When the ban on fish traps was instituted, most fishermen either gave up fishing, or switched over to bottom longlines. With limited licensing, and large individual fish quotas from their trapping days, it seemed those who invested in longlining had a reasonably secure future. However, as with every fishery, the bureaucracy is never finished. Urged along by several environmental groups claiming that turtles will become extinct if longliners are not stopped, fishery managers are intending to drastically reduce, or even eliminate longline effort completely. In a desperate attempt to salvage their livelihood, some longliners are asking that a redesigned fish trap be once again permitted.
In order to satisfy the turtle demands of the environmental groups, the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Council, is implementing new rules restricting the number of hooks, placing new areas off limits, and cutting the number of longline boats by 50%. Only those who have recently been issued an individual quota of 40,000 lbs or more will be allowed to continue fishing, dropping the number of boats in the entire Gulf of Mexico from 1,000 – 10 years ago, to 61.
Are they actually “affecting” (note – not killing) as many turtles as claimed, and if so, is it a significant factor in the population? Never having worked with their kind of gear, I haven’t a clue as to the amount of turtles caught. I do however, have a clue as to how the fishing bureaucracy and environmental organizations, grossly inflate their claims. They can casually invent a crisis in any fishery with the most convoluted reasoning, and no perceived problem is so bad on its own, that they won’t exaggerate it 10 fold.
Fishery managers are ostensibly required to use science in their regulatory efforts. But, whenever there is a lack of real science on a fishery issue – which is most of the time – they fall back on a purported ‘mandate’ to use the best available science. As one may well imagine, best available science, is whatever supports the bureaucratic agenda. If hard science from a real scientist is not available on an issue, then fishery experts may theorize, use anecdotal evidence, or dredge up statistics from unrelated studies to support their efforts.
However, the real password into the world of best available science, is extrapolation. Whatever is declared to be true for a small sampling, is simply multiplied by total effort, and voila – we have best available science. In the admittedly difficult business of marine science, extrapolation is the best friend of fishery managers, but is used only to restrict the commercial industry, never to support it. Fishermen are helpless against it, since it is not hard science, and therefore impossible to disprove.
The number of turtles affected by longliners, is of course, arrived at by extrapolation from a very small sampling, but let us suppose that the number is accurate. What is the acceptable level of ‘affect’ on turtles, in relation to the amount of fish made available to the public? What does it actually mean to be affected? Environmentalists maintain that every turtle released alive is harmed. Is that true?
How many turtles are really out there anyway? From global warming to Polar Bears, radical environmentalists have a long history of making outrageously frightening claims to support their agendas. While we can only speculate on the real science behind the numbers, a lifetime of experience tells me that the public is once again being misled by the ‘sky is falling’ crowd.
Despite the public perception, it is a fact of life that no fisherman wants to see a turtle harmed, even though few believe that the one in question –the Loggerhead – is truly endangered. In 40 years of commercial fishing, I have seen fishermen go to the most extreme lengths to save a turtle. Without knowing any of the longline fishermen, I am certain that they do not wish to harm a single turtle. Unfortunately, fishing is a tough business, and extracting food from the sea exacts a heavy toll on fishermen, and occasionally has to allow for some degree of by-catch.
With the mountain of regulation in place today, by-catch is very limited in virtually all fisheries, but it is impossible to eliminate entirely if we are to have seafood to eat, and a viable fishery to produce it. In other fisheries, allowable by-catch is often marketed, but the mere thought of eating a turtle, would undoubtedly be more than modern sensibilities could accept. Even though sea turtles are farm raised very successfully in the Cayman Islands, they have become an emotional symbol with the American public, and are surely off the menu forever.
Because of turtle politics, longline fishermen are facing the possibility of disaster, and some are proposing that they be allowed to catch their individual quotas with fish traps. While their reintroduction would raise many legitimate questions, the emotional tirades of opponents, is typical of the public posturing that our industry must deal with every day. Commercial fishing is an easy target, and it seems that on every issue we find a gaggle of green opportunists waiting to preen their environmental feathers at our expense. Where science once directed fishery management, today it is politics. Public perception is everything in politics, and commercial fishermen are not likely to ever gain the high ground in the image wars.
Those who are losing sleep over the reintroduction of fish traps need not worry. The longline fishermen are fighting for another losing cause. The political battle was decided long ago, and fish traps will not be back. The government giveth and the government taketh, but what they take away, they never give back.