Commercial Fishing Only Hurting Itself

by J. B. Kasper - Reprint Trenton Times May 12, 2002

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association June 2002 Newsletter)

I was watching the news on Sunday night when a piece came on about how the New England commercial fishermen were protesting a judge's order for stricter regulations on the amount of fish they will be able to catch during the season.  The piece of journalism was excellent. It showed the boats with banners protesting the ruling. It interviewed several commercial fishermen who told how they would be put out of business if the regulations stuck. There was even U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy talking about how the commercial fishermen of Massachusetts feed the country with their fish.

The best part, however, was when they showed a commercial fisherman hauling a load of fish on board his boat. There were cod, flounder, ling and a whole bunch of different fish that were hoisted onto the deck of the boat. The fisherman then took a small hand gaff and gaffed a fish he thought was too small or not worthy of his time and threw it back into the water.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and the sight of that fisherman gaffing that fish and throwing it back into the water to die says it all.

It's called by-catch for those not familiar with the fishing industry. Fish which are hauled up onto a boat and not wanted are thrown back, dead or alive. In most cases, when you haul fish such as ling, cod and other bottom-feeding fish from deep water, the pressure changes that occur will kill them no matter how you release them. A number of fish are also crushed in the net by the weight of other fish and likewise will not survive. This has been an accepted practice from the time the first nets hit the water and one that simply needs to be changed.  Commercial fishermen in New England want the public to feel sorry for what is happening to them. However, the loss of the fisheries in New England is of their own doing. Likewise, they are getting a dose of how the recreational fishermen feel as they have been socked by stricter and stricter regulations, in most cases not of their doing.

It's true that commercial fishermen are a necessity and provide people with fish to eat. I have no desire to see the commercial fishermen in New England - or anywhere else in our country, for that matter - go out of business. As with anybody else, they have a right to make a living. We live in a free society and competition is the backbone of that society. All too often, though, we don't temper our freedoms with common sense and good judgment.

The problem in New England is just such a case. You would have thought a lesson would have been learned from the collapse of the cod fishery, and the commercial fishermen would have practiced more conservation in their industry. Recreational fishermen learned decades ago in freshwater that catch and release was the way to go in order to guarantee good fishing. It's true that catch and release can't be used in commercial fishing. However, measures have to be taken to ensure that more of the fish which are returned to the water survive.

By-catch is one of the biggest problems when it comes to the commercial fishing industry. Millions of fish a year are destroyed for no other reason than they are too small or have no commercial value. What needs to be done is to give all commercial fishermen a yearly quota. Any fish that is killed should go toward that number, and once that quota is reached, their fishing would be over for the season. This would force the commercial fishermen to improve their methods of returning fish to the water so more survive. Of course, enforcing it would be another matter altogether.

Another problem which has to be dealt with is the netting of the fish before they spawn. When you kill a female fish before she spawns, you not only kill the female, but thousands of eggs as well. This is being done to the weakfish population off the New Jersey coast this spring.

In the case of the New England fishermen, environmentalists once again filed a court case to have stricter regulations placed on the commercial catch. The judge took it on himself to place even stricter regulations than were asked for.  Was he right?

Who's to say? But he sure brought public attention to the problems that over-harvesting by commercial fishermen bring about.  In short, the commercial fishing industry has to change its ways. The technology the commercial fishermen now use to net fish far exceeds the fish's ability to reproduce. Unless commercial fishermen change the way they fish and learn more conservation, they will continue to over-harvest fish and destroy fisheries. The result will be their downfall and it will be of their own doing.


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