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Original Issue


Monofilament gill nets don't just catch fish; they damage marine life in an alarming way

The quality of the Videotape is poor, but the evidence is there. Out of the scratchy grayness and into focus comes a section of a commercial fishing net, entangled in rocks on the seabed 200 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Maine. The camera—which is mounted on a four-man submarine being controlled by Arnold Carr, a biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries for the State of Massachusetts—slowly tracks along the length of the net. At first one sees nothing unusual on the monitor, just some seaweed growing on the net. On the tape's audio track Carr notes that the vegetation is Spiro botinia. Then, suddenly, the lens picks up a white object grotesquely twisted in the mesh. It's a shark, long dead. Then more sharks appear, along with codfish, crabs and a lobster. A few of the fish look freshly ensnared, but most are a couple of weeks along in the process of decay.

This net is clearly a highly efficient fish-catching engine. But for two to three years no fisherman has tended it—witness the seaweed entwined in it. Whoever set this net has no idea where it is. Maybe it was torn loose by a storm. Maybe it was set negligently in the first place. But, like a programmed robot lacking a command to halt, it goes on catching and killing, because it is made of virtually indestructible nylon monofilament. It's a gill net gone rogue. Sports fishermen have another name for it—ghost net—and it will go on fishing forever.

It is dawn on Georges Bank, the most famous fishing grounds in American history. Late the night before, 45 of us lugged our cod-fishing rods, tackle boxes and foul-weather gear aboard the party boat Yankee Captains in Gloucester, Mass. We then tried to settle down for a few hours' sleep in the bunks below-decks as she headed out to Georges Bank, a hundred miles southeast of Gloucester. One could argue that historic Georges Bank, with its marvelous bounty of fish, particularly cod, underwrote the European settlement of the Northeast.

As the day breaks, the sea is utterly calm. "Hey," somebody says as the dawn comes up, "we're on Golden Pond!" And, for a while, the fishing is golden, as cod after cod hits our heavy metal lures, which are being worked close to the bottom, 30 fathoms down.

But at precisely 7:05 a.m. it is all over. That's when a commercial fishing boat cuts into our line of drift and begins to pay out a gill net right in our path. Paul Beal, skipper of the Yankee Captains, picks up his bullhorn and tells us to haul up our lines. Otherwise we'll lose our gear. Beal starts the engines, and we move a good distance off from the commercial boat before preparing to begin another drift. Our jigs barely hit bottom again when another commercial craft moves across our bow. There will be six more such incidents before our day's fishing is done. Tony Anisowicz, a sports fisherman from Newton, Mass., says bitterly, "They watch us with binoculars, move in when they see us getting fish. There's no more haddock left. Now they're even gearing up to take pollack."

A nonfisherman might think that Anisowicz has little right to squawk. After all, hasn't Georges Bank—the setting for the maritime classic Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling—been fished commercially for more than three centuries? It has indeed, but not with the gear on the boats we had encountered—i.e., the sophisticated electronic equipment and the monofilament gill nets that have become widely available in the past decade. Gill-netting in particular has spawned a method of commercial fishing so destructive, its critics say, that it threatens sportfishing in the coastal areas of the U.S. where the practice is unregulated. And anglers aren't the only ones who are outraged by the spread of gill-netting. They are joined by ecologists, who are concerned about the casual destruction of marine mammals and shorebirds that become ensnared in the nearly invisible strands of the mesh. Even some of the commercial fishermen who employ traditional methods of catching fish and consequently are threatened with being driven out of business are questioning the unregulated use of such nets.

There's nothing complicated about a gill net. According to the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC), a nonprofit organization headquartered in Savannah that is dedicated to conserving ocean fish, it is "a flat net whose meshes are capable of capturing fish by permitting head and gill covers to pass through the net in one direction but not be withdrawn." Gill nets used to be expensive because they were made of linen and they required constant repair as the twine quickly grew old and weakened. They also were not all that efficient, because they were highly visibile to their quarry. Now the mesh is made of nondegradable nylon that's almost invisible, and $500 will buy you one of commercial quality.

