Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod, A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.


Is it your view that the increase in catch had nothing to do with the stocks becoming more plentiful but that the fishing effort was getting more and more efficient?

Yeah, I sometimes think that the root of the problem is the fact that there is no absolutely certain way to measure fish stocks. If you could fly over the ocean the way you could the Serengeti Plain and count the herd of fish and let the fishermen out to net them you would know exactly how many they should be netting. But what has always tended to happen is assumptions are made based on what fishermen are either catching or landing.

Of course there’s a big difference because a large quantity of the fish the fishermen catch, they don’t bring to shore, they just dump because of quotas or because of market prices. So even worse than counting catch, it’s often counting landings. But often you can have a situation where fishermen are landing enormous amounts of fish and it doesn’t mean that the fish are plentiful; it just means they’re doing a good job of tracking them down.

In the Grand Banks in 1992 just before the stocks completely collapsed, the Canadian government was doing market research programs to try to figure out the fish because the catches were at historically high levels, so I never know. For example about a month ago friends of mine — commercial fishermen, off of Cape Cod — were saying to me, "Cod catch is great this year!" And it always makes me nervous because history teaches us we don’t know what that means. It doesn’t necessarily mean that cod is plentiful.

There really is no correlation between what fishermen are bringing in and what’s left out in the ocean, except for the ultimate certainty which you have at the Grand Banks where there’s almost zero fish and there’s almost zero catch. But until you get to that point, which is of course the point you absolutely have to avoid getting to, you really don’t know for certain what’s going on.

What kind of impact is the cod fishery collapse having on fishing communities in New England and Nova Scotia?

It’s devastating. The decline in fish stocks in the Grand Banks and Georges Bank, in the northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada, is destroying a historic culture, the founding culture of these places. What makes Newfoundland Newfoundland, what makes Nova Scotia Nova Scotia, what makes the New England coast the New England coast is a culture, a way of life. And it’s a family business that’s passed on from fathers to sons, and there’s no work for the sons now.

Whatever happens no matter how this is worked out, there’s going to be less licenses, it’s inevitable there’s going to be less fishermen, and the culture of fishermen communities is in danger of disappearing. It would be a huge loss to the character of this country and Canada and England and Norway, many countries in the world have fishermen-based culture in ways. We’ve forgotten about it but it’s still there.

We were down on Fulton Fish Market this morning and a lot of fish there are from all around the world. What are your thoughts on that?

I think that the fact that the fish market has become an international place has a plus and a minus — it all depends on what quality of fish we’re talking about. Really the whole problem of fisheries is cheap fish — that’s how we got into this mess — the factory trawler catching tons and tons of fish and just throwing it around and freezing it and leaving it onboard for weeks on end and not caring about the quality of, the quality of it and selling it for cheap and making your money off of volume — that’s the catastrophe.

It’s just the opposite that has to happen. Fishermen have to take real care with fish, land them fresh, handle them carefully, have a very high quality product and sell it for a lot of money. That way you can earn a living without catching a huge quantity of fish. So you go to someplace like the Fulton Fish Market and you see fish from all over the world, some if this fish is of excellent quality and that’s a positive sign.

The fact that some guy in France catches a beautiful turbo and there is now the possibility of flying this to the Fulton Fish Market when it’s eight hours out of the sea and you can buy this turbo out of France, fresh, here in New York and pay a fortune for it — that’s the kind of fishing business that will work and very much has a future. And the fact that through improved transportation and all of these things we have the ability to do this, is a very positive sign.

You go to a fish market and you see hacked-up frozen fish from the far corners of the Pacific, that’s a bad sign.

What do you think about the fact that in the mind of the public there seems to be an endless supply of fish and so there doesn’t seem to be a problem because even if the local fishery is in trouble, we can bring in fish from all over the world?

What’s disturbing, what’s dangerous, is this tendency to fish out one place and go to another place, which has been going on for a long time. The bottom dragger, the stern trawler, was invented in the North Sea in the 1880’s and by the 1890’s these trawlers were moving onto Icelandic waters because the catch wasn’t so good in the North Sea anymore.

That kind of thing is devastating — this business where we’re constantly being introduced to strange new species that we don’t even know how they reproduce and suddenly after ten years of the food trend the species is almost gone — this is terrifying. But the fact that the New England fisherman knows that if his fishery can’t produce cod, cod will come in from Norway, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

In this area, in the North Atlantic, historically cod has been so abundant, yet we’ve managed to deplete the fishery — why?

One of the things that attracted me to the whole idea of writing a book about cod, which on the surface seems like an absurd thing to do, is that it’s an incredible story — the history of a place that had the largest school of fish ever recorded in human history; a wealth of fish that was so fantastic that it drew people from around the world.

Even in the 1960’s, when I was working on commercial fishing boats, New England fishermen were very proud of the fact that this was the richest fishing ground in the world. It was a praise you heard over and over again: You know we have the richest fishing ground in the world. It is no longer the richest fishing ground in the world.

