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On writing about commercial fishing

Nils E. Stolpe/FishNet USA

© 2021 Nils E. Stolpe

March 11, 2021

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Writings about commercial fishing can be divided into three fairly broad categories: reporting, analyzing and advocating.


There is a seeming plethora of websites, as well as a handful of print publications that do a reasonable job of reporting on what’s happening in the commercial fishing world. As a matter of fact, folks who subscribe to a number of magazines and newsletters are bound to see multiple rehashes or redistributions of the same press releases or other informational and/or self promoting materials from government organizations, non-government groups or private businesses. At times the bombardment of same-same rehashings of what are not much more than public notices of less than important information or events can seem relentless.


However, at least from an industry perspective there is a regrettable lack of analysis of what is being re­ported and what that means to actual real-world commercial fishermen. And an even greater-again from an industry perspective-lack of advocating for or against particular policies or actions that are /being re­ported. It’s generally a “well this is what’s happening (or this is what’s going to happen)” but not much-if anything-about any actual or possibly implications (except occasionally for the specific impacts on particular fisheries).


This is a fairly recent phenomenon. Even ten years ago the U.S. commercial fishing industry had lead­ers and advisors who had “grown up” in the industry, starting prior to or contemporaneously with the creation and passage of the Magnuson Act (which was subsequently renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act) in 1976. This connectivity and continuity was of great benefit when dealing with elected and appointed officials, the media, and with other fishing organiza­tions.


The Seafood Coalition” was a great start

(Until a few years ago the industry had a semi-official organization, The Seafood Coalition, with a membership of 100 or so industry trade groups which would take positions on various is­sues as they arose with the potential to negatively impact all or large parts of the domestic com­mercial fishing industry. At one point it’s members represented on the order of groups that har­vested/handled/processed 50 to 75% of the domestic seafood production. It was a quintessen­tial ad hoc organization; no budget, no fees, no bylaws, no officers and no staff. There were a few of us-I was one of the original organizers who would voluntarily take issues to the mem­bership, prepare comments and/or correspondence relating to those particular issue, solicit sig­natures from the members for the comments/correspondence and attend to their distribution. That, a list serve-for an annual fee of less than $100/year-and a list serve administrator (some guy named Stolpe) was all that was necessary It was fairly effective for a while and has yet to be replaced by anything that can even claim to ap­proach equivalent industry-wide representation.)


Unfortunately, this connectivity and continuity has been waning in recent years and it seems that, at least in my experience, the fish­eries are more balkanized now than they have ever been. While there has been an increasing need for industry-wide coordination and cooperation on any number of issues, there has also been a confounding dissolution of the hard-won alliances and understandings that we once had.


Considering the extensive sampling and record-keeping that the commercial fishing industry has been increasingly saddled with by the feds for decades, this is hard to credit. There has been an increasing governmental demand for geographically specific catch, landings and sales data. The zeal with which the feds pursue the collection of this data-at tremendous cost and inconvenience to the fishing industry-is in many in­stances approaching overwhelming. Unfortunately, in the same time frame the cost of commercial fish­ing, the out of pocket increases in acquiring, operating and licensing commercial fishing operations, have increased tremendously while in spite of “official” assurances that things keep getting better and better in the industry, the income in most of the commercial fisheries that I am familiar with definitely hasn’t.


Looking beyond the official statistics (that’s called research)


Consider the following quote from a NOAA/NMFS release from a little over a year ago that seems to be saying that everything is wonderful in the world of the domestic commercial fishing industry. This is probably the vision that is rapturously filling-along with sugar plums and angel wings-the dreams of the people at the federal agency that is responsible for managing our federal fisheries. It was duly reported as such by the print and elec­tronic media who are supposedly monitoring-and reporting on-that agency’s performance.


2018 a strong, successful year for U.S. fishermen and seafood sector

Annual NOAA report finds steady, sustainable trends in fish landings and values.

February 21, 2020 In 2018, U.S. fishermen landed 9.4 billion pounds of fish valued at $5.6 bil­lion at ports around the nation—consistently high figures on par with recent years, which bring economic benefits up and down the seafood supply chain, according to an annual report re­leased today by NOAA Fisheries.

According to the Fisheries of the United States report, which is compiled by NOAA using data and analysis not immediately available at the same end of a fishing year, U.S. highest value species groups in 2018 included lobster ($684 million), crabs ($645 million), salmon ($598 mil­lion), scallops ($541 million), and shrimp ($496 million). Dutch Harbor in Alaska, and New Bedford in Massachusetts, continue to dominate the list of top ports driven by landings of pol­lock for Alaska (the nation’s largest commercial fishery) and top-valued sea scallops in Massa­chusetts.

"America's fishermen and seafood industries underpin our strong blue economy. Our fisheries are among the world's most sustainable and support thousands of jobs, provide billions of dol­lars in revenue, and provide protein-rich options to dinner tables," said U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. "Consumers can be confident that U.S. seafood represents the global gold standard in sustainability." (https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/2018-strong-successful-year-for-us-fishermen-and-seafood-sector).

Below is a partial listing-industry and otherwise-of the media outlets which resulted from a Google search of the first paragraph of the above release: “In 2018, U.S. fishermen landed 9.4 billion pounds of fish valued at $5.6 billion at ports around the nation.”

· Saving Seafood https://www.savingseafood.org/news/economic-impact/fisheries-of-the-u-s-report-2018-a-strong-successful-year-for-u-s-fishermen/

· South Coast Today https://www.southcoasttoday.com/news/20200221/new-bedford-nations-richest-port-for-19th-year

· Alaskan Fish Radio http://www.alaskafishradio.com/dutch-harbor-is-top-us-port-for-22-years-naknek-ranks-2-for-value/

· Island Free Press https://islandfreepress.org/fishing-report/2018-a-strong-successful-year-for-u-s-fishermen-and-seafood-sector/

· Cape Cod Times https://www.capecod.com/newscenter/recently-released-data-from-noaa-shows-that-2018-was-a-successful-year-for-u-s-fishermen/

· Seafood Source https://www.seafoodsource.com/news/supply-trade/noaa-fisheries-report-2018-production-down-but-value-up


Needless to say they all “reported” that in the agency’s own words and under its control and guidance, the domestic commercial fishing industry was doing a gang-bustingly good job and everything was coming up roses for those in or dependent on it.


That’s about as far as “reporting” is going to get you, at least as far as reporting about the commercial fishing industry is currently being practiced today.


But is this reporting, or is it getting a visitor’s pass to the latest federal Kool Aid party? And more im­portantly, is it the kind of reporting that commercial fishermen, those who depend on them, and those who make decisions based upon what’s really happening out there should depend upon?


Equally importantly, are a couple of pages of self-congratulatory word wooze turned out by what at times seems like the 21st cen­tury equivalent of a ministry of propaganda going to help a somewhat uninformed reader to under­stand what’s really going on in one of our oldest, most important and least understood coastal indus­tries?


I’ll let you be the judge of that, because if you’re reading this you’re ability to succeed in that industry is dependent in large part on how well your understanding of it is connected to the real world.


So, supplementing my reporting up above of what the public relations people at NOAA/NMFS had to say about the wonderful job that their agency has been doing in managing our nation’s fisheries, I’m going to refer you to excerpts from a piece I wrote a couple of years back (the article is available in its entirety at http://FishNet-USA.com/AfterOverFortyYears.pdf). While the “banner year” that NOAA/NMFS personnel were so pumped up about was 2019, the same trends, trends extending back to the 1970s, that I was writing about two years ago are still in evidence today. (While I’ve condensed a half a dozen pages or so of charts which demonstrate the points I’m again making, I’d urge you to go to the original FishNet linked above, ‘cause a picture is worth… well, you know.)