Gill-netting takes slightly different forms and presents somewhat different problems from place to place. On the Pacific Coast, for example, the NCMC estimates that unanchored pelagic drift nets, suspended at predetermined depths, ensnare and kill an average of about 2,000 sea lions a year, as well as seabirds, turtles, porpoises, dolphins and even whales. At one point, roller-rigged gill nets used off the Florida Keys threatened the population of king mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico (SI, April 13, 1981). Over the last few years the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management councils have slashed the annual commercial quota of the species from 1.66 million pounds in 1985 to 700,000 last year. The NCMC estimates that it will take 15 years for the king mackerel Gulf stock to recover.

The problem is worldwide. To take but one example, the once great Atlantic salmon fishery in Ireland is threatened by virtually unregulated gill-netting, and there have been outbreaks of violence in Britain between sports fishermen and gill-netters.

The problem sometimes is manifested in unexpected ways. The plastic rings that hold canned drinks together in six-packs become miniature gill nets when they are discarded in the sea. When fish and birds get caught in the rings, they often starve because they cannot swallow properly or are slowly garroted as they grow larger.

The case against gill nets may be summarized as follows:

1) They are indiscriminate in what they catch. Selectivity is determined only by where they are set and the size of the mesh.

2) They preempt the use of the fishing grounds by others.

3) The quality of the catch is poor because gill nets are frequently left untended for long periods.

4) Fish, mammals and birds that fight their way out of the nets are often so severely cut in their struggles by the wirelike monofilament that they subsequently die from loss of blood or infection.

5) Because the nylon monofilament mesh is all but indestructible, nets that are lost or even legally discarded go on "fishing" for years.

"The fish can't hide anymore," says Tom Morse, a gill-netter based in Gloucester. Poke your head into the wheelhouse of his boat, Surprise, a battered wooden 52-footer built in Virginia 10 years ago, and you will see why. Surprise carries as much electronic equipment as the sleekest Bertram sportfisherman: loran, which will direct Morse onto a given square yard of the Atlantic by using satellite signals; a sonar fish finder; a split-screen video fish finder; direction finders; a ship-to-shore radio; and, of course, the radar that enables Surprise to stay longer on fishing grounds in bad weather than boats could hope to in the old days.

Morse, 60, is the president of the New England Gillnetters Association, and he believes he has nothing to hide or to be ashamed of. Which is why, as the annual migration of cod heads into Massachusetts Bay, he has welcomed an observer and a photographer on board this spring morning. Three hours after we leave Gloucester, we begin to haul the first net. It has been untended for two days because, says Morse, bad weather had kept Surprise in port.

The gill net most commonly used in the North Atlantic is not sophisticated. The bottom is anchored to the floor of the sea with weights, and the net is held up by floats attached to the top. A single net is about 100 yards by 6 yards, and a professional like Morse may fish as many as 30 nets joined together. That's more than 1½ miles of net, and he may have two such sets fishing simultaneously.

Its harshest critics do not claim that gill-netting is easy work. Even when the sea is calm, it is hard and hazardous labor. Today the sea is relatively calm, but one member of the crew is off at a wedding, and so the work of three men will have to be split by two. Morse wrestles the net onto the drum winch as it is hauled, while mate Mark Krantz, 20, stows the glistening wet monofilament in the hold and at the same time pulls the catch out of the mesh with a steel hook.

If you can call it a catch. Unlike monofilament, cod are biodegradable. The first one to come aboard, like many that will follow, is a repellent sight—eyeless, Unless and scaleless. "A little mushy, huh?" says Krantz. But he pitches it into the fish box. Only the very worst codfish—the ones Morse calls scalers, which are literally nothing but skin and bones—are thrown back. Morse has an explanation for the condition of the cod. "Sand fleas," he says. "We're on a bad patch for sand fleas here. They eat away a fish in a day." Much later, at dockside, his fish will fetch 30% less than the market price for line-caught fish, and he seems neither surprised nor dismayed.

Besides cod, Morse's gill net has snared a number of unwanted species, all of which are dead and will be flung back into the sea. Among them are plump shad (which were homing into northeastern rivers for spawning), skate, crabs, sculpin and lobster. Suddenly the net pulls off its track on the winch, and Morse rushes to the gunwale to see what the trouble is. Entangled in the net is a harbor porpoise—an air-breathing mammal and one of the few species of porpoise found in the North Atlantic. Its sides cut from its struggle for freedom, the porpoise has died of suffocation. Morse works it free of the net, and it falls back into the sea to drift away on the tide.