When Europeans first came to North America nobody had been commercially fishing here and I mean the waters were just JAMMED with fish. They wrote people who weren’t even interested in fishing complained that cod were pestering their vessels. You know, they had trouble getting through the water because of all these annoying cod that were swarming around. And nobody had ever, in recorded history, seen anything like it. The land equivalent is you know, the herds of buffalo and the flocks of birds that darkened the sky for hours as they flew over; nature was so rich in this continent when Europeans first arrived.

As a historian, can you talk about how we’ve had a fishery that has been overfishing for decades and suddenly we have sonar and we have all this technology where the curve is getting really steep?

For thousands of years man fished, and there was a debate as to whether there was such thing as overfishing, because there was very little evidence that there was. A lot of fish were being taken, or what was considered a lot of fish, I mean John Smith caught 47,000 codfish — not tons but just 47,000 fish in the early 1600s and this was a famous incident.

Technology developed very slowly, and originally there was just a line and a baited hook. Then there was a spreader, so there’d be two hooks. And eventually there were long-liners, lined with a hundred hooks, could become a thousand or thousands of hooks. When it started to become thousands of hooks on a long-line, the discussion really started to grow about overfishing.

Once you had an engine-powered vessel and frozen food, the capacity of a fishing vessel became almost limitless, because you could always get a more powerful engine and a larger ship to drag a larger net to catch more fish. And the only constriction would be getting this fish to market. If you then had freezing equipment on board, you didn’t even have that constriction; your only constriction was the size of the hold to carry the fish.

Added to this disaster was the technology of World War II, namely designs for submarine chasing — sonar, spotter aircraft — all of these things that were designed to detect submarines under water can also be used to detect schools of fish. So now you had unlimited capacity and the ability to actually find the fish, visually. And that gave fishermen the ability to track down theoretically every fish in the ocean.

Now that was a huge problem because the fisherman’s job, the mentality of the fisherman has always been: how can I catch as many fish as possible. Now the fisherman, with this mentality, has the ability to catch every last fish. And he’s not thinking of the repercussions of this; he is thinking of catching fish, what he is trained to do, that’s his job.

The interesting thing is that the fishermen never got richer from this for two reasons. One is the obvious market fact, that the more fish you land, the lower the price per fish it’s going to be. And the other is that as they took more and more fish, there were less and less fish per netful, so you needed bigger and bigger vessels, larger and larger nets, just to catch the same amount of fish, so the capital investment to stay in business just got bigger and bigger.

So it became this formula whereby more and more fish were being caught, less and less fish were being left, and it was harder and harder for a fisherman to earn a living; just a disaster all the way around.

Can you explain what happens in ground fishing with bottom trawls?

One of the sad stories of the Atlantic cod is that a cod spends the first few weeks of its life on the surface of the ocean, which is extremely dangerous and very few of them survive. The few that do survive, called juveniles, then go to the bottom and they live on the ocean floor. And once they get down there their instinct is to find safety by hugging to the ocean floor — crevices, rocks — hunkering down there. That’s the safe part of the ocean; their whole life cycle teaches them that.

So what do we do? We invent trawlers that scoop up from the bottom. In an ocean that’s being hunted by trawlers, the bottom of the ocean is the worst place a fish can be. So they are hiding out right on the bulls-eye.

Fishermen feel that it’s a race for the fish — if they don’t get it, then somebody else is going to get it. In New England it seems that fishermen are slowly warming up to the idea of owning the resource in these individual fishing quotas or ITQ’s, transferable quotas. Do you think this may be the way to eliminate overfishing?

This idea of transferable quotas, I think, is disastrous. I believe that most fishermen think so, too. What will logically happen if quotas can be bought or acquired is that the richest people will acquire them. It’s the same process if you look at what’s happening to banks or any other business — if merger and acquisition is an allowable part of the scenario there’s going to be big, powerful people who are going to get control of everything. And it would mean the disappearance of the individual fisherman and fishermen will then be working for one of two seafood companies.

Now, seafood companies have always been the greatest sinners. There is no reason to hope that fisheries would be better managed by large companies than by private individual fisherman. On the contrary, I think the greatest hope is to keep fishing a small. That’s how we got through so many centuries of fishing without getting into this problem. It’s big fishing companies that got us into this, so I don’t understand why we would build a system that would encourage large companies and discourage small operations.

If you encourage smaller operations to flourish, basically it still comes down to too many boats chasing too few fish; even these small boats are equipped with high-tech sonars and things like that. So what’s the solution — limited entry?

Obviously there has to be fewer fishermen and there has to be some mechanism of managing fishing that results in fewer fishermen. One interesting thing that’s happened in this country is limiting the number of days you can fish. The larger and more expensive your vessel is, the more economic hardship there is in leaving it tied up on the dock.

So this is a system that limits the amount of fishing but encourages the small guy over the large guy. And I think you’ll find in New England these days that there are many people who would rather crew on a small vessel than on a large trawler because of the economics aren’t working as well anymore. And that’s probably a good thing.

But limiting days at sea doesn’t seem to be helping the small fishermen since there are many fishermen who aren’t doing well financially?