First off, I provided some background:

Each year NOAA/NMFS also publishes Fisheries of the United States, the most recent being for 2017 (http://tinyurl.com/y5e8sjy6). In the words of NOAA/NMFS:

“Fisheries of the United States, published each fall, has been produced in its various forms for more than 100 years. It is the NOAA Fisheries yearbook of fishery statistics for the United States. It provides a snapshot of data, primarily at the national level, on U.S. recreational catch and commercial fisheries landings and value. In addition, data are reported on U.S. aquaculture production, the U.S. seafood processing industry, im­ports and exports of fishery-related products, and domestic supply and per capita con­sumption of fishery products. The focus is not on economic analysis, although value of landings, processed products, and foreign trade are included.”


I think that I’m safe here in suggesting that the vast majority of people reading the above would inter­pret it as indicating that things are going well for the U.S. East coast commercial fishing industry. And obviously that is what the feds who are in charge want them to think.


However, I continued….

Each annual Fisheries of the United States report contains a wealth of information on commer­cial landings for the year of publication and the previous year (i.e. the 2017 report has commer­cial landings for 2017 and 2016) and in a few instances goes back slightly farther. However, a one or two year snapshot doesn’t show much about fisheries trends, or about the success – at least from a fishing industry perspective – of management efforts. And said most simply, though anti-intuitively, the status of the fish stocks no longer has an awful lot to do with the status of the human components of the fishery.

But, and this might come as surprise to most federal and state fisheries managers, there are other measures of how well they are doing at managing our fisheries, and among the most im­portant is-or should be-how well the fishermen and those in fishing dependent businesses, who once were supposed to be much of the reason for spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dol­lars each year on fisheries management, are doing.

And did some analysis (aka looking at the same federal figures, but looking at them without any horn blowing)

There are unquestionably a number of ways in which the success/satisfaction of people in the fishing industry can be measured. I’ve picked, however, the simplest: the value of annual landings in a particular fishery compared to the value of previous years’ landings in that fish­ery. Particularly in this age of limited access, the luxury of being able to switch to other fish­eries is one that only a very few fishermen can afford. Hence what you “earned” in prior years in a particular fishery should generally be a reasonable measure of how well you’ve done sub­sequently.

(The volatility in the price per pound in some fisheries makes the weight of fish landed less im­portant to the fishermen than the value of their catch. The generalization that most fishermen are fishing for money is usually accurate.)

The average for total Atlantic landings from 1950 to 2017 when corrected for inflation was $1,888,500,000, which was below the 2017 landings maximum. All things considered, in 2017 being 4% above the yearly average value of landings since well before Magnuson management began (the Act became law in 1976) seems fairly decent management performance.

I was comparing individual fisheries that had annual landings ranging from hundreds of thou­sands to hundreds of millions of dollars, I graphed annual landings (of individual fisheries as well as total fisheries combined) as a percentage of the maximum landings. For example, the inflation corrected maximum value of all landings was $2,249,921,045 in 1979, represented by 100% in Chart 1. It was $1,969,770,533 in 2017, 88% of the maximum.

Why all of the graphs (please take a look at http://FishNet-USA.com/AfterOverFortyYears.pdf) going back to 1950?

There are unquestionably a number of ways in which the success/satisfaction of people in the fishing industry can be measured. I’ve picked, however, the most simple; the value of annual landings in a particular fishery compared to the value of previous years’ landings in that fish­ery. Particularly in this age of limited access, the luxury of being able to switch to other fish­eries is one that only a very few fishermen can afford. Hence what you “earned” in prior years in a particular fishery should generally be a reasonable measure of how well you’ve done sub­sequently.

Accordingly I looked at the catch value estimates from the NOAA/NMFS Commercial landings database at https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/commercial-fisheries/commercial-landings/annual-landings/index. To allow realistic year-to-year comparisons, I corrected the value of each year’s landings for inflation, expressing them in 2017 dollars by using the US inflation calculator at https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/. All of the graphs were done with Microsoft Excel 2010.

(Initially I’m limiting this to Atlantic coast landings. The same data is available for the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific and Alaska fisheries but I’ll keep an Atlantic focus here.)

