Dear Rockfish,

I live in California. I don’t understand why fishermen are demanding that they be allowed to expand the depths they are allowed to fish from 120 feet to 180 feet, particularly because there has never been stock assessments of most of the fishes that live in these depths. Aren’t they afraid that these fishes will be overfished, assuming that has not already happened?

–– Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered

Dear BB&B,

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross knew a great deal about the world’s fisheries. Oh, perhaps she wasn’t a big one for casting a tin squid for stripers in the Montauk surf, dragging for cod at Georges Bank, gillnetting rockfishes in southern California or dumping cyanide on coral reefs in the Philippines. But in her book On Death and Dying, she inadvertently portrayed the five steps sport and commercial fishers go through as fisheries collapse.

Denial comes first. This usually takes the form of flat rejection of any possibility that a fish population is in danger. “What do a bunch of pointy-headed fishery biologists know? I’m out on the water every day and there are plenty of (rockfish, cod, orange roughy etc.) out there.”

Anger and bargaining set in as catches drop. “Okay, maybe there are fewer (rockfishes, cod, orange roughy, etc.) out there, but if you drop quotas I’m going to lose my boat, my kids will starve and my whole community will go belly up. It’s just not fair!” Or, if a sport fisher is speaking, “If you drop the bag limit, what can I go out and catch? I have a constitutional right to feel fulfilled. It’s just not fair!” This is the stage where huge pressure is put on fishery managers to raise quotas or at least keep the status quo.
This is followed by depression and an inability to accept responsibility. In this stage, sport anglers blame commercial fishermen who, in turn, put all the responsibility on polluters. Alas for the cause of cosmic symmetry, polluters are apparently too busy doing whatever it is they do to complete what would have been a very neat metaphorical mandala. Lastly, there comes acceptance . In the old days, this meant that everyone started fishing for something else, really an example of aquatic reincarnation. Today, with fewer resources to exploit, this phase is marked by fishers walking around looking vaguely dazed.

Well, is this a new phenomenon, perhaps the result of the creeping liberalism begun by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and John Dewey and perpetuated by Sesame Street? No, I’m rather sure that for as long as there have been fisheries and fishery collapses these words, spoken in a hundred tongues, on breath redolent of tea, beer, kava and nam pla, have always been the same.

Had the 16th century English Channel herring fishery failed, you may be sure that a phalanx of sturdy homespun-clad men would have paid the Royal Fishery Council a visit, stating “Prithee, the King’s fishery minions are but pointy-headed knaves who know naught. In truth, there be tonnes of herring beyond counting in yon waters. And if, by some dark chance, there be fewer of these fish, why ‘tis the fault of the Spanish or the Moors or mayhap those who foul the Thames with putrescence, thus driving away the herrings.” The difference between those days and ours is that for their efforts those fishers would have been forced to rip out their own gall bladders, then spread them on good country bread, which would then have been fed to whatever out-of-favor religion happened to be in the Tower at the time.

All of this occurs, of course, because the vast majority of those in a fishery do not remember three of the Four Lessons of Kindergarten (in all fairness, many fishermen are okay with Number Four, to whit, Wash Your Hands After Using the Restroom).

  1. Three of the Four Lessons of Kindergarten
    1) Take Responsibility for Your Actions. We’ve already discussed this one. By the way, as a recreational angler and commercial fisherman I killed thousands of rockfishes before my 25th birthday. Mea culpa.
    2) Think ahead more than five minutes. I admit, this one is tough if you have to make a living from fishing or if your immediate pleasure is gratified by same. It is so much easier for fishers to push for the status quo for just a season, just a year, or just a decade longer. And after all, what shoemaker voluntarily cuts back on the number of shoes made? Moreover, it is so easy for managers to just go along. Scaling back a fishery is painful. And yet, and yet, in fishery after fishery, for decade after decade, it should have been done. Ultimately, and almost inevitably, fishers complaining about “junk science” on the part of scientists or managers caving in to fishers’ fears, leads to that which is feared most.
    3) Cooperate with your classmates. Oh, my, this one is so hard to do, but so obviously necessary that I will not belabor the point. Suffice it to say that Herbert Hoover, Joseph McCarthy and Jimmy Hoffa did not cooperate with others and look what happened to them.
    Ultimately, the confrontations, the stalling tactics, the threats and the denials have only one effect, the crafting of coffins for fisheries.

  2. And all of the tombstones read:
    Here lies the (rockfish, cod, orange roughy, etc.) fishery.
    No one really knew how many there were.
    So we really had to keep fishing them.
    And besides, it wasn’t our fault.