Will the Real Slob Fishermen Please Stand Up?

I grew up on the Connecticut shores of Long Island Sound and spent many weekends fishing off the docks of Norwalk’s beaches with my dad. On some days his best friend would take us out fishing on the Sound in his motorboat. We were angling mainly for "snappers" (baby bluefish), but we never ate them. We would just let them die in the bucket and then bury them in the backyard, rationalizing that they were good for fertilizer. Occasionally we’d give them to a neighbor, but my mother wouldn’t clean fish so it was almost always a waste. Today we wouldn’t even think about eating the fish we caught, because health advisories warn against consuming Long Island Sound fish due to elevated levels of toxic chemicals.

© Jerry Russell

I caught a sea robin once, a prehistoric-looking thing with a spiny, rock-hard exterior that made a lot of noise when you unhooked it. We brought it home and I regret to this day playing with it in the bathroom sink with the blunt end of a kitchen knife, only to then let it expire in the trash. I suppose you could say we were "slob fishermen," though it would be folly to suggest that our ilk are mostly to blame for the global decline in fish stocks. Our toll pales compared to the commercial fleets—the real "slobs"—who have trawled and drift netted our not-so-boundless oceans, taking everything in their path, including significant numbers of unwanted fish tossed back dead as "by-catch."

According to the Marine Fish Conservation Network, north Atlantic swordfish caught today are only a third the size caught in the 60s when I was out spotting for snappers—and well below that which females must be to reproduce. Sea Web reports that, of the 157 fish species tracked in U.S. waters, 36 percent are over-exploited and 44 percent are fished to the max. Populations of cod, haddock, halibut, red drum and yellowtail flounder are at record lows. Chilean sea bass is so over-fished that many scientists predict commercial extinction within five years.

I talked about this with some staffers at a prominent fishing industry trade journal a few years ago during the height of concerns about swordfish, when many restaurants voluntarily chose to remove it from their menus. They proudly boasted that their publisher personally boycotted restaurants that did not sell swordfish. Perhaps this helps to explain why we can’t expect much from an industry wanting to regulate itself. Indeed, as our cover story points out, allowing the fishing industry to self-regulate has been a disaster. The dramatic loss of the richest cod stock in the world off New England’s George’s Bank demonstrates that fishing groups are seldom willing to halt destructive practices until the species in question crash—and sometimes not even then.

Because the private sector acts out of self-interest and federal agencies often have to be sued to enforce laws, you can play a part by refusing to buy increasingly endangered species like Chilean sea bass or orange roughy, and by putting pressure on your elected officials to enact tough fisheries reform. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. So far, George W. Bush has largely ignored recommendations from two important oceans commissions, one of which he appointed himself.