« April 2008 Table of Contents
One Man's Opinion: Fish processors going extinct
By Peter Redmayne
April 01, 2008
Sustainability is a fact of life these days in the fish
business. Environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations)
have successfully seized upon the issue and put federal
fisheries managers under the gun to restore fish stocks as
quickly as possible. That's led to some draconian cuts in
fishing effort on both the East and West coasts.
With less fish being landed, there is less fish to be
processed. So it's hardly surprising that processing plant
after processing plant is closing its doors. On the West Coast,
dozens of fishing plants once dotted the coast from San
Francisco to Seattle. There was so much fish to be caught in
the industry's heyday during the 1980s and early 1990s that
even an oil company jumped into the fish business and built a
As recently as 1994, more than 100 million pounds of
rockfish, the bread-and-butter of the West Coast trawl fleet,
were landed. Add 70 million pounds of pink shrimp, about 50
million pounds of salmon, a good shot of Dungeness crab and
there was plenty of fish to keep plants busy year-round.
Fast forward to today. The rockfish catch is less than 10
million pounds. The entire West Coast troll salmon fishery may
be shut down to protect decimated Sacramento chinook stocks.
More and more of the Dungeness catch bypasses processing plants
because it goes live to markets in China and North America. And
shrimp catches are down by two-thirds because shrimpers are
getting 30 percent less for their catch at a time when fuel
costs have increased drastically.
So who can blame the owner of a dilapidated processing plant
when he sells his choice waterfront property and retires? The
situation is similar on the East Coast. So what will happen
when the fish do come back? That's a question East Coast
fishermen are already asking. Stocks of Atlantic pollock and
redfish in the Gulf of Maine have already rebounded to levels
not seen since "the good old days." But according to one
fisherman, "if over 100,000 pounds of redfish were landed in
Gloucester in one day now, it would probably sell for bait."
During the 1950s, plants in Gloucester and Rockland, Maine,
could cut almost a million pounds of redfish a day.
Even if the plants were still around, it would be a
challenge to find and train people to stand around a damp, cold
room and fillet fish all day.
And there's also no guarantee there will be enough fishermen
around to fish the rebounding stocks. The boat price for
pollock is currently about 25 cents a pound, the same price it
was when fuel was less than 50 cents a gallon. And gutting all
that pollock is hard work. The long-term prospects for a
fishery where the "lumpers" who offload the boats make more
money than the fishermen who catch and gut the fish are hardly
bright. That's just one reason why so many veteran East Coast
fishermen have hung for-sale signs on their boats and
encouraged their sons not to follow them to sea.
The irony in all this is that the NGOs who have spent
millions badgering and suing fisheries managers to manage
fisheries on a sustainable basis may be killing the future of
the very fisheries they want to sustain.
Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle