BOSTON — Most everyone knew that Jim Ruhle had strong feelings about dogfish - they just didn't know how strong - at least, not until he arrived clutching a box full of dead dogfish pups at a recent meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
The Wanchese, N.C., fisherman, who serves on the council that helps set fishing quotas, pulled the box into full view, displaying its contents as proof the scientific surveys were wrong and that dogfish were plentiful and steadily reproducing. The dogfish, he said, had come up in his net along with other fish with no special effort on his part.
"Tell me how I should ignore that," Mr. Ruhle shouted. "Just walk away from it? ... Then I am doing a disservice to me and ... the industry I represent."
Actually, federal taxpayers pay Ruhle to serve on the council - and he took an oath - to represent the public. Still, he and the council later voted for a quota of 8.8 million pounds, more than double the limit scientists had recommended to restore the dogfish.
Dogfish have a long and murky history in New England fishing. But one thing is clear: The lowly denizen of the deep is quickly becoming a posterfish for how America is mismanaging its fisheries' resources. The dogfish and 85 other species - more than a third of the nation's 237 commercial fish stocks whose status is known - are overfished, a new report found. That's up from 14 species in 1976, when the US set up its current management system.
And while fish stocks off the coasts of Europe, Africa, and Asia are also dwindling, the US appears to have a bigger problem caused, in part, by its unique approach. More than a quarter century ago, after the US expanded economic control of the ocean to 200 miles offshore, Congress effectively put the fishing industry in charge of its own catch in the form of eight fishery-management councils. And if the dogfish is any indication, that decision now looks suspect.
"These councils are making risky management decisions with fish stocks around the clock," says Josh Eagle, coauthor of a new Stanford University study funded by The Pew Charitable Trust. It identifies a lack of diversity of viewpoints on the councils - and conflicts of interest permitted by law - as the biggest stumbling blocks to good stewardship of the nation's fisheries.
"If we passed a law that said that it was OK for Defense Department employees to take bribes from defense contractors - well, that's essentially what we've done with the fishing sector," he says. "We've said to fishermen, 'It's OK to enrich yourselves at the expense of the public.' We built this into the system."
Next month, a presidential commission is expected to recommend to Congress ways to fix problems with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act - possibly including tightening rules against conflicts of interest.
Examples of conflicting interests are often difficult to pinpoint because voting alliances and deals are often obscure, observers say. But the dogfish offers an unusually clear-cut case.
As a rule, commercial fishermen loathe dogfish (3- to 4-foot sharks). They scare away valuable cod and flounder. They clog nets, writhe on deck with their sharp spines ready to jab, requiring crews to painstakingly cut them out and throw them overboard. Decades ago, Massachusetts even offered a bounty to try to get rid of the prickly species.
But in the early 1990s, when European dogfish were nearly fished out, the British "fish and chips" market turned to the US to supply its beloved snack food. The US dogfish market soared from trash fish to a multimillion-dollar fishery overnight, producing a 10-fold increase in the catch from 1987 to 1996.
Even though dogfish often brought only 10 to 20 cents a pound, hundreds of US fishermen - especially in Massachusetts - began to specialize in them. Dogfish landings peaked at 59 million pounds in 1996, up from 6 million pounds a decade earlier.
In the cross hairs were the largest dogfish - mature females - which were most lucrative. But unlike cod that spew millions of eggs, the dogfish, which have a 75-year lifespan, have a slow two-year gestation period. Targeting big females put US dogfish stocks into a tailspin.
Overall, the total biomass of dogfish fell by a third from 600,000 metric tons in 1992 to 371,000 metric tons by 2002. That's still relatively large compared to other species, but the numbers of mature spawning females have fallen by 75 percent since 1988, scientists say.
In 1998, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed dogfish among overfished US stocks. By law, fishery councils have to submit plans to ensure that overfished species rebound.
But for years the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees the waters where most dogfish are caught, and more recently the Mid-Atlantic council, have voted to override dogfish catch limits recommended by federal science advisers. Such actions raise the ire of many observers, including some council members, who worry about the impact.
"To prevent a few fishermen from losing a few thousand dollars [on dogfish], the council is putting at risk fisheries worth millions," says John Williamson, a former commercial fisherman from Kennebunk, Maine, and a member of the New England council. If dogfish populations are driven too low, it might trigger massively tighter federal restrictions on other species, he and others agree.
One scenario: To limit dogfish "bycatch mortality" - dogfish killed by accident in nets set for other fish - the government could mandate a severe cutback on fishing for cod, haddock, or flounder. To Mr. Williamson, the dogfish represents a litmus test of whether the council system can protect an underloved species.
How did the US get in this position?
When Congress set up the fishery councils, it was expected that having fishermen on the council would add expertise and an incentive to maintain valuable fish stocks in the long term. But fishing-industry viewpoints and direct financial conflicts of interest now dominate council decisions, says the recent Stanford University report.
For example: More than 80 percent of those appointed to the eight councils by the US Commerce secretary represent the fishing industry, according to the report. And "more than 60 percent of all appointed members reported having a direct financial interest in fisheries that their councils manage and regulate."
Such conflicts are illegal in nearly all federal institutions. But Congress specifically exempted fishery councils from most conflict rules. Council members still are supposed to recuse themselves from voting on issues where the action "would have a significant and predictable effect" on their own financial interests, defined as an interest in the fishery that "is greater than 10 percent."
But such recusals are rare. Despite thousands of management decisions, NMFS records show only two recusals by council members since 1997, the Stanford report found.
"The fact that the councils are dominated by fishing interests keeps the discussion within a very narrow range," says Andrew Rosenberg, former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service and a member of the presidential commission looking at the management councils. "So all the politics tend to go toward allowing as much fishing as possible, rather than conserving a public resource."
