Home arrow Columns arrow On dogfish it's NMFS that's not seeing the whole picture - Another Perspective, October 21, 2009
On dogfish it's NMFS that's not seeing the whole picture - Another Perspective, October 21, 2009
An NMFS spokesperson says though fishermen see dogfish everywhere, ‘they're not seeing the whole picture." Nils Stolpe counters "fishermen today are seeing a larger picture than they ever have before," and asks if marginalization of fishermen's views is Obama Administration policy.

If you’re a commercial, recreational or party/charter boat fisherman and if you’ve put any time in on the water from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine in the last several years, there’s a high probability that your fishing has been directly impacted by the huge stock of spiny dogfish infesting out near-shore waters. There’s an even higher probability that it’s been indirectly impacted. Increasingly, these indiscriminate and voracious predators are stealing bait, plugging nets, fouling gear, invading chum slicks and forcing other fish – and the fishermen who are pursuing them – from areas where they have been fished for years.

How significant are these impacts? While that’s much more than a million dollar question with much more than a million dollar answer, at this point we don’t know, because up until now nobody has been looking. But they have been, and are continuing to be, significant enough to spur the formation of Fishermen Organized for Responsible Dogfish Management (FORDM), an ad hoc association of fishermen from both sides of the recreational/commercial divide. They have been and are continuing to be significant enough so that 500 people, either as individuals or representing the widest imaginable spectrum of recreational, commercial and party/charter fishing organizations and businesses, signed on to a letter to newly appointed NOAA Chief Lubchenco for her help in dealing with the issue. – For the record, I had a hand in the formation of FORDM and am continuing to work on the spiny dogfish issue – or plague, if you’d rather.  Dr. Lubchenco’s response was to pass the issue down to Jim Balsiger, acting head of NMFS, whose response seemed at best somewhat less than helpful and at worst an out-of-hand dismissal. Needless to say, fishermen and fishing-dependent business owners up and down the East coast are extremely aware of, are concerned about, and have gotten organized to deal with what they clearly see is the threat of the overabundance of spiny dogfish. 

Not surprisingly, some reporters have become interested in the spiny dogfish situation. Last week Associated Press reporter Jay Lindsay wrote an article on what he rightly recognized and termed the dogfish dilemma

He did a good job of putting together a balanced piece – or as balanced as it should be, considering that he had just been on a bottom longlining trip for cod off Chatham, Massachusetts and had first-hand knowledge of what the overabundance of dogfish really means to fishermen trying to squeeze a living out of our coastal waters. He wrote “on a recent trip off Chatham, dogfish were hanging from almost all 300 hooks fisherman Jamie Eldredge spooled into the ocean 20 minutes earlier. One hook held an unfortunate blue fish, stripped to its spine by the swarming dogs, as they're called. Other hooks had only blue fish heads and gutted whips, the nickname for male dogfish.”

Jay Lindsay was witness to yet another fishing trip gone to the dogs. However, I found one part of his article particularly troubling. Mr. Lindsay wrote “federal regulators say though fishermen see dogfish everywhere, ‘they're not seeing the whole picture,’ said Maggie Mooney-Seus, a National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman.”

When I read that, a number of terms came to mind. Among the nicest were “condescending” and “ill-informed.” 

Fishermen see dogfish everywhere because dogfish are everywhere, not just off Chatham or Cape May or Barnegat Light or Cape Hatteras. Not just at the ten fathom line, or the twenty, or all the way out to the edge. They are seeing them because they are there, and they haven’t seen them in that profusion in the past. And Jamie Eldredge isn’t the exception, he’s the rule. A day ruined by spiny dogfish - damaged gear, lost bait, fouled hooks, wasted effort and ruined product - is becoming much too familiar up and down our coastline.  

How much more of the picture is there for the fishermen to see? While putting forth the idea that today’s fishermen are uninformed and isolated and can’t see beyond their own self-interested horizons might make the job of defending NMFS position’s and actions easier, that’s no longer – if it ever was – the case. As a matter of fact, with all of the fishing websites available, with the instantaneous ability to communicate via email and cell phone, and with the proliferation of various and sundry meetings, hearings, workshops, etc. that it’s almost mandatory that they attend, fishermen today are unquestionably seeing a larger picture than they ever have before. And spiny dogfish are making up an increasingly significant and bleak part of that picture. 

There’s a sampling of spiny dogfish quotes that FORDM collected. Anyone who read them might be disinclined to insist that fishermen aren’t considering the whole picture when it comes to spiny dogfish. Anyone who had paid any attention to the FORDM letter to Dr. Lubchenco linked above might be similarly disinclined. But perhaps not. The fact that no one at the policy level NMFS was interested enough to dig into the issue at all or did dig into it and then blew off the fishermen’s concerns as more meaningless “anecdotal information” is symptomatic of why relationships between NOAA/NMFS and many of the commercial, recreational and party/charter fishermen that it’s supposed to be there for are so strained.

On the other hand, NMFS scientist Paul Rago has enough of a grasp of the dogfish situation to have said to Mr. Lindsay “it's always a concern to me that if we're off on some assumption, we've missed something, you know, it has immediate outcomes. It's fine for us to say ‘Whoops.’ But for the guy that's at the end of that thing, it's not acceptable.”

To contend with the vagaries of fish populations in the open oceans you need the kind of open mindedness that Dr. Rago demonstrates here. Anyone who deals with knowledgeable fishermen, and who is committed to dealing with them fairly and effectively, will listen to them and give credence to what they are saying (particularly if they are saying it virtually unanimously over 2000 miles of coastline).That’s obviously not the case with far too many people in the upper echelons at NOAA/NMFS.

Particularly considering that they are public employees now, I sincerely hope that they don’t realize to what an extent they are marginalizing both commercial and recreational fishermen in the management process.

Sadly, considering that’s a large part of the strategy that the ENGOs have used so successfully to wrest political control of fisheries management from commercial and recreational fishermen, and considering the myriad ties that now exist between those ENGOs and the people in charge at NOAA/NMFS, there does seem a reasonable chance that they do and that this marginalization is part and parcel of the Obama Administration’s fisheries/oceans policy.

Consider, for example, how closely Ms. Lubchenco consulted with fishermen of any stripe before deciding that “catch shares” were going to be the new basis for US fisheries management. After all, why should this newest crop of bureaucrats, fresh from the privileged world of the lavishly foundation-funded ENGOs, want a bunch of working fishermen interfering with their plans for the fish and for the oceans?

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