TRANSCRIPT - Mark Kurlansky
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 theres
a big difference because a large quantity of the fish the fishermen
catch, they dont bring to shore, they just dump because of
quotas or because of market prices. So even worse than counting
catch, its often counting landings. But often you can have
a situation where fishermen are landing enormous amounts of fish
and it doesnt mean that the fish are plentiful; it just means
theyre 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 dont know what that
means. It doesnt necessarily mean that cod is plentiful.
is no correlation between what fishermen are bringing in and whats
left out in the ocean, except for the ultimate certainty which you
have at the Grand Banks where theres almost zero fish and
theres 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 dont know for certain whats going on.
What kind of impact is the cod fishery collapse having on fishing
communities in New England and Nova Scotia?
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 its a family business thats passed
on from fathers to sons, and theres no work for the sons now.
no matter how this is worked out, theres going to be less
licenses, its inevitable theres 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. Weve forgotten about it but its still
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 were talking about. Really the whole problem of fisheries
is cheap fish thats 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 thats
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 thats
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 its
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 thats
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
You go to a
fish market and you see hacked-up frozen fish from the far corners
of the Pacific, thats 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 doesnt
seem to be a problem because even if the local fishery is in trouble,
we can bring in fish from all over the world?
disturbing, whats 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 1880s and by the 1890s these trawlers
were moving onto Icelandic waters because the catch wasnt
so good in the North Sea anymore.
That kind of
thing is devastating this business where were constantly
being introduced to strange new species that we dont 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
cant 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 weve 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 its
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
1960s, 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.
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 werent 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
As a historian, can you talk about how weve 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
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
very slowly, and originally there was just a line and a baited hook.
Then there was a spreader, so thered 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
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 didnt
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 fishermans 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 hes not thinking of the repercussions
of this; he is thinking of catching fish, what he is trained to
do, thats his job.
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 its 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. Thats 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
thats 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
Fishermen feel that its a race for the fish if they
dont 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 ITQs,
transferable quotas. Do you think this may be the way to eliminate
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.
Its the same process if you look at whats happening
to banks or any other business if merger and acquisition
is an allowable part of the scenario theres 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.
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. Thats how we got
through so many centuries of fishing without getting into this problem.
Its big fishing companies that got us into this, so I dont
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
whats the solution limited entry?
has to be fewer fishermen and there has to be some mechanism of
managing fishing that results in fewer fishermen. One interesting
thing thats 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
So this is a
system that limits the amount of fishing but encourages the small
guy over the large guy. And I think youll 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 arent
working as well anymore. And thats probably a good thing.
But limiting days at sea doesnt seem to be helping the small
fishermen since there are many fishermen who arent doing well
at sea is going to be painful for fishermen. But anything you do
is going to be painful for fishermen. Wiping out the oceans
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 thats
why inevitably there has to be less fishermen. Youre 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 its not addressing the problem. The
problem is not world hunger. World hunger is a problem but thats
isnt the problem were trying to address. I mean the
sad fact is that the world produces plenty of food and its
just not getting distributed. So thats not what were
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, thats
nice but its not solving the problem at all.
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, thats what salmon tastes like.
What do you think about the idea that since laws and treaties havent
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 its 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, isnt 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 its 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 1960s when I was working on commercial
fishing boats, this was all new. I didnt realize this was
all new. I didnt 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, weve been getting away with
it so far, its not true.
the past 30 years weve been doing this and in the past 30
years its been disastrous and I dont 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?
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 its
a complete family operation.
And so theres
a family structure that works very well. People think, you know
the fishermen have terrible families because dads always at
sea, and its true that hes away a lot but its
a very good family unit that works together in a very old-time kind
of way, you know, one of those surviving family institutions.
disappearing now. The fathers cant get a place on the boat
for their sons and they wont 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, theyve
got to make payments on their boats it seems to be a downward
spiral the fishermen get caught into?
a tendency to see fishermen as the evil exploiters of the ocean;
I mean theyre 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.
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 youd
ask a few questions. When you go into a fish store and you see some
new species youve 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? Youll usually find that the
fish merchant wont 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 dont like to be
caught and labeled as polluters anymore.