Islander Louis Larsen has been selling fish since 1985. He started working at and running his parents' fish market, and then went back to fishing. And now, he says, “I decided to quit fishing, and all I knew was fish – so instead of catching it, I sell it.”
Louis has seen a lot of changes in federal fishing regulations and management and its effect on what he can sell at his market.
"There’s a lot less local stuff to sell. When I first opened I pretty much was exclusively local because there was such a variety. The mesh was different. You caught a lot more different species now it’s more species specific. So boats go out and target one fish instead of going out and catching a bunch,” Louis said.
The mesh, the gear that Louis is talking about, are the nets some fishermen use.
He says that in the late 70s, early 80’s when he was still fishing, the National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal agency that regulates fisheries from 3 to 200 nautical miles off the coast) they changed the size requirement of mesh. They made it bigger so the smaller fish like juveniles could escape.
In theory, mesh size helps target specific species like cod and ages of a fish – younger fish that haven’t spawned yet. It’s conservation-focused policy that led to regulations that ultimately ended up limiting the diversity of species that fishermen are legally allowed to catch, land and sell. But it wasn’t always like that.
"When we were dragging I remember one trip when we had 38 different kinds of fish.”
Like scup, sea bass, halibut, yellow tail flounder, sanddab, fluke, squid, butterfish, hake, bluefish and cod.
"But you just can’t do that anymore because the mesh is much larger to let the small ones go through because they figured the mortality, when you were catching the small ones you were killing them. So it changed the fishery big time when they changed the mesh in the net. For a good cause in the long run it was a good cause at the time it was a little financial strain.”
Fishermen had to invest in re-rigging their boats to be in compliance with the new, larger mesh requirements.
There are good reasons why the National Marine Fisheries Service regulates mesh size. Protecting the smaller, young fish that have yet to reproduce hopefully ensures that there’ll be more fish in the long run because they’ve had a chance to reach maturity before they’re caught.
"It was to give the smaller ones a chance to reproduce was the whole idea of it. Made them small enough that they could swim through the mesh rather than be compacted when you haul the net aboard they get smushed and what do they figure that’s a 90% mortality rate when they’re brought up with a net versus letting them go in the water.”
When regulations are designed to target specific species of fish there are consequences to what ends up at the fish market.
"When you went for codfish you had a much bigger mesh, you know they allow you a small mesh for squid and butterfish and smaller fish but you have to target just those fish. The bigger mesh you’re only allowed to target the bigger fish.”
As a fishmonger, Louis sees his role as both part of the problem and the solution.
"I wouldn’t mind seeing the fisheries, the total fisheries shutdown during spawning season – catching, buying, selling, the whole fishery because I think the rest of the year would be more abundant if you allowed them to spawn.”
Louis has also seen how changes in technology over the years have impacted how fishermen fish. It’s made them more efficient.
"I’m not sure what the answer is, I always felt like there should be closed areas, because the equipment has got so sophisticated, the fish have no place to hide. They used to be able to hide in the rock piles because you couldn’t go into the rock piles, you wouldn’t want to go near a wreak because you’d loose your net. Now you have cameras on your net and you can literally watch your net go right up to the edge of a wreak and tow alongside it where the fish used to congregate so they have no natural sanctuary anymore. It’s time for us to give them one.”
Commercial fishermen are regulated in all kinds of ways like where they can fish or what days of the week they can go out. And in order to fish legally at all, they have to either buy or lease permits to even access a particular species.
Listening to Louis and other fishermen, it seems like the regulations are missing the forest for the trees…maybe the point of managing the fishermen should be more about encouraging responsible methods for catching a diversity of species. And give all the fish a chance to catch up before they’re fished out.