Will the World Adopt Sustainable Longline Fishing Practices?
The U.S. is setting the standard for ecologically sustainable longline fishing. Now it's time to make sure the rest of the world gets onboard.
I am unpopular with longliners because I used to write articles about them with titles like "The Pelagic Plague." So getting an invitation to ride along with one was difficult. But on the mild morning of June 26, 2013, I'm aboard Captain Greg Walinski's 35-foot Alicia Ann out of Chatham, Massachusetts. What can he be thinking of to let me watch as he and his deckhand, Darren Vlacich, slaughter some 850 sharks (spiny dogfish), slicing off their tails for the Asian shark-fin-soup market and saving the carcasses to sell locally as "rock salmon" (because what American wants to eat dog?) and to the Brits for fish-and-chips. Sharks and shark gore, reeking of urea, accumulate on the deck well above boot level. An environmental outrage guaranteed to incite Audubon readers, right?
Precisely the opposite. When longlining is done this way and in this kind of water, it's the most selective and environmentally friendly of all commercial fishing. Gillnets pile up bycatch (a minimum of 400,000 dead seabirds a year, according to a study in the June 2013 issue of Biological Conservation). Trawl nets, dragged through the mid-depths or along the ocean floor, sweep up entire fish communities. Otter trawls, which rake the bottom, do the same even as they clearcut forests of fish-sustaining coral, sea fans, and vegetation. Walinski and his fellow dogfish longliners don't kill bycatch and don't destroy habitat. Because of this selectivity they are exempt from the rule requiring trawlers and gillnetters to videotape their fishing or have an observer aboard.
Dogfish are vulnerable because they bear live young in dog-sized litters, but the current quota is sustainable. "They're about the only thing we have left," says Walinski. At the town fish pier I'd seen bumper stickers that read: "Na- tional [Marine] Fisheries Service: DESTROYING Fishermen and Their Communities Since 1976." The agency is guilty as charged--but not, as most Yankee fishermen imagine, because of strictness. Until 2006, when Congress outlawed killing marine fish faster than they can reproduce, the NMFS had trouble saying one of the kindest words a regulator or parent can utter: No.
Walinski isn't imbued with this kind of bitterness; he's full of good humor, a survivor, an adapter. For example, today for the first time he's slicing off the valuable tails, in the process draining the pungent, meat-degrading blood, then putting the carcasses on ice. This way he'll potentially get 50 cents per pound instead of 15. Dogfish tastes great, he says. He likes it deep-fried or baked with tomato sauce.
Walinski doesn't come from a fishing family; he got into the business 30 years ago because he loves the sea and everything that lives in it. He throttles down and grins as a dozen humpback whales roll, gape, and blow circles of bubbles to corral a shoal of sand eels. Later he slows again as great and sooty shearwaters dive and dash across the water, snatching sand eels pushed to the surface by charging striped bass. These shearwaters can swim underwater, occasionally chasing longline bait, but they're almost never able to open their beaks wide enough to get hooked. With other types of longlining, shearwaters, such as the Cory's, Balearic, and yelkouan, are not so lucky.
Deckhand Vlacich is made of the same stuff as Walinski. Later in the day he points out a fresh slick with Wilson's storm-petrels dancing over it. They seem to walk on the water, a talent Saint Peter (from whom they derive their name) is said to have possessed. Whoever came up with the name "petrel" hadn't seen the deep-diving petrels of the Southern Hemisphere that bring longline baits to the surface.
Most slicks off Cape Cod are natural, resulting from oil from baitfish chopped up by bass or bluefish, but here there is no sign of either. Vlacich theorizes that one of the local great white sharks has just eaten a seal and we're seeing its oil. Recently he saw a herring gull sitting on a seal's head; when he got closer he noticed that everything aft of the front flippers was missing.
Each time fish marks show on the sonar, Vlacich flips his fishing reel into free-spool and drops a hook baited with herring. It's not worth setting a longline unless you first catch a dogfish to make sure the sonar hasn't shown you some other species. In six hours he lands only a cod. The cold spring has kept the dogs out of inshore waters. "Let's call it a day," murmurs Walinski. But five minutes later the fisherman in him takes over, and he asks what my schedule is.
"Don't have one," I answer. So we steam toward Stellwagen Bank, 40 miles to the north. After 25 miles the sonar lights up with fish marks, and Vlacich reels in a dogfish with another snapping at its tail. He tosses out a buoy attached to 300 feet of hookless line that pays out as the Alicia Ann eases toward Highland Light, near the tip of Cape Cod. At the end he clips on a 15-pound trawl anchor that will take the line to the bottom; to this he ties an 1,800-foot longline draped with 300 hooks pre-baited with squid. It slithers out of a plastic box, newspaper layers and a stream of water from a hose thawing it and keeping it from tangling. Vlacich ties the tail end of the longline to another trawl anchor and clips the anchor to another buoy line. He makes two more sets.
When he finishes the third it's time to pull the first. As a hydraulic winch pulls the longline through steel rollers (two vertical, one horizontal) the hooks rip out of the fish, and Walinski tosses them to the deck at the approximate rate of one every five seconds.