Full Nets -- Empty Seas

By David Helvarg

The Progressive magazine, November 1997


At sea, you can smell the odor for hours. When you're about seven miles away, a broad sheen of fish oil appears on the ocean surface. Clouds of seabirds hover above the source of the slick: factory trawlers that pull tons of fish out of the water, then process the catch.

Using sonar-directed nets with mouths wide enough to snare several 747 jumbo jets, the factory trawlers bring in up to 300,000 pounds at a time. In the Bering Sea off Alaska and Russia, the boats fish pollock. In the waters off Asia and Latin America, they pursue yellowfin, halibut, whiting, and other commercial species. They also haul up "non-target species"- crabs, sunfish, sharks, squid, and seals- which the ships chop up and flush over board. Some 75 million pounds of this so-called by-catch are wasted each year on the North Pacific fishing grounds alone.

Super-trawlers are the latest threat to fisheries throughout the oceans, which are already in crisis. The oceans have long maintained a fecundity unmatched on land. In the 1980s, the oceans yielded as much as l00 million metric tons for human consumption-almost a third of the animal protein we consume.

But since 1990 the world's fish catch has been falling as the number of commercial fishing boats has climbed. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 70 percent of the world's commercial fish species are now fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. Once abundant species like cod, shark, and tuna are in sharp decline, with bluefin tuna now listed as an endangered species.

About sixty factory trawlers now fish the waters off the West Coast of the United States. One is the American Triumph, whose below-deck production line can push more than 150 fish per minute through its filleting, mincing, washing, drying, mixing, and freezing machinery, turning pollock into fillet blocks and surimi, a fish product popular in Asia. The fillet blocks are used in the United States for frozen fish-sticks, fish and chips, and fast-food sandwiches.

After the trawler's multinational crew fills its freezers with 1,000 tons of fish, the ship will offload its catch at sea onto tramp steamers headed for Asia. When it has finished its at-sea operations, it brings a huge, fishy cargo to port in the United States.

But the American Triumph is not the pride of its fleet. That honor belongs to the American Monarch, a $65 million super trawler, based in Seattle, home port to a U.S. factory fleet that didn't exist ten years ago. At 31 ] feet in length, the Monarch is the highest-capacity fishing boat in history. It can net and process about one million pounds of fish per day. Its owner, American Seafoods, the same company that owns American Triumph, is a U.S. subsidiary of Resources Group International (RGI), a Norwegian firm that plans to build twenty-four additional super trawlers for its already extensive fleet. With annual earnings of more than $1 billion, RGI controls 10 percent of the global whitefish market and 40 percent of the U.S. pollock quota in the Bering Sea.

But the American Monarch has not had smooth sailing. Since last fall, it has been turned away from Chile, Peru, and the Falklands by a coalition of local fishermen, concerned governments, and environmentalists. Earlier this year, Greenpeace raided the Monarch and hung a banner off its superstructure that called for the abolition of factory trawlers. On August 7, Greenpeace climbers hung off Aurora bridge in Seattle, blockading two other American Seafood factory trawlers for three days.

"These ships are literally designed to overfish the world's seas, to deplete one fishery, and then move on to another ocean," says Fred Munson, Greenpeace's fisheries campaigner in the Northwest. In May, a Chilean court upheld a decision to deny the Monarch the right to operate in Chile's waters. The Chilean government was afraid the factory trawler would wipe out its commercial stocks of fish.

Because the American Monarch was built in Norway and U.S. law says that at least the hulls of fishing boats have to be built domestically it they are to be considered U S. ships, the United States may not allow the Monarch, to participate in the $2 billion-a-year fishing bonanza now taking place in U.S. territorial waters off Alaska.

Since the Russian government has abandoncd any pretense of maintaining a sustainable fishery, the American Monarch may head tor the Russian side of the Bering Sea-a popular target for factory trawlers. Factory-trawler captains have been overheard holding at-sea radio discussions about which Russian fishing officials will take bribes. The Russians are legally allowing 40 percent of their pollock to be caught each year, while the United States is allowing I8 percent.

But even as the United States complains that the Russians are overfishing, studies indicate that pollock in U.S. waters has declined by half over the past decade. There has also been a rapid drop in the numbers of Steller's sea lions, a species whose main prey is pollock. Fur seals, horned puffins, murres, cormorants, and other seabirds that depend on pollock are also in sharp decline. The U.S. government response to the threat of factory fishing has been negligible. While representing less than two tenths of 1 percent of American fishing vessels, factory trawlers are allowed to collect more than 20 percent of the total U.S. catch.

The 1976 Magnuson Fisheries Conservation Act did ban foreign-registered factory trawlers from U.S. waters and established eight regional fisheries councils to manage the resource. Unfortunately, these measures did little to stop overharvesting. The Magnuson Act exempted council members from conflict of-interest laws applied to other federal regulatory agencies. Not surprisingly, the councils quickly came to be dominated by fishing-industry reps whose philosophy is, "There's always another fish in the sea."

The Magnuson Act also provided low interest government loans and fuel subsidies to the fishing industry to expand the fleet, encouraging the industry to take out loans to expand its catching capacity through new technologies like satellite search systems and deep-scan fish-finding sonar.

The results were predictable. By 1992, a vastly expanded and overcapitalized Atlantic fleet had done what the foreign factory trawlers had failed to do. The Georges Bank off New England was over fished to commercial extinction, dead after 500 years as the most productive fishing grounds on earth.

On the West Coast, Arctic Alaska and other companies used tens of millions of dollars in federal loans to buy new boats, including factory trawlers, in the late 1980s.

By 1988, private banks, foreign companies anxious to establish U.S. subsidiaries, and venture capitalists flush from Reagan era tax breaks were migrating to the fishing docks like spawning salmon.

In the effort to exploit the rich fisheries off Alaska, safety standards often went over the side along with the by-catch. Unqualified and unlicensed captains led teenage crews into some of the worst sea conditions on Earth. In 1990, an Arctic Alaska trawler accident cost nine lives and led to criminal indictments of corporate officers. At the ensuing trial, the officers were acquitted.

Two years later, Tyson Foods, the multi-billion dollar Arkansas poultry company, bought Arctic Alaska. Tyson's owner, Don Tyson, has been a longtime political backer of President Clinton. Today Tyson has thirteen factory trawlers operating off Alaska.

As the world's fisheries collapse, the temptation for fishing companies to make a quick buck-by ignoring the few effective conservation rules that do exist-has also increased. Making matters worse, the government's own corporate-welfare programs often limit attempts to enforce the law. "We've busted major poachers and then gotten calls from higher-ups in the National Marine Fisheries Service," complains a fisheries law-enforcement agent who asks me not to use his name. "We were told, 'You can't put that guy out of business. He's fishing for us. He has a government loan for that boat he has to pay off."'

The National Marine Fisheries Service operates as part of the Department of Commerce and oversees the fisheries councils. It is supposed to encourage the councils to practice better conservation.

"We need conservation of the fish stocks, not consolidation of the industry," says Zeke Grader, head of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents some 3,000 individuals on the West Coast. "But I guess with big corporations like Tyson, you're guaranteed the campaign contributions that you might not see from small, moderate income working families." Fishing communities throughout the United States are now feeling the full impact of the factory trawlers, with tens of thousands of people losing their livelihoods. The National Fisherman, an industry publication, recently observed, "Twenty, even ten, years ago we could have come up with a rational plan for our fisheries that would have made sense."

Now hope for the oceans' fisheries- along with the marine mammals, seabirds, and coastal communities that depend on them-is sinking fast.

Environment watch