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.