Limiting days at sea is going to be painful for fishermen. But anything you do is going to be painful for fishermen. Wiping out the ocean’s fish is going to be the most painful for fishermen. You have to come up with some formula and the formula is going to hurt and that’s why inevitably there has to be less fishermen. You’re better off having only a hundred fishermen who are prospering than having a thousand fishermen starving.

What are your opinions on fish farming?

Well, the reality of aquaculture is that it’s not addressing the problem. The problem is not world hunger. World hunger is a problem but that’s isn’t the problem we’re trying to address. I mean the sad fact is that the world produces plenty of food and it’s just not getting distributed. So that’s not what we’re trying to do. What we are trying to do is save the fish stocks. Aquaculture in no way saves the fish stocks. Basically it says: okay, wipe out the ocean and we can still eat fish. Well, that’s nice but it’s not solving the problem at all.

Also, it’s lousy fish! I mean in the summertime, you suddenly for a few weeks get wild Pacific salmon here and you eat this stuff and you think, oh god, yeah, that’s what salmon tastes like.

What do you think about the idea that since laws and treaties haven’t been successful in fishery management, one of the ways to get fishermen to fish more cleanly is for the consumers to exercise their consumer dollar muscle and demand environmentally safe fish?

I do very much believe in this but I think that the idea of selling environmentally safe fish is good as far as it goes, but it’s much more powerful in the marketplace is selling higher quality of fish. And the great miracle is that higher quality fish is usually ecologically well-caught fish. All of the abusive fishing produces the junk fish and the careful ecologically sound fishing techniques produce the quality fish. I mean, isn’t that wonderful? Because you can take affluent people, who may or may not care about the environment, and you can sell them environmentally sound fish because it’s a better tasting fish. If it were the other way around what would we do?

Tell us some of the amazing things you came across in your research that pertain to our subject matter, about the demise of the marine fisheries and the efforts to recover it.

The two things that really surprised me when I was researching the cod book were: 1) that in the mid 1960’s when I was working on commercial fishing boats, this was all new. I didn’t realize this was all new. I didn’t realize that man had never fished this way before, that 15 years before my time they were still using sailing schooners. And all of the fishermen that I worked with were constantly talking about the threat of overfishing. And I thought that you know, fishermen are notorious grumblers and I thought that throughout history fishermen had always grumbled about this.

But the fact is, we were on the eve of a new terrifying age. And what is happening now is something that has never happened before on the planet. The oceans are being threatened in a way that has never happened before, fishing has never menaced nature in the way it does now. And this is all new. So if you think well, we’ve been getting away with it so far, it’s not true.

It’s in the past 30 years we’ve been doing this and in the past 30 years it’s been disastrous and I don’t know if we can withstand another 30 years of it.

In doing the research, what saddens you the most about the trends that are happening now?

It’s a very sad thing to see what is happening to the fishing families. Because in most fishing communities all over the world, fishing is a family project. The men go to sea, the women do the land-based things, including the marketing, the political lobbying, the insurance payments, and whatever needs to be taken care of, and it’s a complete family operation.

And so there’s a family structure that works very well. People think, you know the fishermen have terrible families because dad’s always at sea, and it’s true that he’s away a lot but it’s a very good family unit that works together in a very old-time kind of way, you know, one of those surviving family institutions.

And that’s disappearing now. The fathers can’t get a place on the boat for their sons and they won’t be able to get licenses for their sons. And so this whole family way of life is disappearing in many communities, which of course will completely change the rich and close-knit character of fishing communities.

What drives overfishing? From the point of view of these fishing families — they are going after fewer and fewer fish, so they have to gear up technologically, this costs money, they’ve got to make payments on their boats — it seems to be a downward spiral the fishermen get caught into?

There’s a tendency to see fishermen as the evil exploiters of the ocean; I mean they’re the ones who caught all of the fish. They did not do this out of this uncontrolled greed. All they were trying to do was sustain their families’ at what is really a fairly low level of income. The problem is that the more fish you catch, the less fish there are the more you have to invest to be able to catch the same amount of fish. You need bigger nets so you need a larger vessel, so you have to pay more insurance and maintenance on it — every fisherman is paying 30 to 50,000 dollars a year, just on insurance that is mortgaged to the hilt, so you have to catch a lot of fish just to break even, and it gets worse and worse. The investment gets higher, the higher the investment gets the more fish they have to catch just to break even, the more fish they catch the fewer fish there are, the more capital investment, it goes up and up and it just gets worse and worse.

There’s a tendency to see all of this as a problem of fishermen and a solution has to be found for the fishermen. But the whole object of fishing is selling fish to the consumer and the consumer is very much a part of this. And if consumers thought about what they were eating, that these are wild animals — I mean if they went into a store and there were rhinoceros steaks and some tiger chops you’d ask a few questions. When you go into a fish store and you see some new species you’ve never heard of before and all anybody asks is what does it taste like? You should be asking where does it come from and how is it being caught? You’ll usually find that the fish merchant won’t be able to answer the question but if people keep asking these questions it will become a part of running a fish store, to be able to answer these questions and an environment will have been created where sane and manageable fishing will make economic sense in the same way that large industries don’t like to be caught and labeled as polluters anymore.