Fish Scales

By | September 01, 2013
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Have you ever wondered what happens to fish after it’s landed back in port? Does the fluctuating “market price” of fish puzzle you? Do you wonder about the environmental impact certain fisheries have on the ocean? Are you curious as to how green, yellow and red sustainable fish guidelines are determined?

The answer to all these questions has something to do with fish scales. Not the ones you scrape off a sea bass before cooking it, but the size and impact commercial fisheries have on the environment and market. Much of the Cape’s harbors and ports are home to small and medium-sized boats. The owners and operators fish fairly close to shore, selling their catch on a market commensurate with the scale of their gear and quota. The environmental impact is fairly low. These family fishermen employ a friend and neighbor as crew, steam a few hours off shore (usually within 30 miles), and haul only gear that can fit on some part of a 30- to 50-foot boat. The fish they harvest travels a short distance back to port, is hand packed by the crew and a few dock hands, then is sold to various market outlets, some of which are local retail shops and restaurants. Sounds ideal, right?

The reality is that Cape Cod’s fishing fleet is becoming an endangered species. For over 25 years, independent fishermen from Martha’s Vineyard and Barnstable, Chatham and Provincetown have made major sacrifices for the good of the collective, hoping that fish stocks will recover enough to salvage decades of debt, decline and devastation. Despite policy makers cutting days at sea, slashing fish quotas and creating catch shares, the historic “target” species so coveted on the Cape, like cod, haddock, flounder, and squid remain in jeopardy. While seals are a huge competitor with fishermen, there’s a frightening trend that’s gaining momentum off Cape Cod’s shoreline. And we’re not talking about the influx of great white sharks, but something worse! The primary predator of family fishermen: BIG BOX BOATS.

Think about the strategy of large corporate entities. Production resources or rights are purchased in massive volume, oftentimes buying out smaller-scale operations, land rights, and, in this case, fishing quota. In order to satisfy investors with dividends, maximum profit is extracted from a high catch rate. Wages drop, jobs are outsourced, and the scale of the fishery grows in size to keep profits rolling in. More quota is bought or leased from those on a smaller scale, and the family fisherman is pushed out. That is the nature of Big Box Boats.

But this is not new news. Corporations have participated in industrial-scale fishing since the beginning of modern capitalism. As a result, communities, regions and nations with special interest in securing their food resources began to regulate fish stocks. In fact, fisheries policy on the Cape dates back to European settlement, when merchants limited harvest periods of certain species to ensure maintenance of their spawning patterns for future stocks. But as technology grew, so did the corporatization of the fishing industry. Boats could travel quickly from all over the world to abundant fishing grounds, putting pressure on the ocean’s bounty.

Gone were the days when, as legend tells us, you could “walk on the backs of cod fish” around the Cape’s waters. By the mid-1970s, a 200-mile limit of national fishing grounds was created, booting out foreign boats from federal waters. In turn, capital-heavy American corporations bought up fishing rights. They funded industrial-scale fishing operations on large, off-shore vessels, with gear technologies that harmed the ocean’s ecosystem and drove the price of fish down and out of a living wage for individual, community-based fishermen. Scientists and policy makers set in motion reactionary regulations, and family fishermen made the biggest sacrifices because they had the least amount of quota to give up.

So, how are these Big Box Boats affecting Cape Cod’s fishing fleet now?

The current “Catch Share” system has opened up a can of worms. Born out of an effort to allow fishermen to manage their own resource, catch shares allocate the rights to fish and how much fish can be taken from a given area of the ocean. As fish stocks remain delicate, but the market remains strong, especially for cod and other groundfish, quota is highly valued and extremely expensive. Community-based fishermen who own and operate one or two boats, fishing on a permit that had generations of history or quota which once allowed for a modest, meaningful income, are being bought out left and right. Globally-scaled corporations that have tons of capital buy up these rights to fish. Wall Street investors are purchasing permits and quota and then leasing them out to fishermen who can’t afford to fish. This effectively has turned many small and medium-sized boat owners and operators into modern day share croppers, giving up to 60 percent of the value of the fish to nameless, invisible investors. Sometimes the quota is leased to fishermen at a price percentage, say $0.70 per pound for a fish that only returns $1.10 per pound. After fuel, crew costs, boat and gear maintenance, they are fishing in the red. The result is fleet consolidation.

Unfortunately, when policymakers in New England conceived this system for groundfishermen, there were few considerations for how impactful it would be on family fishermen, other fisheries, fishing-related businesses, and shore-side infrastructure. The intention was for a collective stock fished by fewer boats to put less pressure on the ecosystem, and start the resource recovery process. In just a few short years, the opposite has occurred. Fewer, bigger boats with industrial-sized gear are fishing most of the quota, creeping closer in-shore to fishing grounds historically used by small and medium-scale boats, putting even more pressure on a damaged resource, and marginalizing independent fishermen who have made huge sacrifices to manage stocks. Small businesses that once serviced a healthy fleet are disappearing. Jobs are lost. Docks sit idle, and are sold to condominium developers or turned into yacht clubs, and our fishing infrastructure is lost forever.

Sector management and leasing bank programs have attempted to address the problems associated with catch shares, but they are not fool proof. Fishermen continue to abandon their way of life, and Cape Cod’s fleet is not exempt. There’s more to the solution than just fisheries regulations.

The consumer plays an integral part in current fisheries issues and the ocean recovery vision. Seafood lovers and fisheries advocates alike encourage inquiries into source and traceability of fish. As the local food movement gains momentum, restaurants and food merchants on the Cape are creatively and accurately highlighting locally and responsibly harvested fish. As fishermen, we are motivated by this trend, and hope it becomes standard. As community-based, independent small-scale family fishermen trying to sustain a way of life in the shadow of the Big Box Boats, we can see the role of the consumer as game changing. And here’s how:

Cape Cod food markets and restaurants serve some fish that are harvested by Big Box Boats, and may travel from faraway places for weeks to land on your dinner plate. We’re talking cod, salmon, and haddock, among other high demand species. These fish are not or are no longer abundant in native waters to sustain a local fleet. However, Cape Cod fishermen are harvesting other fish close to home, off-loading on the docks of Chatham and Hyannis, fueling up and icing down by local companies, and hiring neighbors as crew. But they are selling their catch to auction or distributers that export the fish overseas. Sure, the species may be under-appreciated, like dogfish, skate, or monkfish, but there’s a market somewhere else for them. Why not keep the supply chain short, and the value chain high? Consumers can become “co-producers”  and affect change through market transformation. If fishermen are the producers—the first price point on the value chain—are they receiving a fair price? The answer is no! Scup: 30¢/pound, Dogfish: 25¢/pound. Can fishermen really make a living wage with these prices? A local market can support a better price for fishermen if the product is in demand. And the consumer can receive a fair price for healthy, fresh seafood that is responsibly harvested in local waters by local workers. The economic value of that system has great potential to keep Cape Cod’s family fishermen out on the water, and out of the history books.

Our local resource should be benefiting our local food chain and our local work force. Wouldn’t you rather have community-based day boat scallops caught right off the Cape rather than a farm-raised, frozen scallop shipped from China several weeks ago? “Who Fishes Matters,”  and we’d like to keep it that way here on Cape Cod. Besides, where else are you going to send tourists or bring family visitors to see that iconic fishing boat steaming into port on a late August afternoon?

The “Who Fishes Matters” and Fight the Big Box Boats campaigns are initiatives started by fishermen in New England. To find out more about how you can participate, visit the website of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance at

Article from Edible Cape Cod at
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