Friday, September 08, 2006

When I helped count the fish in the Atlantic Ocean

For a guy who has never gone fishing in his life, and who is puzzled that so many people find pleasure sitting with a fishing rod in their hands while dangling a worm or other bait on a hook, I found myself in a bizarre situation during the late summer of 1948.

I was aboard a U.S. Government research vessel sailing on the Georges Bank, located off Massachusetts' Cape Cod. The Georges Bank, which is 22,000 square miles in size, is the chief commercial fishing grounds in U.S. waters. The boat's mission was to take a "census" of the haddock, herring, cod, flounders, and other valuable commercial fish. Our voyage was the ninth of 10 scheduled trips devoted to finding ways for New England fishermen to produce more food from the sea.

I was there on an assignment from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), my first post-college employer. My job was essentially that of a press agent, and my task was to write a press release explaining the importance of what we were doing. After years of lobbying by the local commercial fishing industry, New England Congressmen had finally succeeded in getting a Federal appropriation for the program. But the project was ridiculed as a Federal boondoggle by critics who regarded the counting of fish as wasteful government spending.

My job was to defend the project. In my press release I explained that, in addition to counting fish, the project involved the measuring of hydrographic conditions on the Georges Bank that affect fishing, the testing of new methods to handle and preserve fish, and evaluating new fishing gear and the design of trawl nets to save small fish.

On my voyage, we just counted fish. We sailed from the FWS' laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and were out to sea for nearly a week. The fish census-takers were primarily marine biology graduate students hired for the summer. For most of the week, the students and I were sea sick. Unlike the vessel's operating crew, we did not adjust well to the rocky waters and the dreadfully combined smell of fish and the vessel's diesel fuel.

Nevertheless, we did our job, although I assume that many of the students finally went into a different line of work. The census was conducted on a random sampling method designed to obtain an average. The Georges Bank was divided into "stations." At each one a trawl net was thrown into the sea. When a haul was made, the biologists segregated the fish by species and counted and measured them. Samples were taken to determine the ages of the fish, their stomach contents, and their sex. Some of the fish were lucky and escaped this fate. To study migratory habits, these fortunate fish were simply tagged and released.

According to a press release that I wrote when I was back on land, "information collected on the number, size, and species of fish taken at each station was analyzed by statistical methods similar to those used in the popular public opinion polls."

Considering that such polls are not infallible, 58 years later I still wonder whether our effort to count fish contributed very much to the welfare of New England's fishermen or to the nation's seafood consumers.


Blogger Ron Southern said...

Ha! I guess the govt. never askss young men if they get seasick, they just send them out!

Friday, September 08, 2006 2:16:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

I've heard of that but didn't think you actually counted the fish. I thought it was by weight or something. My niece did somewhat the same thing on the west coast in the 80's...she was hired by the State of Alaska and actually went to Russia on their fishing boats to count their fishing take and to keep them on the straight and narrow.
An interesting post.

Friday, September 08, 2006 5:00:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I get seasick too. I don't step foot on a boat now unless there is some dramamine rattling around in my stomach first.

I really enjoy your stories.

Friday, September 08, 2006 11:52:00 PM  
Anonymous chancy said...

Interesting and probably as accurate as most political polls are today.;)

Saturday, September 09, 2006 8:53:00 PM  
Blogger saz said...

Mort - Couldn't agree more about the sport of fishing but then I guess "fisherpeople" wouldn't understand my recreation preferences either.

Who knew there was a way to count fish?

You've done the most interesting things. I never know what I'm going to find here when I check in!!!!

Sunday, September 10, 2006 1:50:00 PM  
Blogger goldenlucyd said...

For some reason I find this post dryly hilarious. "...though I assume many of the students finally went into a different line of work." or "...analyzed by statistical methods similar to ...public opinion polls." I loved it.

Monday, September 11, 2006 9:23:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mort,
I sometimes wonder who creates (and justifies) these make work programs for summer students? How on earth do they think these things up? Was it a helpful experience to have in your resume?

"I was a government-authorized fish counter."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006 9:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Joared said...

Speaking for the fisherfolk, I was reluctantly introduced to fishing at the ripe old age of 9 or 10 yrs of age. I fished some for the next 6 or 7 years of my life only.

I came to love it, the meditation, bank side, or in a small boat, the calm and beauty of the river or lake, observing the nature surrounding with wildlife venturing down to drink water. We ate what fish we caught. None of this sport fishing.

I realize ocean fishing, potential for sea sickness is quite a different matter, but have always thought I'd like to try it once or twice.

I don't know what your survey might have accomplished. Given the state of our sea life, the over fishing in many areas, I would like to think what you and the students did was a beginning for increased awareness of our responsibility to respect that part of nature in the ocean.

I would like to think, also, that our U.S. commercial fishermen, who have been so beleagured, might have somehow benefited, if not that year, in future years with the compilation of successive survey data. Afterall, the fish I enjoy eating, as you may, too, come from those ocean waters.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006 7:15:00 PM  

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