THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAWLING
A wave of sensational anti-trawling news reports has flooded the media in the wake of academic studies recently released by the Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI). Trawl fishermen bring the largest volume of seafood to market, fishing by proxy for consumers. However, the studies broadly criticized, oversimplified and unfairly painted all trawl fishermen as employing practices harmful to the sea floor and ocean environment. Comparing trawling or dredging with clearcutting is inaccurate at best and incendiary at worst. For example, trawl gear deployed to harvest a majority of seafood fishes above the seabed, not contacting the bottom at all. Yet citing these studies, environmentalists now urge the creation of "no-trawl zones."
The issues are far more complicated than stated in the recent MCBI release and by proponents of harvest refugia. As a whole our coastal trawl fleet employs methods that have enabled them to fish the same grounds productively since the 1890's. It is their desire to sustain marine resources for future generations.
Trawling occurs over a small portion of the ocean
It is also important to note that our independent coastal trawl fishermen don't mindlessly drag nets along the ocean floor; nets and gear would simply fill up with mud if this were true. Anti-trawl reports typically paint a bleak portrait of the bottom as a denuded landscape of broken reefs. These accounts are misleading, as trawling activity takes place over a very small portion of the total ocean bottom. Furthermore, trawling among reefs and rocks could cause hang-ups, resulting in twisted cables and thousands of dollars of damage to expensive nets. Trawl fishermen mark high-profile reefs and rock piles on electronic track plotters and go to great lengths to avoid such areas.
Bottom trawl nets used to catch most groundfish and pink shrimp on the west coast generally fish just above muddy, sandy bottom. Bottom trawl nets also are deployed over hard bottom to catch rockfish. Midwater trawl gear doesn't touch bottom at all but sweeps through the water column to harvest such species as widow rockfish and Pacific whiting, the most abundant fish off the west coast. Virtually all trawling occurs more than three miles from the mainland, in federal waters. California's family fishermen have fished these grounds for generations, and hope to continue for generations more.
Trawl nets are regulated
Comparing our local trawl fishery to clear-cut logging practices is unjustified and highly inflammatory. Fishing with nets is nothing like the image conveyed by clear-cut logging; certainly it is nothing like the practice of clear-cutting. Trawl nets are required to be constructed with a minimum mesh size. Fish are able to swim out over the top, sides and even bottom of the net, and smaller fish pass through the webbing. Fishermen continually work to refine fishing gear, as they seek to improve knowledge of their workday environment. Such actions are best achieved by communication and cooperation between scientists and knowledgeable fishermen.
Along with other west coast fishermen, California trawlers have initiated many of the efforts to regulate and conserve the west coast groundfish fishery over the past decades, repeatedly offering to assist in scientific stock assessments. California fishermen have long served on advisory committees to the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC). The fishing industry has abided by the quotas and regulations established. Nearly two years ago Congress adopted new, ultra-conservative federal laws governing fishery management, in the wake of east coast groundfish stock declines. We've entered a new "risk averse" era in managing our natural resources. Conservation is a good thing, but we must also dedicate sufficient resources to research, enabling scientists to develop more accurate estimates of the harvestable biomass as well as ways to minimize fishing impacts. Seafood resources are, after all, renewable.
"No fishing" zones already exist
Our local fishermen support science-based efforts to sustain marine resources and fisheries. For commercial fishermen, harvest refuges aren't a new idea: for decades many fisheries have been managed with time and area closures. In fact, California trawlers already operate with a de-facto harvest refuge: with one exception, trawl fishing is not permitted within three miles of California's coastline. In the single exception, the California halibut trawl grounds between Point Arguello and Point Mugu in southern California, trawl boats must still remain at least one mile offshore.
The truth about trawling
What is the truth about trawling? Research on the effects of all fishing gear has been conducted worldwide, with no consensus among scientists on the environmental impacts positive or negative of fishing. One of the few general conclusions that can be drawn is that fishing gear impacts in areas of high energy (strong currents, tides, etc.) are not noticeable within a short period of time. In areas of low physical energy, impacts may be noticeable but only appear to be cosmetic. It is difficult to isolate fishing impacts from natural impacts, such as storm turbulence.
Today, however, the U.S. commercial fishing industry faces vitriolic, divisive attacks similar to environmental attacks on farming and logging a few years ago. Such environmental sensationalism attempts to influence public sentiment; ironically, it targets the very people who are closest to the natural world. Resulting from attacks on our country's producers, independent family farmers and loggers have been run out of business, while large, often multi-national companies seem to be doing fine. A similar pattern is now evident in our local fishing industry. Yet a strange dichotomy, in California consumer polls have validated the importance of "fresh, local" seafood as well as the local fishing industry that provides seafood for the table.
Science vs. science advocacy
We live in complicated times. In recent years we have observed a trend away from objective science to science advocacy. The self-serving nature of many scientific studies is backfiring as consumers become more savvy, questioning the goals of the sponsoring groups. By the oversimplification in this recent report on trawling, we fear that we are witnessing science with an agenda.
The fishing industry strongly advocates for increased objective research and partnerships between scientists and fishermen. Fishermen have much to contribute toward increasing our understanding of the ocean, but their views are rarely heard. It is in everyone's collective interest to protect coastal waters and ensure abundant healthy populations of local fish species. Letıs work together to ensure sustainable resources, as well as a healthy local fishing industry.
For more information on trawling, visit www.fishingnj.org on the Internet
Diane Pleschner, Manager