Brian Rothschild is the dean of the Intercampus Graduate School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts in New Bedford, Massachusetts.


Aside from the impacts on a fishery from fishing, what other kind of impacts are you looking into?

Well, the classic problem in fisheries science — the problem that’s been around for the last century is the recruitment problem. And any time you see ups and downs in a fish population it owes to recruitment. Recruitment is the number of young fish that are born every year and this is driven — the variability and the recruitment are driven — to a large extent, by environmental change. And that environmental change is thought to occur with respect to eggs and larvae. And that has to do with the food for the eggs and larvae, and predation on eggs and larvae. And we now know that there is a substantial effect of physical forcing on this such as the effect of small-scale turbulent flow, the nutrient status of the plankton and so on and so forth. It’s very complicated.

So, just from a couple of things you’ve written, I’ve seen that you mention a range of effects including nutrient loading, pollution, surface warming, and so on. Of those types of things, which effects are you looking at that have an impact on either groundfish or any of the other fisheries around here in New England?

Well, the interesting thing is most people think that the declines in some of the groundfish relate to over-fishing. And it’s clear to those of us who study the problem that it’s not as simple as that because the size of the fish stock relates to both fishing and the environment. And so basically, we know that the environment in the Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine and the mid Atlantic has been changing over the last century. We’ve done some preliminary work that shows that it’s warming, just like much of the world over many years. And also, we’ve done some work that shows changes in the plankton abundance. The Marmack work, for example shows fluctuations in plankton abundance. It’s very complicated. We’re really trying to sort out how the young fish — the fish larvae — really react to many different things in the environment. What we do know is that even though that the cod and the haddock and the yellow tail are at historically low levels of abundance, the herring and mackerel are at the highest level of abundance that has ever been observed. So on one hand, you could say that the biomass has shifted, from herring and mackerel, or you could say it’s independent or you could say that there’s some connection. We just really don’t understand a lot of those things yet.

Some of the scientists we have spoken to believe that over-fishing, or the conduct of the fishery, is the primary cause of the demise of commercial fisheries — do you agree with that?

Well, I guess I am not very orthodox. I think if you really look at the ups and downs of fish populations — I’ve looked at many of them over the years — that on the one hand the changes in fish populations can be coupled with fishing. When there’s a lot of fishing, the fish population declines. On the other hand, we notice that fish populations decline when fishing effort doesn’t change. On the other hand we look at, for example, cod populations in the North Sea.

And so I think over-fishing is a simplistic explanation that gets us into a lot of trouble. It’s very difficult to explain scientifically what over-fishing is. One of the problems that this notion of over-fishing creates for society is the very strong likelihood that the major causes of human decline in fish stocks isn’t fishing, but modification of the environment. There isn’t a place in the world, hardly, where the coastal environment hasn’t undergone substantial modifications.

I noticed that one of the studies in your report looks at the impact of the changes in the groundfish here. It went on to look at the impacts on the processing industry as well.

Well, you know, monkfish is sort of new in the United States fisheries, but, in terms of value, it contributes a substantial amount of value in the New England and the mid-Atlantic. And it’s kind of interesting that this fish is a delicacy and has been for many years in Europe. If you go to a French restaurant, it’s always on the menu in France. And there’s all kinds of neat ways of preparing it. In Spain it’s called "rappe" and one of the great delicacies in Spain is "sopa del rappe," and is soup of monkfish. It’s absolutely delicious because the consistency is a lot like a lobster. And in Asia the livers of the monkfish are highly prized. And that’s part of our export industry. So all of these things contribute to the economic value of fisheries in this region. New Bedford happens to be the most important port, economically, in the nation now. And part of that owes to the scallop fisheries. And last year they landed several million pounds of scallops, which, at the dock, are worth five or six dollars a pound.

Do you think the scallops rebounded because those areas were closed to bottom fishing?

I think that’s a part of the issue, but like a lot of things, the scallop story is much more complicated than it would seem. And this shows the unintended results of well-meaning fisheries management sometimes. Basically, it was decided to close major areas of Georges Bank to protect the groundfish, mainly the cod and haddock. I don’t believe that the yellowtail was involved, although it may have been. Now for some reason at that time it was decided to exclude scallop vessels from these areas and I think the main reason was enforcement — so you wouldn’t get confused with a scallop vessel and a bottom fishing vessel. Well basically this restricted, to a substantial degree, the area that the scallop fishermen could fish in. And so if you say at a hundred boats fishing on a thousand square miles, now you have a hundred boats fishing on five hundred square miles.