The total value of Atlantic commercial landings was determined by multiplying the annual val­ues of “All Species Combined” from each year from 1950 to 2017 by the appropriate inflation correction. The value of all species combined in 1950 was three hundred and thirty-six million dollars, which using the inflation calculator linked above yields the equivalent of three billion four hundred and twenty million dollars in 2017.

Because I am comparing individual fisheries that had annual landings ranging from hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars, I graphed annual landings (of individual fish­eries as well as total fisheries combined) as a percentage of the maximum landings. For exam­ple, the inflation corrected maximum value of all landings was $2,249,921,045 in 1979, repre­sented by 100% in Chart 1. It was $1,969,770,533 in 2017, 88% of the maximum.





The average for total Atlantic landings from 1950 to 2017 when corrected for inflation was $1,888,500,000, which was below the 2017 landings maximum. All things considered, in 2017 being 4% above the yearly average value of landings since well before Magnuson management began (the Act became law in 1976) seems fairly decent management performance.

But unfortunately for many fishermen and people in fishing dependent businesses, the devil is in the details, and not too surprisingly – at least to those of us who are familiar with the commer­cial fishing industry on the East coast – those details present a picture much less rosy than the bigger picture up above.

As Chart 2 below shows, The American lobster and sea scallop fisheries, currently the two most valuable fisheries on the East coast, when corrected for inflation have each more than doubled in value since the passage of the Magnuson Act.





Conversely the combined landings in all of the other fisheries have been just about halved in the same period. As Chart 3 below shows, the booms in the lobster and scallop fisheries haven’t been accompanied by corresponding booms in many of the other fisheries. In fact the situations in some of those fisheries can best be described as busts.

Chart 3 shows the value of all Atlantic coast landings minus lobsters and sea scallops. This in­dicates a relatively steady decline since the peak of one point six billion dollars (inflation cor­rected) in 1979. The minimum of seven hundred and sixteen million dollars was landed in 2009 and there has been a slight increase since then, but in 2017 landings minus sea scallops and lobster were less than 60% of what they were at their peak.





These charts tell a fairly sad story about most of the Atlantic coast commercial fishing in­dustry since the passage of the Magnuson Act, at least as far as the “management” part is con­cerned. Thanks to a fortuitous confluence of factors, what were the two most valuable fisheries on the U.S. east coast were still the most valuable in 2017 and their relative values have more than doubled, but for most of the other fisheries this is far from the case.

(At http://FishNet-USA.com/AfterOverFortyYears.pdfstarting on page 5 are charts for the twenty four Atlantic coast fisheries that were most valuable –both finfish and shellfish-in 2017. the catch-all category “Shellfish,” which was the 15th most valuable, was omitted.)

Of the seventeen most valuable finfish fisheries, the value of three -striped bass, American eel and black sea bass-have had landings that have increased in value since the passage of the Act, and “modern” fisheries management began in the late 1970s. The remaining fourteen have de­creased in value, and most have in fact plummeted.

Of the thirteen shellfish fisheries only six could be described as plummeting in value, the other seven appearing to have increased significantly (though the two squid fisheries and the Jonah crab fisheries are new fisheries which were insignificant pre-Magnuson). It’s important to note that with only a few exceptions shellfish are found in state waters and that their management is largely done by the state governments or by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The federal (NOAA/NMFS) input is minimal.

(The reported values of the Atlantic herring catch from 2004 to 2006 appear to be anomalous. However, I got no response to my query to NOAA/NMFS regarding possible reasons for this. I have also included the landings values of several species which, while “historically” important were no longer in the most valuable 25 fisheries in 2017.)


This analysis, which went quite a bit beyond the NOAA/NMFS implied assumption that that that agency’s performance-and the well-being of the industry that they are charged with managing- could be measured based on the performance of a few fisheries, demonstrates what’s really going on in the indus­try, and for a large part of the industry what’s going on is nothing for the agency to be patting it’s collec­tive back about.


