The science of sustainable seafood, explained

A Fisherman’s Response to George Burgess

Recently on CFOOD we started a new series where we talk to fishery biologists and let them steer the conversation. We (try to) post one per week and invite anyone to comment or respond to whatever statements our interview subjects make. Our special shark week conversation was with noted shark biologist George Burgess. Dick Grachek, a fisherman out of Point Judith, took issue with some of Burgess’s comments on shark fishermen and women and the spiny dogfish fishery. Here, he responds to Burgess and offers a fisherman’s perspective not often seen.


A response to George Burgess by Dick Grachek

There exists a carefully controlled and stringently regulated legitimate shark fishery!

I have an issue with how George Burgess spoke about shark fishermen and women. He made inaccurate and misleading generalized statements about sharks and shark finning and claimed that, unless carefully scrutinized, “fishers will sneak in extra fins.” In particular, making silly statements about Spiny Dogfish as “high value,” implies a motive for overfishing and contributes to a perception of commercial fishing as greedy and uncaring plunder. These misinformed perceptions lead to baseless regulations. Such regulations are destructive to the fish and the fishermen. They can, and often do, prevent legitimate harvesting of a vital, healthy food source.

Statements, in this shark interview, such as spiny dogfish “…are particularly suitable for good fishery management because they are found in large numbers and they have high economic value,” are false and misleading. Spiny dogfish are found in large numbers all right, in fact they are vacuuming up the cod, haddock, flounder, and everything else in their path—but “high economic value”…?

I don’t mean to cast aspersions on anyone’s knowledge of the economics of commercial fishing, but the price to fishermen for Spiny Dogfish was never more than 25 cents per pound between the 2000 – 2014, and was less in the preceding decades. It is currently somewhere less than 15 cents per pound; this is according to the body that recommends quotas for this species, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Council.  See Fig. 4 and Fig. 5 in the report to the council on Spiny Dogfish.

An article in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald sums up the Spiny Dogfish situation:

“Two trends are moving in opposite directions: The species’ population is increasing while its commercial value is falling. Fishermen are paid around 14 cents a pound for them.”
“And here’s the problem: Scientists say there are huge and growing numbers of dogfish in the Gulf of Maine competing for the same food as more commercially valuable species, such as cod and haddock.”
“’Their numbers are enormous,’ said James Sulikowski, a biologist at the University of New England who has studied the species for years. ‘Dogfish have to eat. If they are strong and increasing in population, they will eat a lot of stuff. That stuff is what other species feed on as well.’”
“He said there are an estimated 230,000 metric tons of spawning dogfish – females of reproductive age – in the Gulf of Maine, compared with only 10,000 metric tons of spawning cod. That’s a 23-to-1 ratio.”

So the truth is that there has never been any “high economic value” when it comes to Spiny Dogfish. And please, it’s not about the “…fishing sector has learned its lesson multiple times with ‘boom and bust’ fisheries…” that paternalistic stance is also inaccurate and misleading. Fishermen have the greatest interest in the sustainability of the stocks that they rely on, not for short term investment and “quarterly profit margins,” but for future generations. The fishing sector understands better than anyone the dynamics involved with the caprices of the naturally fluctuating stock populations. Before the truncating of the fisheries through the transferable quota system of catch shares, fishermen would logically switch gear and avoid a stock that was scarce that particular year—now they must fish for the particular species they were able to buy the quota or the “right” to fish for and land.

The lessons that need to be learned are by the scientific and federal regulatory sectors. They need to learn that what is not sustainable is sensationalizing the natural population cycles (the “boom and bust”) of certain species. This is often accomplished with self-serving spin that claims credit during an upswing (boom), and issues dire warnings (and regulations) when a stock population is on the downside (bust). This seems in order to propagate attention-garnering scientific papers and tenures, secure bureaucratic regulator’s funding, and provide the sales pitch for the eco-NGOs harvesting of donations. In fact, that kind of chicanery and external interference into the ocean ecosystems by some in the academic/political/bureaucratic sector has balances in the ocean pretty screwed up as evidenced by the case of the spiny dogfish!

Dick Grachek is the owner of F/V Anne Kathryn out of Point Judith, RI

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8 Responses

  1. Thanks for keeping us on the straight and narrow, Dick! That said, I suspect that many of your concerns with George’s piece stem from his reference to both US and international fisheries, while you, I think, are nearly always referring to US fisheries. Shark fins, for example, collected as bycatch during tuna purse seine fishing in the eastern Pacific have been used to pay the crew. I don’t know that this still occurs, but here no effort was made to keep the anything but the fins–these could be dried, stored easily on board and sold by the crew once the boat returned to port. No room for more of the shark, given that the boat was after more valuable tuna. Also, a fish can be “high value” even when the price per pound is low; market squid here on the west coast are good example. I agree that some species cycle (boom and bust) irrespective of what we’re doing, but I wonder what the effect of removing so many large shark species may be having on spiny dogfish populations–this may (also?) account for recent high numbers. I don’t know, just wondering…

