TRANSCRIPT - Bill Amaru
Amaru is a trawl fisherman in Chatham, Massachusetts and a
member of the New England Fisheries Management Council.
Why did you stop fishing for three years?
It was the late
80s at a time when the industry was rapidly declining. The
catch rates were rapidly declining, and there was still some question
in the minds of a lot of fishermen certainly, as to what was going
on. I think that most people were just in denial that it
was a cycle or the fish would come back; we would just have to wait
it out, as we have to wait out other issues that usually take weeks
or months, not years, to straighten out.
of that ilk. I felt that we had perpetrated a serious overfishing
problem on the fisheries here in New England. And I decided to take
an active role in trying to find a solution to that, which led to
me to going into the political end of fishery.
I left the fishery
before that because of a sense of needing to do something about
it; wanting to set an example. And one of the things that I always
use for an example is that you can make a living on the water without
catching fish and still sort of be a fisherman. Maybe youre
not exactly fishing in the same sense of the word, but I went into
the tourist end of marine work and I took people out in the water
and I showed them the environment and I talked about fishing and
I explained how the fleet had evolved in our beautiful area of Cape
Cod that attracts people.
I was harvesting
from the sea, but harvesting people. And I did that for a number
of years. Actually the business went for five years, but I ran it
for three and then had other people involved until I sold it in
1996. And in that way, I felt that I gave something back. And I
set an example for a way to continue to make a living and not everyone
could do that on the water, I know, but there were other opportunities,
and I just wanted other fishermen to understand that there were.
How has fishing been?
When I started
fishing, we still had the same kind of fishing that we had in the
previous century. There were a lot of fish. We didnt have
the capability of catching the fish that were there that
was the main problem. Its changed to where we couldnt
catch fish or were catching very few of them. And now, its
changing back to where we once again have robust schools of fish.
But theyre being very carefully guarded this time around to
prevent the kind of overfishing that we saw earlier.
Has the number of boats changed?
Yes it has.
There are places where the number of boats has gone down and there
are places where the number of boats has gone up. And in my particular
field, in my fleet in Chatham, not only has the number of boats
gone up in the last 20 to 25 years but what I call the fishing power
of each individual vessel, has increased dramatically and thats
due to the fact that we have the navigational aides we didnt
once have. And the power of each individual vessel the actual
horsepower of the boats, the size, the seaworthiness of the vessel
all that adds up to allowing a better platform from which
to do your work.
The other areas
that have seen fewer boats, they tend to be fleets of larger vessels
that are now simply gone. There arent the fish in the off-shore
areas. A lot of those areas are closed. It took a lot more meat
to supply the needs of big operations than is currently available
at sea. Those boats tended to be the ones that went. The smaller
inshore fleets have continued to flourish in most cases, not in
all. But certainly here on Cape Cod they have.
I notice that you are trawling without using rollers and rock hoppers
and so on. Do you think there are ways of trawling and minimizing
the damage done to the sea floor?
very complex question, and a serious one. I chose, years ago, to
stay small in my operation. I have a 50-foot boat. Thats relatively
small for a dragger; quite small, in fact. I am prevented from using
that bigger, hard bottom, roller rock hopper gear. I am prevented
from using it for practical reasons and for safety reasons.
The main thing
that one needs to remember when theyre talking about the sea
floor and the impact is what exactly are you impacting? There are
places on the sea floor where the bottom is literally alive; even
at the bottom of the abysmal plain the bottom is alive. There are
creatures that live there.
But in the shallower
waters on the hard, rocky substrates that we have a lot of in New
England and in the Georges Bank ecosystem theres a
lot of those places. And they are probably very, very important
for recruitment and for grow out and protection of young fish.
of places are the kinds that need to have more protection than we
currently allow under regulation. And this is a very difficult thing
to talk about in my field because the people that I work with fish
these places and they may not agree. And for good reason, they have
different opinions as to what kind of protection is needed.
But my personal
choice was to utilize gear that I thought would have minimal impact
on the kind of bottom that can withstand the type of impacts that
you get when you trawl on it. Now, thats not to minimize the
importance of this smooth, muddy, clay-type bottom that I fish on.
I think there are a lot of creatures, and I know scientifically,
that this supports numerous tubeworms and other types of flora and
fauna that live on that type of bottom.
But on the relatively
shallow bottom that we work, there is a lot of energy that is created
through storm action and waves and this bottom is not exactly untouched
by natural conditions. So it does have the dynamics necessary to
heal itself, as does that hard bottom substrate as well. All these
bottoms are subject to periodic upheavals. And theres good
reason to think that thats a natural part of what happens
on the sea floor.
part is what happens when you have impacts, man-made. Thats
only in the last 100 years. Theres no evolutionary process
that can catch up with that kind of change. So thats why if
we need to be cautious, thats why we need to look at those
elements of impact.
Youve been an advocate of fishing in ways that dont
deplete the resources. Have you always had the support of your fellow
No, I havent
always had the support of my fellow fishermen. Weve been competing,
first of all. We have to go back to the beginning of the relationship.
We are all competitors with each other. And theres a natural
sort of barrier that gets established when youre competing
with the same people, even though when you do hit the shore, you
can more or less put those things aside.