And lo and behold, it was said that the scallops were over-fished. However, our laws tell us that we should look at a stock as a whole, and naturally because the scallops weren’t fished in the closed areas, they’d been getting an increase in abundance as you would expect them to. So two years ago, based presumably at only looking at the open areas, the council said that the scallops were over-fished and needed a ten-year period to rebuild. And basically, they wanted to reduce the days at sea of the scallop fleet to about a third which would have caused the industry to go bankrupt. And more importantly, to the folks who live in the region in New Bedford, caused severe economic problems. And when people look at those problems, they say well Joe Fisherman, he’s out of business, so what.

But what they don’t realize is that the tremendous infrastructure of mechanics of craftsmen of grocery stores that supply this industry. In addition, they don’t realize what the taxpayer has to pay when thousands of fishermen become unemployed and go on welfare, and the social problems that’s attendant to that. So we were very pleased to take some guidance from the National Standard Aid which says that we should balance the conservation and the economic and community values and to indicate that there was the possibility that maybe the scallop stock on Georges Bank wasn’t over-fished. So we got together with the industry and the National Marine Fisheries Service and some other people and we demonstrated that there were really large numbers of scallops on Georges Bank.

There are marine scientists who are concerned with the impact of bottom gear. So, you’re looking at the water column. They’re looking at needed ecosystem for juvenile cod to hide from predators and the food that juvenile cod need to survive. What do you think of that research? Do you think that they’re missing the boat, so to speak?

I don’t think they’re missing the boat. It’s pretty clear, depending on the species of fish and the stock. We have cod in New Jersey and New England; we probably have separate stocks on the Scotian shelf, yet other stocks in the northern Canadian waters, off Labrador, the Greenland, Iceland stock, the North Sea, the one around Spitzburg, the Bering Sea, the Norwegian, even a stock of cod in the White Sea and the Irish Sea — each one of these stocks of cod relates to the bottom fauna in a different way.

For example, the New England cod stocks probably feed more on bottom fauna than for example, the Bering Sea stock. So now the thing is, to what extent does bottom fishing affect the recovery of these cod stocks? I think what we do know about bottom fishing and bottom-tending gear disturbs the physical structure of the bottom. But, what we don’t know is how that affects the ecosystem of the bottom fauna. Does it make it less productive or more productive?

There’s a place in the North Sea where fishermen have been beam trawling for well over a century. And every year the fishermen go back to this place with a beam trawl, which really undercuts the bottom. It’s a very bottom-stirring type of gear. And the fishermen go back to this place every year. And the sole go back to this place and they have a very profitable fishery year in and year out. And this is true in Georges Bank with respect to the ground fish.

What we don’t know is whether we’re seeing some very subtle and insidious long-term effect. And that research hasn’t been done. Again, as far as a scientific issue, we have a way of proceeding in science. And it’s not really clear the extent to which these admitted modifications of the bottom effect the population dynamics of fish. We’ve been studying these phenomena for a century, and the fluctuations of fish stocks we know generally relate to recruitment. This is in the water column. How that affects the adults is something we have to determine.

Is it a possibility, that bottom trawls disrupt bottom habitat but that flat fish are not impacted in the same way as cod?

Oh, absolutely. Anything that you do to the environment, given that whatever you do is sustained, affects different species in different ways. The interesting thing about the yellowtail flounder, which we happened to sample when we were doing our scallop work in Closed Area Two, was we found them to be huge. And we concluded that the yellow tail were under-fished in Closed Area Two, just like the scallops were.

And, the interesting point — and again, this shows you the complexities and the unintended consequences — is that the reason that the by-catch was so large of yellowtail flounder in the scallop fishery in that area is because the yellowtail were so abundant because they were under-fished. So, if there was more fishing on yellowtail and scallops, they would be more in balance and there would be much less by-catch and wastage. And so it really boils down to how one wants to look at the ocean environment as a philosophical issue in this day and age when you have six billion people in the world.

The major environmental problems — there’s no question about it. You can fly all around the world and it’s hard to see a trace of land that isn’t affected by human impact. And to say, wow, you know, at last, I’ve decided to make the ocean environment an environment issue and I’m going to pick the trawling of fish as my concern. I certainly share that concern, but at the same time, you think of people starving, you think of degradation of the coastal zone, of our estuaries.

With regard to the controversy of letting the scallopers back into the closed areas, some have said that the rotation idea makes sense. Could you speak to that?

Well, it was our idea so I am happy to speak to it. And the basic idea is that scallops, unlike fish, are basically, you might say, identifiable. In other words, scallops, more or less don’t move. We don’t know that for a fact, but we think that’s the case. And so you can sort of think of the scallops as sitting on the bottom as like forest resource — of trees — and where the fish move around, so they’re very difficult to appreciate in concrete terms. Well, the foresters have been rotating cutting for many years and the basic way it works is you divide up your managed forests into plots and you cut, or partially cut, one plot and then you move to the other wall. The issue is, How do you decide which plot to cut? There’s a whole field of operations research that works in the mathematical ideas of optimization. So basically what they do is they maximize yield.