"You could be out all season and not see the likes of that again," Morse says. Perhaps, but as he and Krantz haul in the remainder of the net, six more dead porpoises come with it. Holes in the mesh indicate that other porpoises possibly hit the net and either fought through it or, more likely, suffocated and then slipped out. Morse juts his chin and says only, "Let's move our nets out of the way of all these sand fleas and porpoises."

On the run back to Gloucester, he puts aside thoughts of the dead porpoises and talks about the gill-netter/ angler conflict. "I can understand the sports fishermen's plight," he says. "If I have my nets set in a good place, then they have their work cut out to fish it. But they can't put us out of business." Morse makes an effort to communicate with the party-boat crews, by giving them loran bearings of where he has set his nets so they can avoid losing tackle. Despite his efforts, Morse admits, "the sports fishermen really hate us."

Morse, at least, is a professional; gill-netting is his livelihood. The real bane of the sports fisherman is the amateur gill-netter. Captain Paul Forsberg of Montauk, N.Y., speaks of these opportunists with contempt. "We've got part-timers who put out unmarked nets," he says. "They come out every three days and count the skeletons in the net. They preempt the spot so nobody else can fish there, and that net is killing all the time. It's skeleton fishing. If the law required them to stay and tend their nets, they wouldn't be there. They would try it one night and say, '——on this. I'm not going to stay out here freezing my ass off.' They're probably lobstermen most of the time and only part-time gill-netters. But we also have the weekend warriors—doctors and lawyers. They don't have their gear marked right, they aren't on the radio, they don't give a damn. Today's Saturday, and they're going to make so many dollars. They lose a net? They don't care. They go back and buy another."

Already a certain frontier justice is being doled out on the fishing grounds. Says Forsberg, "Can I help it if my anchor drags into some cowboy's net and puts a hole in it? Who owns that spot? Does he own it because he puts his net there and doesn't come back for three days? I've been fishing that spot for 35 years, and he can take it away from me? The law says I have to keep away if the gear is marked properly, but this jackass hasn't done that. I know it's there. I can see it on my echo sounder. But somehow my anchor gets into it. Sorry about that."

The violence is getting ever closer to the surface on Massachusetts Bay. "There are wall-to-wall gill nets from Cape Ann to Maine," says Tom Hill, who operates a party boat out of Gloucester. "I went to a [New England Fisheries Council] meeting up in Maine last spring with the gill-netters. I spoke my piece very gentlemanly, dressed in my suit and everything, and one man said, 'We're going to give you a private hearing out back, soon as we're done with this meeting. And we're going to kick the——out of you.'

"I've gotten four or five phone calls in the middle of the night, saying, 'We'll take care of your wife, too,' and 'Tom, I think you ought to go out and take a look at your boats. I think they've got a little water in them.' So, of course, I go chugging out in the middle of the night, but it was just words."

Hill believes a constitutional case can be made against unregulated gill-netting. "The recreational fisherman is an owner of the resource in common with all the citizens of this country," he says. "It's only the benign acquiescence of the public that allows commercial fishing. Think of deer, say, and duck and pheasant hunted on our public lands. For a time in our country's history, all those creatures were harvested commercially, until in the end it came down to the American sportsman saying, 'Enough is enough.' "

In a few places in the U.S., that's what has happened with gill-netting. Texas, Georgia and South Carolina have banned it altogether, and Florida has prohibited the use of certain kinds of roller-rigged gill nets. Canada has outlawed pelagic gill nets—those that drift, untendered to the ocean bottom. But in the cradle of U.S. fishing, the legendary coastal waters of much of New England, it continues to wreak its havoc unchecked by regulation.



Netters like Morse (above, right) can use high-tech electronics (above) to locate quarry. Often fish are in a sorry state (far right) when taken from a net (right). Sometimes porpoises stray into the lethal mesh.



A calm day on the famed Georges Bank with the cod running is a sports angler's dream.



Starfish gather on a bluefish that has become trapped in an untended "ghost net."



Discarded six-pack holders frequently become mini gill nets.