    1. Pete thanks for the response. No, I’ve never fished in the Eastern Pacific nor on the U.S. West Coast for that matter and I didn’t see the need to so qualify my response to George Burgess regarding that. It seems it would be incumbent on him to qualify which fishery of “sharks” he refers to when implying that “fins would be sneaked in” due to lax fin to carcass ratios, etc. and which fishery of Dogfish were overfished due to their high value due to EU demand for Fish n’ Chips. The public and especially the anti-fishing NGOs will not make any distinction when they seize on such statements for their National Shark Week campaigns and their infiltration into grade schools with an Endangered Species Poster Contest and Eco-Festival. There is an economy of scale fishermen have to consider especially when fuel costs are somewhere around $1,000/day not to mention overhead and constant repair. A 73 foot class steel stern dragger capable of fishing year ’round cannot fish on $0.15/pound fish with a daily quota of 3000 Lbs. Usually the operations that work on high volume low price per pound fish are vertically integrated corporate style freezer catcher vessels, such as the Alaskan Pollack Fishery or the West Coast Whiting Fishery. The salient point here that I am trying to make is that in a culture such as ours that adulates science and statistical data and population dynamics computer models, any statements made under those auspices are usually perceived by the uninitiated and well-meaning public as hard, indisputable, incorruptible, fact and especially when manipulated and spun by certain not so well-meaning eco-NGOs contributes to the large body of destructive indelible misinformation already out there (i.e. jellyfish by 2048 and 5000year old catfish extinct due to antediluvian overfishing). The media campaigns that follow eventually see these statements, vetted or not, wind up as issues on the Fisheries Councils’ tables and with a little political “grease” ultimately become baseless regulation law. Such was the process, more or less, for the Sardine, Menhaden, Butterfish, Herring, Haddock, Monkfish, Sea Scallop (early 90’s), and we believe is true also for our Northeast Cod and for Dogfish. These fisheries were all either shut down, severely restricted, or attempted to be, on what was proven to be false information and premises. So what scientists put out it the media is very important and unfortunately has far reaching consequences.

      1. Pete, two more points I’d like to answer that you raised. We fish Squid here on The East Coast as well. I believe prices for our Loligo Squid are somewhat higher than yours, but at $0.80 to $125 per pound ex-vessel (to the fishermen) and being “allowed” to catch and land significant amounts of these fish is a far cry from a 5,000 Lb. daily limit at $.015 per pound for Dogfish and just no-way that Dogfish can be construed as a “high-value” fish. And as far as large shark having an effect on Dogfish? Even if you sig every “large predator” shark in “Shark Week” on the Dogfish it wouldn’t make a dent! Trust us please when we tell you the balance is way out of whack.
        Dogfish are so abundant that when they migrate inshore and offshore in the Spring and Fall they travel in blankets that cover the bottom in such mass that we can’t fish for anything else, often we have to return to port and wait for them to subside, swim by. I mean they can cover the bottom at times, from the beach out to 100fms (and probably deeper but we don’t normally fish deeper than 100fms). From Hatteras to Cape Cod—you cannot get away from them, believe me, we’ve tried. They swim gender segregated so at times you run into all males and other times all females plump with pups (very heartbreaking and we don’t kill needlessly) so we steer clear of them; but that is often impossible to do when they’re on the move and we usually give up and stay at the dock ’till they’ve dissipated. Of course when the “researchers” venture onto the ocean, on a rare survey sampling voyage, they might very well sample a raft of males and declare the stock endangered for a lack of breeding females and hence, astounding, confounding assessments and way disproportionate allowable catches and consequent imbalances. Georges Bank, for example, has an overabundance of elasmobranchs namely Dogfish and Smooth Skates not doing anyone any good, especially the fish.

  2. Spiny Dogs have become what We were;Fisherman. Set a Net any Place between Cape Hatteras to the GOM,they are There in The Vast,Top to Bottom.

  3. For George Burgess to make disparaging comments about commercial fishermen is nothing new.
    He has no real knowledge on what is really happening on the water concerning the shark fishery. He has no knowledge nor empathy for men and women who provide food from the sea. He should speak out against anglers catching the biggest of sharks and hanging them up for pictures then taking them to the garbage dump.

    I see the RFA and ASA are trying to stop domestic commercial shark fishermen from selling the legally harvested fins. They even got a New Jersey senator to sponsor a bad bill. Why does the RFA and ASA despise fishermen who kill shark for food and love the hundreds of thousands of anglers who kill shark for fun? Does Burgess have a stand against killing sharks for fun?

  4. It is hard to know who is more uninformed; Burgess when it come to dogfish or Gracheck when it comes to transferable quota.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. What with over 13000 nation wide fishing industry regulations. monitering programs that provide employment for the observer and not much more. The misinformation of the so-called science of commercial fishing . Has led to a vast reduction of fisherman and women whose lives have depended on the water for generations. And yet the scientific community says their is a depletion of the stocks. If you do the simple math ( not rocket science) as in my hometown. In 2001 their were approximately 35 to 40 gillnetting boats in the area. Now only 15 years later their are less than 10. OK here’s the math if you have 75% less boats landing fish you’ll have approximately 75% less Landings. That in no way shape form or fashion translates into a stock depletion. Oh and we’ve been getting ten cents a pound for spiney dogfish for the last five years or so. Thank you for your time

    Michael Bartell in North Carolina

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