Or the economic value of yield given constraints. And that was the idea that we wanted to get into the mainstream of scallop management. It’s rather interesting. The council has a Plan Development team for scallop management and we talked about this idea for well over a year and we still don’t have a rotational fishery management plan that’s couched in the methods of optimization, which is sort of the cutting edge of how you would manage a resource that’s more or less fixed in place.

What do you think about marine protected areas? Do you think they are a good idea?

Well, I think that marine protected areas — it is a hot topic. And under some circumstances, they could work very well. In other circumstances they might not. We know enough about fishery management to calibrate in a very careful and quantitative way the value of these areas. I can give you an example of a marine protected area that perhaps didn’t work. And that’s when we close 30-40% of Georges Bank to protect the cod and the haddock. I don’t think it protected the cod; the haddock are back now, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the protected area. And what we did is cost society a tremendous amount of money in terms of scallop harvests. And the really sad thing about the work with the scallops is that if we don’t get a rotational plan, to minimize the bottom time of dredges, and optimize the yield and to move ahead.

And so, again, you have these waves of band-aids — don’t clear cut, have marine protected areas, do more ecosystem management. The fact of the matter is, is we are not collecting the statistics that we need, we are not doing the research that is required to deal with the true multiple species nature of fisheries. We’re not looking at the risk and the alternatives of management. And that’s the problem. We’re being driven by problems that most professionals who have really studied fisheries would not say are mainstream problems.

Almost every scientist we have spoken to would agree with you.

Well, this is not something that’s new with respect to fishery data because for years I have worked with the food and agricultural organization, the United Nations, and we’ve recognized for many years that we didn’t have the data that we needed always to manage the fisheries, because traditionally, you need to get data from the fishing boats. And at that time, the problem was acquiring the data. One of the major data absences is that the Soviet Union was one of the biggest fishing countries, if not the biggest fishing country in the world. And they fished the whole Pacific Ocean with great intensity for many of years and no one knows really what they caught or how much they caught or what the catch benign effort was, and so that data problem has always been a problem.

Another reason at that time that people had difficulties was, we didn’t have the computational facilities, to archive and store data. And data systems, and distributed data systems and so on and so forth, we do now. So there’s really no excuse why the data that are being collected from the fishermen are not readily available for analysis. Because at the end of the day, it’s understanding how the fishing fleet interacts with the fish which can only be measured in terms of actual data from the fishing fleet.

Some people think that there is an inherent weakness in the fisheries management council regime, wherein fisheries’ interests are seated on the council and have sway and short-term goals are favored over long-term goals. What do you think?

Yeah, there’s a problem. And basically you can’t treat the whole nation in one fell swoop, because things on the west coast are very different than on the east coast, and things in the island fisheries for example, are very different than the mainland fisheries. When the Fisheries Conservation Management Act of 1976, as it was called, as Senator Magnuson — who was one of the founders of the Act — said this is really a new form of government. Here’s a chance for the fishing industry to get together with the science and develop rational plans for managing fish and to reduce foreign fishing, which of course was a very big thing at the time, and we’ll all move ahead and we all thought it was great. On paper, the Fisheries Conservation Management Act was a really great piece of legislation that we all put together.

The problem, in my view, has to do with way it’s been implemented by the Agency. I’m not talking about any of the present cast of characters, I’m talking about how it has evolved over the years. And the whole key to the Act working correctly and admittedly, there’s differences among the council, is to have the best scientific information. It’s to really understand multiple species interaction, to understand the economics and so on and so forth. And I don’t think that we’ve progressed very far; I don’t think the National Marine Fisheries Service has utilized its research and development capabilities to the extent that it might.

And you might say well, people on the councils have short-term interests. One of the reason they have short-term interests is that they don’t have long-term information so the people don’t go to their natural level, and we really need to produce this long-term information and so you have very different approaches to management. I mean, for example, on the gulf you have the red snapper dominating the 600 million dollar shrimp industry. You have bottom effects here beginning to dominate a tens- of millions-of dollar scallop industry. And you have a situation on the west coast where the salmon environment in many of the rivers is in really bad shape. And so I think that, and also the Agency has promulgated regulations and interpretations that may not be consistent with the actual intent of the legislation. So I’m discouraged.

However I think there’s a way forward. And the way forward is the other regulatory agencies work in government — you have the regulatory agencies and you have the oversight body. And I think you need something that’s analogous to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Aeronautics Board. In other words the Aviations Administration that regulates the airlines and air traffic, gives out licenses and so on and so forth and then you have the Board that oversees that. I think the thing that is missing is the national oversight — these fisheries are supposed to be managed for the benefit of the nation, not for the benefit of local interest.