Not everyone agrees with the Stanford report. "I really take exception to their characterization of conflict-of-interest issues," says David Benton, former chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees Alaska's coastlines. "There may be some truth to it, but it varies by region. We have not had that problem in our council."
But here in Massachusetts many of the 117 active dogfish licensees and a handful of fish-processing plants look to John Pappalardo of the New England council to represent them. Mr. Pappalardo wears several hats and gets paid for all of them. He took an oath to represent the public on the council and is paid by public tax dollars. He's also a part-time commercial fisherman with his own boat.
He's also a paid policy analyst for a commercial fishermen's group - the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman's Association, based in Chatham, Mass., many of whose members fish for cod and dogfish.
On Sept. 30, 2002, at a critical subcommittee meeting to recommend quotas for dogfish, Pappalardo listened to fisheries scientist Paul Rago describe how stocks were in trouble. Dr. Rago's recommended maximum: a 4.4 million pound quota for 2003-2004 with daily trip limits of not more than 600 pounds from May through October and 300 pounds for November through April 2003. (Trip limits were critical because anything higher would lead many fishermen to target the heavier female fish, which are the most threatened.)
Later that day, Pappalardo voted to recommend a quota of 8.8 million pounds, more than double the scientific recommendation. He also seconded a motion to raise daily trip limits to 7,000 pounds, more than 11 times the recommended amounts.
At a Nov. 5, 2002, meeting of the New England council in Gloucester, Mass., Pappalardo voted again against a motion to adopt conservative dogfish quotas advised by scientists. In the end, the 18-member council voted the same way.
Certainly the votes were not illegal. And Pappalardo's group, the Cape Cod Hook Fisherman's Association, generally wins high marks from conservationists as an alternative to more damaging trawler fishing. Nor are Pappalardo's actions inconsistent with the pattern found by the Stanford study at other fishery councils.
"So, I'm the only one on the council that votes for my guys to make sure they make more money - is that what you're trying to get at?" Pappalardo asks in a phone interview. And, he says, dogfish today are just a minor part of the catch for fishermen in his group - just 6.5 percent (in value) of the total $11 million fishing industry in the port town of Chatham in 2001.
Still, it's clear that dogfish remains an important business to association members. In 2001, Chatham fishermen landed nearly two-thirds of the entire US dogfish catch worth $704,343.
"Mr. Pappalardo and the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen are the driving force going after dogfish in the United States," says Sonja Fordham, a dogfish expert with the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C., environmental group.
But Pappalardo says his stance has moderated since those early votes during his first year on the council. For one thing, he has resigned from the subcommittee making recommendations on dogfish quotas.
"I've evolved in my views," he says. "I'm convinced that it's not worth fighting the science. I'm also convinced, though, that Massachusetts has a disproportionate presence of dogfish - and that it's going to become a bigger problem with the fleet at large."
Indeed, while dogfish provide a way for some fishermen to make ends meet, the species is nonetheless reviled. Many fishermen believe dogfish are preventing the cod's recovery by eating young cod fish - although scientists say this is false. In short, some want dogfish out so cod can come back.
At an Oct. 21 meeting in Peabody, Mass., the New England council voted quickly and with little fanfare on a quota for the dogfish. Under uncharacteristic pressure from the NMFS, observers say, the New England council retreated from a proposal for a high quota and no trip limits at all.
Finally it reached a compromise of a 4.4 million-pound annual quota - but a daily trip limit of 1,500 pounds of dogfish in federal waters and 7,000 pounds in state waters, more than double the federal levels and 11 times the state recommended levels.
It was a result that pleased few. Not conservationists who wanted lower trip limits. Not fishermen who wanted a higher quota. Not Pappalardo, who abstained rather than voting for the compromise plan.
Why did he abstain?
"Frustration, just pure frustration," he says.
The status quo of putting councils in charge of both quota setting and allocation is a recipe for ecological disaster, charges Mark Powell, director of fish conservation for the Ocean Conservancy. He says scientists and career bureaucrats should set fishing quotas apart from industry pressures - then fishery councils could allocate that quota.
"It just doesn't work to ask fishermen to be heroes," he adds. "We need to change the system because the one we have routinely puts ordinary people in a situation of voting to conserve fish, but hurting their own incomes. Most human beings just can't do that."
More than a third of US known commercial fish stocks are overfished. But conditions vary by region.
Major stocks/ Known major stocks that are overfished/ Known major stocks that are both overfished and experiencing overfishing.
NEW ENGLAND COUNCIL 29 10 (37%) 4 (17%)
(Maine, N.H., Mass., R.I., Conn.)
MID-ATLANTIC COUNCIL 11 4 (44%) 3 (33%)
(N.Y., N.J., Del., Md., Va.)
JOINT NEW ENGLAND/
MID-ATLANTIC COUNCIL 3 1 (50%) 1 (50%)
(areas with shared jurisdiction)
SOUTH ATLANTIC COUNCIL 23 8 (44%) 8 (44%)
(N.C., S.C., Ga., Fla.)
GULF OF MEXICO COUNCIL 23 4 (44%) 3 (33%)
(Fla., Ala., La., Miss., Texas)
JOINT SOUTH ATLANTIC/
GULF OF MEXICO COUNCIL 8 1 (17%) 0
(areas with shared jurisdiction)
CARIBBEAN COUNCIL 4 1 (50 %) 1 (50%)
(Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands)
PACIFIC COUNCIL 62 7 (20%) 1 (3%)
(Wash., Ore., Calif.)
WESTERN PACIFIC COUNCIL 13 0 N/A
NORTH PACIFIC COUNCIL 50 0 0
TOTAL 226 36 (22%) 21 (14%)
SOURCE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "Status of Fisheries of the United States," 2002