Monday, September 12, 2011

Hang onto your bottom

This article about sinking a U.S. destroyer off the Delaware coast reminded me of bottom habitat off the coast of Alaska. How is that you ask? First, ask yourself, why sink a lot of ships and old subway cars out on the continental shelf anyway? The story is that these artificial reefs are better served as habitat for fish than cutting them up and using them to make a new ship. Must be real valuable in that regard, because in my mind steel and all the other metals in a ship has real value compared to the rock it came from. So propagating fish must be real valuable. And the reason for this is that the bottom on the East Coast must not be good for that purpose.

How did the East Coast bottom get so unproductive anyway, and how does that relate to the bottom off Alaska? As for the first question, consider what researchers said at Oregon State University, a major marine biology research center, about fishing practices for bottom-fish. They said, and I quote, "bottom trawling extinguishes 30% of the species complex of bottom affected by dragging trawls across it." 

Next, recall those accounts of people putting string around one square foot of open meadow and counting all the different species of flora and fauna in it. It is a staggering amount; dozens and dozens of different things. Ok, maybe you can't imagine little Bobby from fifth grade doing that to the bottom of the ocean in a hundred fathoms, but try to wrap your mind around the fact that there are LOTS of different things that live down there. And lots of them are food and habitat for the few higher life forms that we like to whack up and put in the frying pan.

Some of the things down there that are crucial to the survival of our food fishes are VERY long-lived. And they are VERY delicate in relation to bottom trawls designed with heavy chain and heavy rollers made out of truck tires. These bottom trawls don't hang up on the bottom like you'd think and cause all sorts of consternation to the fishermen, and the fish get away. No, these 'Canyon Busters', as some of them are called, just flatten the bottom structures the juvenile fish need for habitat, or bring the whole mess to the surface.

I've related this story before; how a Japanese fish egg technician told of dragging up a deck load of rocks off the coast of Africa and then waiting for all the octopus to crawl out to be pitchforked into the hold. Fishermen have been trawling the East Coast of the U.S. for hundreds of years, don't you think the bottom has gotten pretty flat and unproductive by now?

There are statistics galore on the accidental catch of human-food fish, that other fishermen are allowed to catch, but those fishermen aren't, so they throw them back dead. And the federal management system wasn't designed properly by Congress to prevent any of this. I don't want to cloud the simple truth though that bottom trawling will eventually lead to the need for artificial reefs to produce any amount of fish to catch. Is this what we want for the coasts off Alaska.

Some people in the Southeast Alaska region saw this coming in the early days of the commercialization of the new 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone in the late '70s. I don't know for a fact what happened, because my father never told me straight out what they did. BUT. 1) My father had a degree in fisheries from the University of Washington, 2) he was the manager of one of the first two bottomfish plants installed in Alaska, 3) he was used by the State of Alaska to lecture and represent the fledgling whitefish industry from the Pribilof Islands to Denmark, 4) he did say that such a industrial machine as trawlers and bottomfish plants were hell on the fish stocks, 5) they wiped out the pollock in Frederick Sound in Southeast in a year or so, 6) and when the dust settled, the coast of Southeast Alaska was closed to trawling, bottom or midwater, from the Canadian border to almost Prince William Sound, out to 200 miles.

I don't know how much clearer I can say this, the bottom trawlers are wiping out the halibut. Somehow, this isn't getting into the discussion of longliner vs charter operator. Well, that's their problem. The real problem is outside of that tussle, like the mob boss who owns both boxers. And you can go to the Tholepin blog to see pictures of the carnage.

The real problem is the relentless decline of wild Alaska fish stocks, irregardless of the hype you will see from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, (with a board consisting of representatives of the biggest fish companies) the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, (with a membership comprised of lobbyists for the biggest fish companies) the United Fishermen of Alaska (whose board doesn't query their membership and whose leaders have gotten into processing plants with sweetheart deals from politicians they supported), and the media (who consolidate and refuse to believe 'the Jews are being held in concentration camps', or don't want anyone to know.)

This situation will probably just roll along as it is. No other area of the world could stop the inexorable demise of their fisheries. The Eastern Canadians couldn't prevent the demise of their vast and iconic cod stocks, which was what first drew Europeans to North America. Or the Pacific Coast Canadians in their attempt to rein in industrial fish farming as it destroys the wild stocks of salmon. Human nature is the same all over.

What can be done, though, is to not throw good tax money after bad in support of this fisheries industrial complex until these human factors are brought under control. The fish on the bottom aren't the problem, the regulations aren't the problem, it's the way men interact with each other to direct the fishery that is the problem. Not individuals themselves, but the structures certain fish companies use as wealth building tools and exclusionary devices. Especially, don't subsidize new vessels for this industrial trawl fleet, like they are lobbying for. Hint, keep an eye on the pollock stocks, they can't seem to find them this year. Oops.

Wherever the fleet, don't let the bottom be abused any more, it's very delicate. The sea whip and coral forests down there protect juvenile fish from the larger fish (a vital function that seems to get overlooked by our best 'science') (the NPFMC did protect one area of coral, an area way out in left field) We can go directly to the folks in charge that hand out subsidies to these fish companies, to educate them and encourage them to hang onto the bottoms under their purview. I'm pretty sure there aren't enough old destroyers in the world to replace the habitat that is being lost in Alaska to bottom trawling.