So I think that the council process is expensive, it hasn’t worked well, it hasn’t served to bring out the research necessary to scientifically manage the stocks. Now, I think it’s a lot different in say Alaska than it is in Florida, but in general, I think if people want to talk about re-authorization and re-evaluation, then maybe we have to get that deep into it. Now I know, in saying that, that that will never happen because we’re too entrenched in the present mechanism, but I don’t think the present mechanism is serving the resource management as well as it might.

Speaking of global food security and six billion people, how important do you think is aquaculture?

First of all, aquaculture has to be a technology of tomorrow, and right now it’s basically either ad-hoc industries like that do well, like salmon culture — they’re doing really well — or industries that we have been involved in culture for many years, like oysters, for example, in France, in China and India, Israel — tremendous culture of carp; many different kinds of aquaculture. The bottom line is if we want aquaculture to really serve society, then we’re going to have to create the Blue Revolution, just like in agriculture they created the Green Revolution.

What was the Green Revolution? The Green Revolution was basically employing research to better understand the genetics, the nutrition and the disease of plants and animals. And you’ll note that none of the animals that are on any farm look like a lion or a tiger; they look like a chicken, a swine, a sheep or a cow. They are plant-eating animals and the reason for that is because it would be uneconomical to raise animals to feed animals. So what we’re all waiting for is the Blue Revolution and it’s really the political will and the intelligence of the public sector community to make this happen, just like it happened in agriculture. And when that happens it will be pretty clear that we’ll be raising more carp than carnivorous fish and we’ll be learning how to culture those in closed systems to deal with the waste, and some of that has to do with technology. We need a Department of Aquaculture to generate that kind of technology because mom-and-pop operations can’t do it, to put aquaculture on line, just like we have a Department of Agriculture and that’s what they did.

How big of an impact is six billion people on the ocean, in terms of future fisheries?

I think the impact is tremendous, because it’s not only the fact that we’re generating fish for food; it’s the fact that we’re basically, in my view, modifying in a very serious way the coastal environment on which this depends. Take Chesapeake Bay, that’s a very good example. Chesapeake Bay was said, turned over all the volume of water in Chesapeake Bay in a few days by pumping it through oysters. Now there are very few oysters in Chesapeake Bay. Why? It’s because the profiles of the oyster reef have been leveled; they’ve been covered over with silt; oysters don’t grow in silt. You have, you have a totally modified environment. You have the Susquehanna River that was a major spawning ground for shed and many other fish; it’s damned up.

People just have to accept the fact that they’ve destroyed the environment and they have to come up with some remedies and some remedies might be possible. I don’t think you’ll ever bring the spawning streams of salmon on the west coast back to the pristine state.

I just read an article that you have several thousand technocrats working on salmon on the Pacific coast. That’s incredible. I mean, how can society afford to pay several thousand technocrats to deal with salmon?

You’re thinking it’s a mis-allocate resource?

Yes, I think so. Well I mean there’s only so much you can do. And it’s kind of like ‘three’s a crowd issue.’ How many people can work on salmon and do it profitable?

The fishermen we’ve talked to said, basically to compete, they have to buy a bigger rig and the government has made it possible for them to do so. Once they get the bigger rig then of course they have the higher payments and they have to fish even harder. Is this real?

I think it’s real in a lot of cases. I don’t think it exists as much now as it used to and the real issue now, the real cost to fishermen now isn’t the abundance of the stock or subsidies, it’s the uncertainties associated with management. I had a bank call me the other day in Maine. One of their customers wanted a loan for a scallop boat and what is the condition of the scallop stocks? I said it’s very good but that’s not the problem; the problem is the uncertainties of management. And I can’t think of anything in my mind that’s easier to manage than scallop because I mean, it’s like managing a department store, you have inventory, it’s there and things like that. And we spent a tremendous amount of money on a problem that’s so simple. And yet the problems of multiple species interaction and the effects of the environment and how the fishery interacts with the fish are not being addressed as well they might.

Do you ever feel like you are somewhat of a lone voice in this?

Well, I do sort of feel like I’m a lone voice because I’ve been involved in fisheries for a long time. I’ve worked almost continuously for some fisheries agencies since 1953. And I’ve spent a lot of time studying fisheries and I’ve worked in every ocean in the United States, for many different countries, through FAO and as a consultant, and different people have different experiences and most people’s experiences are different than mine, so I do feel somewhat lonely. But I have a lot of good friends.

Do you have anything that you feel you can add?

I do. I think that discussions and dialogues that you’re having with people are really great. And the public needs to understand more about fishing, the ups and downs of fish stocks and interactions with fishermen. You have to understand that it’s a broad issue; that again, it sits in a world of six billion people and a lot of environmental insults and we really have to focus on fisheries as food security and sustaining them forever.