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Diminishing Returns
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From the Archives: "Diminishing Returns"

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Photo: Salmon fishermen
By Michael Parfit Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Salmon Fever
"I'd be crying the blues if we only made $50,000," says crewman Scott Hansen, in yellow, of his boat's earning from sockeye salmon runs in Alaska. Each summer 1,800 drift-net crews scramble after salmon in Bristol Bay—one of the few thriving fisheries in the United States. Competition is cutthroat; top boats can gross $250,000 in a few weeks. "It's tense—not for the fainthearted," Hansen says.

Lots of fish here, some up in the air. It's spring in the harbor at Dakar, Senegal. Above me bags of frozen tuna, lifted by crane from the hold of a ship, swing overhead, then drop into a dump truck. A second crane lifts frozen carcasses of swordfish from another ship. In a warehouse tuna are stacked to the ceiling. Languages of crews and dockworkers mingle: Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Japanese, French.

In the midst of this industrial bustle, Mbaye Diop, wearing a wisp of beard and a red robe, sits making tea at dockside in an open wooden boat called a pirogue. It's about thirty feet (nine meters) long and eight feet (two meters) wide. In it baskets hold 1,500-foot (460 meters) coils of line festooned with hooks.

Mbaye Diop is one of the legion of traditional fishermen worldwide who operate from small boats much as their forebears have for generations. Impoverished, they have not been able to share in the technology boom that has made the industrial ships of developed nations so powerful. But Diop and those like him outnumber industrial fishermen about twelve to one.

And they too face declines.

"Sometimes to catch fish," Diop says through my interpreter, "we have to go all the way to the border of Gambia." He grins. I suspect the border is flexible. In today's hard-pressed fishery one must travel farther and farther to get the same catch. Even the poorest fishermen must seek distant waters.

The busy harbor in Dakar reminds me that this is not yet the kind of crisis that makes a hollow sound in the bottom of the boat. Every issue of Fishing News International announces the launching of a vast new trawler or an expensive joint venture. Fisheries still feed billions and make money for millions. In places where regulators have clamped down—Norway and Namibia, for instance—some stocks are recovering. But these are exceptions. "The fish just get a little smaller each year," a Spanish shipowner with a Belize-registered ship tells me in Dakar.

In the face of such declines neither traditional nor industrial fishermen can turn to voluntary conservation, because there's no profit in it. It just gives the fish to someone less scrupulous. Instead, everyone fishes harder. The hungry, restless, distant-water ships of Spain, China, Russia, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and many others, forced from their traditional grounds by 200-mile (370 kilometers) limits or by stock declines at home, search the world.

They can be found poaching in Diop's home waters or in those of Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, the Philippines, or India. Or the industrial fishermen make deals with local governments for access. In the same poor nations traditional fishermen are also fishing harder, while unemployment forces more people to the coasts, where they must fish to survive. Conflict is inevitable.

I find a curious version of this conflict at a village on a beach in Senegal. Here about 500 brightly painted pirogues are pulled up on the sand, temporarily out of action. And just offshore two South Korean industrial ships are anchored. They look huge and ominous in the haze. No one is at sea because the fishermen of this village are arguing with the ships' crews, trying to improve a bad situation.

These Korean ships are part of a weird kind of joint venture. They're called mother ships. Each ship picks up a number of pirogue fishermen, complete with boats, steams to a faraway place where the fishing is better, drops them off—like the Grand Banks dory fishermen of the 19th century—then buys the fish they catch. This sounds mutually profitable, but it isn't.

I ask Bara Sene, one of the local fishermen, if his neighbors who throw in with the Korean ships catch more than they would at home.

"Yes," he said. "But the price is very low, and the conditions are terrible."

So why would people go with the ships? The answer is familiar:

"The fish are harder to find now."

As the local fishermen argue for better prices from the Koreans, I walk the streets of Bara Sene's village, a mass of tiny homes jammed together at the edge of the sand, right next to a cemetery festooned with nets draped over wooden markers.

I recall something one of the local men told me earlier, his voice proud: "We are the best fishermen in the world, because we start when we are seven." Out by the sea the children play with model pirogues in scummy tide pools where their mothers wash laundry. For these people any decline in fisheries means hunger. Though scenes of famine do not attend this beach yet, it is as threatening on the horizon as those steel ships.

Next morning I learn that the Senegalese fishermen have lost the negotiations. The price will be even lower than the last time they went out. But they can't afford to strike. I watch through windblown haze as they push their pirogues out through rough surf and go to the big mother ships from Korea. Cranes reach down and pluck the boats aboard as casually as if they were logs.

• NEW YORK CITY—UN negotiators had promised an agreement by summer. None emerges, though a draft with tough enforcement ideas circulates.

"The voluntary system of regulation of global fisheries has failed," says conference chairman. He speaks of "emerging anarchy in the oceans."

• NEW ENGLAND—Georges Bank fishermen face new cutbacks; cod and haddock are dwindling.

• SVALBARD—Norwegian patrols cut nets of three Icelandic fishing ships in Arctic area claimed by Norway.

Icelandic ship and Norwegian patrol boat exchange shots.

I'm throwing up into the northwest Atlantic a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from Iceland. As the Icelandic freezer trawler Svalbakur lurches through a late summer gale, I stand miserably on the bridge. The first mate, Beggi Torfason, sits in a chair, wearing jeans and sandals, expressing no sympathy.

"They come in an hour," Beggi says cheerfully. He is talking about fish, as if they were guests arriving for dinner in his net. The ship is fishing for redfish, which will be frozen and sold to—where else?—Japan.

An hour later Beggi says, "They come tonight." But as darkness closes in, the guests do not arrive.

Except for its confounded rolling and pitching, the Svalbakur is like any factory. It is clean, tidy, a piece of refined machinery that stretches 220 feet (65 meters) long. Its bridge has so many sonar and computer screens that it looks like an air-traffic control center. At dock the ship looms over buildings; it seems to have been put down among models.

A few guests finally show up, and the Svalbakur pulls up its net. The catch is disappointing—only 2 tons in a net that can hold 60. Wearing red suits and helmets, the fishermen struggle on the heaving deck, scant feet from a wet slide into the sea. The net lashes them. A swell surges up on deck and hits one man. For a second he disappears in green water and foam. All I can see is the top of his helmet. The sea drains away. He goes right back to work, lining up the web for the winch.

Watching them work, entirely at home with the willful net and the violent sea, I can understand how scarcity drives the fisherman to work even harder—that's always been his nature. The wild sea is both adversary and home; its energy—and its freedom—are in his soul.

• BAY OF BISCAY—Spanish vessels blockade several ports during what has become a recurring battle among French, Spanish, and British fishermen seeking tuna. A French fisherman is shot.

• NEW ENGLAND—More cutbacks are announced in the cod and haddock fisheries of Georges Bank. Some areas shut down completely, ending an era.

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