With numbers shrinking
industrywide, scientists' counting formulas are all the more crucial. But
often, politics is part of the equation as well.
Braced against a stiff wind, Paul
Piavis, Butch Webb and Keith Whiteford hauled a net heavy with fish from the
Choptank River into their motorboat and spilled them into a tub. Flapping among
dullcolored catfish, yellow perch gleamed like tarnished gold. The biologists,
in camouflage gear and heavy boots, looked like any other anglers, but they were
fishing for science.
Back in their barracksstyle
office at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, they would plug
statistics about the fish they caught into mathematical models, taking a measure
of the yellow perch population.
With nets and divers, sonar and
surveys, scientists around the world grapple with one of Earth's great
unknowables: how many fish in the sea.
Fish counts are the science
behind regulations from Virginia's Northern Neck to the South Pacific, dictating
a charter boat's take and an island nation's diet. But this is a science so
inexact that some call it an art. And when the counting ends, the fighting often
has just begun.
what happened this winter when Maryland tried to open the Choptank River to
commercial yellow perch netters for the first time in nearly two decades. Counts
had documented a 530 percent increase in the Eastern Shore river since 1988,
sport anglers disputed those findings in raucous public hearings, questioning
how the fish could be so plentiful when they have trouble catching their limit
of five. The department withdrew the proposal.
"Science is only one part of the equation," Piavis said. "Who gets the fish . .
. is a whole other equation."
clear is that over the past century, the world's fish stocks have shrunk. The
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says that onequarter of the world's
marine stocks are overfished, or harvested faster than the fish can reproduce to
replace them, and another half are approaching that point.
half of the two dozen fisheries managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries
Commission are listed as depleted or unknown, including the American lobster,
red drum and river herring.
The loss of a stock even
temporarily, scientists say, can cost the industry hundreds of millions of
dollars and echo throughout the ecosystem, affecting humans, too.
But measuring nature's bounty
remains a challenge. Where science leaves a gap, politics rushes in.
In 1992, the collapse of the
North Atlantic cod fishery, which devastated Canadian and American fishermen and
uprooted entire towns, came about partly because politicians ignored dismal
harvest figures in favor of more optimistic forecasts, scientists say
"Managing fisheries is not
managing fish," said Serge Garcia, director of fishery resources for the U.N.
organization. "It is managing the activity of people."
"That's part of the problem,"
agreed Larry Jennings, a recreational angler and Greater Washington Chapter
president of the Coastal Conservation Association, a nationwide group. "It's all
politics, run by people who have a vested interest . . . and people who are
pushing harder and harder to maximize what they get."
Scientists are experimenting with
futuristic ocean sonar and lasers, but the high cost ensures that fish counting,
or stock assessment, usually means "dragging a net through the water,
translating technical data into what an underfunded, understaffed agency can
do," said James Uphoff Jr., a biologist on Maryland's natural resources staff.
In smaller bodies of water,
"electrofishing" stuns fish, which then float to the top long enough for an
estimate. Biologists trawl for samples. And they scramble atop towers and dams
to count fish on spawning runs.
To refine the picture,
researchers measure and age fish. They can learn about one fish from another by
analyzing stomach contents. Or they can count the creatures that live off of
that fish. Some believe that the number of red knot, a migratory shorebird, has
declined along with the horseshoe crab because red knot feed on the crab's eggs.
But often, anglers are the most
important source of data. Dockside, fisheries managers assess what is unloaded
from boats and what was thrown back. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration calls thousands of seacoast households, asking anglers how often
they fished, what they caught and how big the catches were.
Researchers then plug all this
data into elaborate formulas and forecast the future of a fish.
"Fishery stock assessment is a
much more mature science than a lot of people like to think it is," said Steve
Murawski, chief scientist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"If you have a high harvest rate and you have a good accounting, you know what's
But dozens of factors, including
fish habits and fishing trends, environmental change and human nature make the
In a chandeliered hotel
conference room in Arlington County a month ago, scientists, fisheries managers
and fishing interests from 15 coastal states at the Atlantic States Marine
Fisheries Commission's meeting sat down to learn what little is known about the
The session was a lesson in the
weakness of science when pitted against the human need to make a living from the
At the head of the room, Matt
Cieri, a stock assessment scientist at the Maine Department of Marine
Resources, and David Secor, a
biologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory,
reviewed eel data. Some studies were small, others were incomplete, but they all
showed "a decline, many of which are at their historic lows," Cieri said.
Eels are harvested as bait for
fish and crab pots, and in the past three decades, they have fed a booming
market led by exports to Asia and Europe. Harvests have plunged since 1980,
raising fears about overfishing. So much of the eels' habitat has disappeared
that the federal government is considering listing the snakelike fish as
As the last slide faded from the
screen, Cieri concluded: "There's a realistic possibility that this species will
not maintain a healthy and viable population throughout its historic range."
George Lapointe of Maine's marine
resources department took the side of the fish, arguing that the commission
should move forward on a limit to eel fishing.
In the back of the room, Barry
Kratchman, president of the Delaware Valley Fish Co., nudged his attorney,
Charles Sensiba, who rose to read a statement.
"We are concerned . . . with some
of the comments today suggesting that we should move forward now," he read.
"Delaware Valley strongly believes that it would be inappropriate to make any
decision that would impact the lives and livelihoods of many people when the
support for such action has not yet been identified."
Maine's Lapointe said, "In saying
I think we need to move forward, I don't want to move forward rashly."
Soon after, the group agreed to study the eels further, and the meeting