But if you know
what I mean, theres always a slight interference with having
those types of relationships that you have with people who you dont
compete with. And then, the more serious part of it is, we were
dealing with issues that could have, and in some cases did, really
affected individuals economic well being. And those things
are simply impossible to convey the true sense of what youre
trying to gain.
to sustain and guarantee that well all have a future. But
that doesnt mean anything to a person who has a mortgage payment
and cant make the payment because of a rule thats just
come down that says he wont be fishing in the month of May
which is his most lucrative month. And we recently had to do just
So yes, its
not always easy to get the support of my individual fishermen, but
on the other hand one-on-one Im told more often by people
that wouldnt have even spoken to me about it that what were
doing is working and theyre happy that somebody was willing
to stand up and do it. Theres some gratification for that.
Do you think the closed areas and the limits on the days at sea
and so forth have helped to restore some groundfish stock?
Without a doubt.
I personally think that the closed areas that we have on Georges
Bank are at the root of the rebuilding that we have. I consider
it a three-legged stool, which is not a particularly good balance,
but it provides the support that we needed. And closed areas being
one of the legs, the days at sea being the other, and then the general
improvements that weve made in our technology through conservation
engineering and reasonable increases in fish size, sort of all the
But the underpinning
of all of this is the large areas of Georges Bank, which are off
limits to most gear thats capable of capturing fish. And I
say most gear, because these areas are still open to certain kinds
of fishing. But not to the fishing techniques that can impact the
stocks were trying to rebuild the groundfish stocks.
How has the spill-over effect worked on the gray sole?
The way the
closed areas, or the groundfish protection areas, have worked in
New England has been this that we have large, large areas
with multiple kinds of sea floor habitats, ecosystems within them,
closed. And theyve been closed for a long period of time now,
without any fishing taking place on them. Those areas have become
the sanctuaries that we have intended them to become, as well as
And the fish,
as theyve become more robust in population in these closed
areas, have sought refuge outside. And their natural migration is
to take them outside anyway, but there are more and more of these
fish from within these large areas. Were talking about areas
the size of Connecticut very large areas that are
moving out into areas that are open that we fish.
I happen to
be adjacent to one of those areas here and I think that the habitat
inside the closed areas has been particularly good for gray sole
recruitment and were seeing large numbers of gray sole, back
on the grounds, that we havent seen them for years, in good
The idea that
there could be 8,000 or 10,000 pounds of gray sole in one trip
one short 3- or 4-day trip is remarkable. It hasnt
been like this in over 20, 25 years. And, were seeing a lot
of relatively small fish enter the fishery, which indicates to me
that these are from a recent action. These are fish that have had
an opportunity to be born and grow to this level that were
now actually able to capture. I have to be able to believe these
are fish that are being affected by the closed area management,
as well as the day to sea reductions, et cetera.
It sounds like youve got the right regulations out there.
But you also spoke about enforcement being difficult.
A lot of fishermen
came up to me and said, Bill, if they would only enforce the rules
that they already have, you wouldnt have to keep writing new
ones. And I think the fishermen are right about that. I really believe
if we had the kind of enforcement necessary to make our management
plans of fifteen years ago effective, we wouldnt have had
to write seven amendments, were up to thirteen now, for the
But we dont
have that level, even today. So, as a result weve had to go
from what were relatively easily enforced rules and regulations
that were fairly simple, to extremely complex overlaying regulations
closed areas, large mesh and in fact, reductions in
the number of permits that are allowed, a moratorium on new entry
into the fishery. And I think that if we had reasonable enforcement,
we wouldnt have to have done all that.
I use the example
a city that grows from 40,000 in population to 400,000 in
population but still operates with the same 25-man police force.
Thats basically what we have on the East Coast of the United
States the size of the enforcement body of the National Marine
Fisheries Service has not grown anywhere close to the level requirements
and the expansion of the fishery itself.
How have these catch limits encouraged discards and in fact, detracted
from assessment information, as far as landings are concerned?
of the difficulties of having a quota-based management strategy
where you have to have a trip limit as part of your overall rebuilding
plan to prevent large amounts of fish being caught, when they are
available to be caught. We dont want to take fishermen off
the water; we want to give them the opportunity to fish for other
species, while hes trying to avoid the one were trying
to protect. This makes good sense economically.
too. People have to go to work. You dont want to keep them
home. So, you try to strategize in such a way that you wont
have the types of discards that lead to the problem that were
dealing with. But unfortunately in New England, we just have not
been able to succeed at that.
We have, at
times, large numbers of cod. And in fact, often times more cod are
being destroyed and thrown back in the water than are being brought
to shore. And for sure, this messes up any sense of a true assessment
of whats actually out there because the fish that are being
discarded at sea are not being reported. And if you have as many
fish being discarded as are being landed you have the possibility
of looking at a 100% error in the size of the stock, or at least
in the mortality of that stock.
So we know we
have a problem there, but it has been extremely difficult to find
a solution and allow people to fish at the same time.
What do you think about ITQs?
straightforward. I believe that ITQ management and individual
fishing quota management is simply another strategy that we need
to have as part of our tools, as fisheries managers, in our toolbox.
Im not an advocate for the total elimination of other forms
of management in favor of individual fishing quotas. I know there
are places where they would work, and there are places where they
probably would be too complex and cumbersome. But I do think we
need to have the opportunity to use them where they could be used.