learned to farm many species that we used to catch at sea — learned to grow big fish in small ponds. Aquaculture produces nearly 20 million tons of fish a year now, which means that even with the declines in the marine catch, we’re consuming more fish than we ever have before.
The “cornucopian” theorists hold up fish farming as a proof of their theory that there are no limits we can’t overcome. Julian Simon, a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland who is known as a pro-population-growth “doomslayer,” is the granddaddy of this argument; one of his intellectual heirs is Mark Sagoff, a researcher for the Institute of
Maybe so — maybe fish farming is proof that we don’t really need to worry much. Or maybe it proves that having run out of vodka, we’re rummaging around the house for the cough syrup — that we’re close to hitting bottom but still trying desperately to
What’s more, most of the shrimp from the ponds does not end up on Thai dinner tables. It’s a luxury item, shipped to Japan or the States. Though seafood is the primary source of protein for much of the developing world, poor people already consume less per capita than those of us in North America, where fish is just one choice at the supermarket. “If you follow the flows of
But let’s forget about fairness and look at the bottom line. What’s the real problem with most fish farming?
The problem is, you’ve got to feed the fish. Many fish — salmon, for instance — are carnivorous foragers occupying a position high on the ocean’s food chain. If you want to raise them in a pond, you need to dump in fish meal for them to eat. That’s what’s happening to a lot of that pilchard and anchovy that fishermen have been hauling in; they’re Salmon Chow. The
Some species can be farmed more efficiently; certain carp, for instance, eat weeds that can be grown in ponds with animal-waste fertilizer. Two species of carp, mostly grown in China for domestic consumption, are already on the top-ten list of the world’s most consumed species. But an awful lot of fish farming aims at higher-value species such as catfish. Instead of eating fish
But why would anyone worry about dumping cornmeal into a Delta catfish pond? Well, that’s where the story takes a sudden twist. Because it’s possible — indeed, according to experts like Cornell biologist David Pimentel it’s highly likely — that the wall we’ve hit with fisheries is just the first of a series of walls. And that we may, before much longer, be running
Sometime in the mid-1980s, however, the increases in grain production began to tail off. Our harvests didn’t crash, but before long they did begin to increase at only about 1 percent a year — more slowly than the rate of population growth. All of a sudden,
Not everyone is alarmed. There are some prophets who think that biotechnology is about to kick off another Green Revolution, which will produce grain enough to feed the three or four billion people expected to join us in the next half-century. So far, though, the gains have been small and incremental. And if you insisted on being an alarmist, you could worry about the fact that
So it’s not a great moment to be going in for fish farming. “Aquaculture is now big enough that it makes a measurable claim on the world’s grain supplies,” says Lester Brown. “If oceanic fish catches are no longer increasing, then we need two million more tons of protein each year just to supply the growth in population. One way or another, that two million tons has to come
It’s possible that these calculations are too gloomy. The Chinese government insists it will increase crop yields enough to feed its people; in other places around the globe birth rates have begun to fall, leading some demographers to predict that the world population may peak late in the next century at just over ten billion. There may be technical marvels on the horizon:
At the very least, however, it’s clear that the next 50 years will be a tight squeeze. Many forms of toxic pollution will hit their zenith, as will carbon emissions, deforestation, and perhaps species extinction. And virtually everyone agrees we’ll have a few billion more mouths to feed — a few billion. The math is no fun to do. Among other
Ugashik Lake, where we still do right by the wild fish that have always spawned there, is one of a thousand huge, spectacular, undeveloped Alaskan lakes. On this midsummer day, a huge rainbow arches across the northern sky; to the east
That’s how the whole world should work. Enough fish for us, and for grizzlies, and for eagles, and more besides. A plethora, an abundance, a generosity of fish.
But we don’t live on that planet anymore. The planet we do live on demands a chastened realism. We aren’t going to find more oceans brimming with fish, just as we’re not going to come across extra continents covered with fertile fields. Not for us the get-rich-quick excitement of Cabot’s day; for us, there is the hard and patient work of protecting the resources we still have,
But if we happen to have been born at a narrowing moment in human history, we nonetheless possess certain consolations. Denied the experience of abundance — denied the passenger pigeon blackening the skies, the buffalo shaking the prairie, the cod choking the surf — we have instead been granted a sense of preciousness.
Out on Bill Donovan’s boat, when we saw that minke whale to starboard, we all stopped what we were doing and watched, watching and rocking on the slow and queasy swells. Not to calculate the price the whale might fetch, or to wonder if it indicated a school of fish we might chase, but merely to participate for a moment in its grace. If we are no longer granted the fearlessness
We ate our cod that night — it came from a hopeful scientific sampling designed to see if the fish are returning — with special pleasure.
Bill McKibben is a frequent contributor to Outside. His most recent book is Hope, Human and Wild.
Photograph by Sam Walsh, illustrations by Jonathon Rosen