SI Vault
Clive Gammon
May 16, 1988
Monofilament gill nets don't just catch fish; they damage marine life in an alarming way
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May 16, 1988

A Sea Of Calamities

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

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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.

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