But hey, it’s good to own a sea scallop or lobster boat!


What ever happened to opinions?


We know a lot of commercial fishermen. And we know a lot of people who are associated with com­mercial fishing in one way or another. And we can say that-to a person (and that includes both male and female fishermen)-they all tend to be about as far as people can be from being referred to as shrinking violets. If there’s one thing people in the fishing industry tend to have in excess, that has to be opinions. Whether politically, practically, morally, spiritually, artistically, personally or in any other way, they’ve all got opinions. And they tend not to soft pedal those opinions.


But in spite of this it seems that just about anyone who has been writing about fishing issues in recent years has been going to extreme lengths to avoid voicing any opinions, either their own or just about anybody else’s. There’s been plenty of information of a “who’s doing” or “who’s building” what na­ture, but not much information on what any of it actually means (unless, it seems, it’s what the folks in the Agency In Charge would like everyone to think it means).


Has it always been this way? At least to me it seems not. It seems to me that opinions, of course de­pending on whose opinions they were and on how well they were supported, played a much more im­portant role in fisheries publications than they do today. But in recent years any examination of a cross section of commercial fishing trade publications reveals a primary focus on who and what but very lit­tle attention on why. And in my experience the why is very often the most important part.


Boat races are interesting. What the NOAA/NMFS bureaucrats want us to believe is obviously impor­tant. The same can be said about the latest innovations in vessels and gear as well as regulatory changes. But the opinions of high liners, industry leaders, respected researchers, elected and appointed officials, managers, bureaucrats and fair minded environmentalists (yes, there are a few) are equally or more important. And we’re hearing less and less from them.


Is this all part and parcel of the worrisome and apparently growing (Heaven help us!) divisiveness that is characterizes so much of public and private life today? Is it a tacit recognition that it’s all been said before, and that what has been said before has been so much wasted energy? Or is it that it’s far easier to pass on press releases than it is to come up with well-reasoned (though possibly controversial, God forbid!) opinions.


Whatever the reason, it seems that as an industry we are digging ourselves deeper and deeper into a se­ries of ruts year by year. That might not have an upside for any of us.


Because of the outstanding condition of the sea scallop and lobster fisheries in the Northeast, in the aggregate everything appears to be go­ing well for the commercial fishing industry and the commercial fishermen from Florida to Maine. And that’s the message NOAA/NMFS is spreading wherever and however they can. But is this a fair depiction of the condition in your fishery? If you aren’t fishing for lobsters, sea scallops or one of a handful of other fish or shellfish is this what you want the “take home” message to your elected officials to be? You see the message that NOAA/NMFS is sending the Legislators who are charged with representing your interests in the House or Senate. Imagine NOAA/NMFS personnel telling Congresswoman X, Senator Y or Congress­man Z that your industry is doing well–just look at the aggregate numbers-and, based on what’s being “reported” in articles in reputable publications it’s members shouldn’t be happier. Oh, and you can just ignore those few “bad apples” who are griping and moaning “because it says right here, in this or that article in that or this publication, that NOAA/NMFS is doing a great job.”


And it appears as if that’s what they’re doing. But what’s happening in two particular fisheries isn’t happening in all of them. In fact it’s happening in significantly less than half of our historically significant East Coast fisheries (and in most of those few that are doing well, management authority is split between the states and the feds).


At an earlier time this might well have been considered “the rest of the story” by broadcaster Paul Harvey, but Mr. Harvey passed away more than ten years ago, and none of the “official” spokespeople for the domestic commercial fisheries have invested major-or even minor-efforts trying to set the record straight.


And I’m probably safe in writing that we all know who’s paying for their reticence.

___________________________________________

I don’t know what the situation is in the Gulf, on the West coast or in Alaska but I suspect it’s about the same or similar. If you are in, are associated with, or are affected by any of these fisheries and would like to know how they have been faring over time, I might be able to help you out. Send me an email at nilsstolpe@fishnet-usa.com.


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