There are so many things I am grateful for this Thanksgiving.
First and foremost, my family, friends, and dogs. They have supported me unconditionally for the last three years while I travel around two continents, meeting and working with inshore fishing communities. I wrote a blog post back in 2018 that I am acutely aware of today. It’s called, “Spend Some Time With People, Before You Change Their Way of Life.” Well, I have definitely been practicing what I preach, for sure. And while I’ve been doing that, another thing has occurred to me. Spending time with fishing families is good for my soul. It keeps me grounded. The knowledge they are willing to share is impossible to resist; and their intelligence and passion and practical wisdom is unmatched.
They have opened their homes to me and my family. They share their trials and tribulations, as well as their opinions with me. I have had a nearly limitless supply of dogs to cuddle when away from my own and have found fierce supporters who I am equally likely to fight for.
Today is the American holiday of Thanksgiving. It began as a day of “giving thanks and sacrifice for the blessing of the harvest” and of the preceding year. If you are not a fisherman/fisherwoman (That’s for you, Mel!) you may wonder, “How on earth does this relate to “ropeless fishing”?
Well, right now in California, hundreds of Dungeness crabbers (including one of my best friends) are missing a bumper holiday in their short market because of a large concentration of humpback whales who remain in the Gulf of the Farallones. Usually by this time of year the whales have begun their migration away from the area, and the D. Crab season is open for business. This year, the fleet in California will be lucky to make the Christmas market. The loss of just one of these holidays means that California families who traditionally offer D. Crab as a culturally important part of their Thanksgiving feast will not be able to buy it fresh, if at all. The fishermen and consumers aren’t the only ones missing out. The entire supply chain, from those who supply bait to the fishermen, trap builders, transport companies, wholesalers, retailers, and ALL THE PEOPLE WHO WORK FOR THEM are missing out. The D. Crab fishery is unquestionably the most economically important fishery on the entire West Coast. And they can’t provide product because of the presences of whales and the risk of fishing gear entanglement.
Right now, in the Southeast, one of my friends is probably just getting home after shrimping hard for the last few weeks to make sure that all of us have shrimp cocktail for Thanksgiving. He had problems both with his boat early this season, as well as finding reliable and available crew (He even asked me to crew, but I was on another coast!). He just got going a couple weeks ago and will likely be back working tonight or tomorrow after a quick dinner with his wife and children. He and a few other guys in that area could be pot fishing for black sea bass pulling quick day trips by now, but that fishery has essentially been closed for the last several years due to the risk of entanglement with North Atlantic right whales. That style of fishing was actually invented by shrimpers back in the 1960’s when they realized they would need to find something to help them make it through the winter. The black sea bass pot fishery became known to a lot of Southeast fishermen as the “Christmas” fishery because it was what allowed them to put food on the table and presents under the tree. They would soak their 35 small pots anywhere from a couple hours to a day or two and were able to fish hook and line for other things while the pots were sitting in close to the shore. This was especially important during the winter as it meant they had to use less fuel to get to the gear and could grab it up and bring it in if bad weather was coming- all without really doing anything too risky. They are now missing both the Thanksgiving and Christmas market for that fish, all because North Atlantic right whales are in the area, having babies. There are only 26 fishermen in this fishery, and all told, they only have about 1000 pots between them, the closed area is nearly 15,000 square nautical miles in size, and they have NEVER been implicated in a single interaction or entanglement with any whale species.
Right now, in New England, countless fishermen are banned from lobstering in LMA 1 (>957 square miles). NOAA says this will displace 60 vessels to other areas, which will effect no more than 120 lobstermen. This is patently untrue. It effects each and every fisherman as well as every community that depends on their resource. Lobstering is the second most important economic market in Maine. It employees literally thousands of people, all of whom have families, customers, children, and bills to pay. And right now, thousands of people are being affected by this closure, and are likely missing their Thanksgiving market. All because of the presence of North Atlantic right whales. If you ask any Maine lobsterman, they can tell you that they have not been implicated in a single NARW entanglement since 2012, when they implemented a significant set of gear changes designed to reduce the risk to these whales.
What’s the solution? I have a few ideas.
But last week at the Pacific Marine Expo, I heard both Michael Conroy, President of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and Kristan Porter, President of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association (MLA), express their deep concern that if ropeless gear is proven to be effective, that it will be forced upon every pot fisherman in the United States, regardless of whether or not they can afford it.
And I heartily agree with that concern. My work focuses on smaller operations. Inshore, coastal fishing vessels that are crewed by hard-working men and women with families and deep cultural ties to their work and their communities. My work does center around spending time with people before I try to change the way they do things. But it also has brought me to realize something much greater.
It is impossible to work and live among these families and not begin to understand and feel their struggle deeply. These are people who depend on the ocean to provide a bountiful harvest, and thus, they are resolved to practice good stewardship and sustainable methods to ensure the resources are there for the future. They are also human beings with families, and mortgages, and even some employees. Their work is the very backbone of multibillion dollar industries that provide for thousands of other families. As researchers and supporters of ropeless fishing gear and techniques, we must ensure that our work to refine, design, and implement these solutions aren’t helping special-interest groups put our friends and their communities out of business, permanently. Plenty of fishermen have helped with research in the US that has come to do just that, SO THE FEAR IS REAL, AND UNDERSTANDABLE.
We HAVE to make sure they can continue to do this safely and affordably, or we will all be losing out. And not just on a Thanksgiving or Christmas appetizer.
-KS, Nov 2021