When I think ‘New England’, I think clam chowder. I think about mouthwatering seafood markets and restaurants, serving up fresh, delicious catches of the day. Tom Brady also comes to mind, but that’s for another kind of blog. New England is home to some of the finest seafood cities in the United States, none more lucrative than the port in New Bedford. The fishing industry there contributes $1 billion to the economy every year. But it’s also where a major battle between the government and American fishermen is playing out. The final instalment of Netflix’ “Rotten” series sheds light on the global fishing crisis, and one of the most controversial pieces of fishing regulation in US history.
It was once believed that our oceans were overflowing with fish; so much of it, that we could have as much seafood as we wanted without ever depleting the stocks. With billions of people depending on fish as a main source of protein, giant fleets sailed around the world scooping as much of them up as they could. Then one day, populations of certain species began almost disappearing. The herring, cod and white bass industries collapsed, and with the U.S. being the second-largest consumer of seafood after China, the government decided to step in. In 1976, Congress passed legislation that allowed only Americans to fish within 200 miles of shore. And while that propped-up the U.S. fishing industry, it did nothing to protect the fish. They were still being drained from the sea.
And so the government stepped in once again, only this time, it was the fishermen who were left struggling to stay afloat. In order to protect depleting stocks of fish, limits were set on how much of each species could be caught every year. The documentary explains how this has been the source of a raging argument between the fishermen and the scientists who count the fish populations. Here’s the problem: there’s no accurate way to correctly count how many fish there are in the sea. With schools constantly moving through the water, scientists admit its imperfect, and all they can do is estimate population strength. The fishermen say the numbers that come out are grossly underestimated, which directly impacts their livelihood.
Keep in mind that while American fishermen are being told to reduce the amount of fish they catch, our desire for seafood hasn’t decreased. So, what happens? The market becomes flooded with foreign fish. Regardless of which side you take in this debate, this is something we should all care about. In this episode, you’ll learn about how the quality of the product from other countries isn’t anywhere near as good, with some of the featured U.S. fishermen saying foreign seafood is constantly treated, frozen and then thawed again. Even worse, foreign fish is one of the most rejected products by U.S. food inspectors, mainly because of the unsanitary conditions they’re kept in. Still, foreign fish is more affordable because of cheap labour and transport costs. As a result, local, fresh seafood is being replaced. In fact, 94 percent of the fish Americans eat comes from other countries. The impact on U.S. fisheries has been devastating, with many smaller operations shutting down their businesses. Meanwhile, you and I are buying and eating less than desirable foreign fish. Sound appetizing?
For years, the fishermen have said they’ve tried to have their voices heard by the government, but to no avail. They say the final nail in the coffin was the “catch share” program, implemented in New England in 2010. It’s by far the most controversial fishing industry regulation to date. We’ve long been taught that nobody in the world owns the oceans or the creatures that live in it, but catch shares say otherwise. Essentially, fishermen are given a quota for the number of fish they can catch, and the quota becomes his or her property. They can choose to sell their quota to other fishermen, or buy more if they need it. The EDF (Environmental Defence Fund) lobbied for the program and says responsible fishing is the goal. In fact, it says regions like Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico have benefited greatly from such programs, where red snapper populations have seen major comebacks. But critics say all catch shares have done is privatized a public resource, where the rich get richer, and the smaller operators go under.
In Iceland, for example, the same program was implemented 15 years before it was introduced in New England. Cod stocks had plummeted there, and something had to be done. What happened though, was large corporations with money snatched-up most of the available quota, and one-by-one, smaller fleets left the game. That’s exactly what’s happened in New England. The documentary tells us about one fisherman, known as the “codfather”, who was able to buy 25 percent of the available quota. And while his business was able to thrive under catch shares, another operator talks about how his own business has lost 90 percent of its value since the program was introduced. You can understand and feel their frustration. Just imagine; the amount of cod you catch in one day could be what you’re allowed to catch for the entire year, depending on the quota you can afford.
In 2015, Americans ate 5 billion pounds of seafood and spent over $96 billion. Our cravings aren’t just going to disappear, so what should be done? Some are lobbying for a limit to be imposed on how much quota each fisherman can own. That will at least help save many operators from going belly-up. Others want to see catch shares abolished since nobody should own any of the world’s natural resources. A valid argument, for sure. But the EDF says without catch shares, our oceans would be in a much sorrier state, and that’s also worth considering. The global fishing crisis is real, and yet another case where saving both a species and an industry seems to be impossible.