The Politics of Fish

With the coming of the 200-mile limit, and the resulting scramble to establish fishing sovereignties, an ominous fact often gets overlooked: the worldwide catch has leveled off. Can the nations of the world learn to husband their undersea resources? Here is a firsthand view of the international fishing community as seen from the decks of a West German factory trawler.

Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857

It was on Georges Bank on a brisk October afternoon that I first heard about the Germans. “If you want the best, go with the West Germans,”said Dick Jellison, mate of the Boston trawler Tremont. “Most everything in modern fishing starts with them.”

Later in the same autumn, Captain Earl Demone of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, the veteran fleet captain of Canada’s largest integrated fishing and processing company, gave much the same counsel in stronger terms. “Now, you take the Germans and their ice fishing on the Labrador, that is something to see,”Captain Earl reported. “In comparison, everything else is a piece of cake.”

So conies the advice. Anyone seriously interested in the development of post-World War II fishing technologies must eventually fall in with the West Germans. Acting on these suggestions, after prolonged diplomatic correspondence and a thoroughly Teutonic examination of my bona fides by the embassy of the Federal Republic in Washington, I received permission to board the Frithjof III, newest of the German government’s Fischereischutzboote, or combined fleet supply, hospital, and weather station vessels, at St. John’s, Newfoundland, on a bitter January day. In port, during my first night aboard, a Force 12, hurricane-intensity storm with the lowest barometric recording in the history of Canadian meteorology ravaged St. John’s, causing a power plant to explode and dumping a foot and a half of fast-drifting snow on the city’s steep and narrow streets. But, with the storm barely passing to the east, the Frithjof put smartly to sea. Sixteen days later, after an interesting if sometimes difficult passage to the west coast of Greenland to pick up crew replacements and take on bunker, we reached the main body of the West German fleet off the Labrador. Here I transferred in one of the Frithjof’s fourteen-foot rubber rafts—outboard-powered, ingeniously ballasted, and expertly handled by specially trained coxswains—over seemingly mountainous seas to the Fishing Motor Vessel Wesermunde, a combined stern trawler and processing ship, 311 feet overall length and 3556 gross tons. The Wesermunde, whose dimensions make her a Queen Mary among fishing craft, was one of a fleet of twenty-seven West German ships of approximately similar size fishing between Greenland and the Labrador through the winter of 1977. I count myself fortunate to have spent a month with this fleet, studying its operations and witnessing how Canada exercised her new 200-mile fisheries jurisdiction, which went into effect the first of the year, two months before that of the United States.

To begin to understand a modern high-seas factory trawler, capable of catching and processing over 250 tons of fish a day, is absorbing and difficult work. Moments of boredom will, of course, intrude, as during the long and wearying storm days, Force 10 and 11 on the Beaufort scale, when fishing ceases and all but the bridge and engine room watches turn to. But, even then, there are compensations. Ship-following kittiwakes and fulmars swoop and soar at their best. The great floating international community that crowds the northern fishing banks in fine weather— Russians, Poles, Portuguese, Spanish, French begins to disperse, looking for sea room. One may watch in uneasy fascination as their ships wallow and plunge toward distant horizons, taking full seas over icelacquered bows. Below in the factory section there are always odd fish to examine. Or long and quiet conversations on the bridge, undisturbed by the usual preoccupations of modern electronic fishing or heavy gear handling.

What follows is excerpts from my logbook on these and other subjects, with some subsequent shore editing. (Let us be honest; clear prose comes hard when chairs slide, books fly across the cabin, and tables wrench at their mooring sockets.) Also included are explanatory passages, as required.

Friday, February 4: Overcast. Large, heavy snowflakes. Long white carpets of loose pancake, undulating with swells. We bagged fifty tons—mostly cod, some redfish— sometime last night during Captain Ernst’s watch. This by far biggest haulback to date. Wish I had seen it come aboard. Now (8:00 A.M.) the huge cod end remains half full, hanging high from aft gantry mast, since hatchways and pens belowdecks still clogged with fish. Meanwhile, we have set out second net, another Engel 250.

Decide to go below to examine catch. Faithful to my request, genial Portuguese factory and freezer section workers have saved strange fish for me. Today it’s great variety of Macrouridae, or grenadiers, more, in fact, than can be identified from my ten-pound ichthyological library, squeezed into duffel bag with such difficulty. Have strange, almost fossiloid appearance. Blunt head, oversize eyes, thin body tapering to whiplike tail. Fresh caught their eyes glow fiery red, then eventually fade to color and consistency jellied consomme. Fischmeister says grenadiers’ raspy scales so sharp and tough species cannot be used for fish meal. So overboard they go where, I have noticed, even the gulls pass them up.

Wild scene down in factory. All eight pens, each capable holding 800 pounds fish, still filled. Almost equal amount spilled over on catwalk gratings and deck. German deck watch, plus any and all available extra hands, called down to help. Most are attacking overflow, making initial sort. Cod heaved onto one conveyor belt system leading to machines; incidental catch of spotted wolffish, Greenland halibut, and redfish, which must be hand-cleaned, to another belt which goes to wooden cutting tables on starboard side; skates, lumpfish, eelpouts, dabs, cusk, sculpins, other “trash” species to still another which takes them down portsidc to fish meal factory one deck below. Some Portuguese singing, others shouting, joking, or trading obscene gestures with Germans. Much camaraderie, much excitement, as always with big catch. Fischmeister yelling head off trying to have instructions heard over clamor. His responsibility alone to decide on sorting and best, most efficient use of famous Baader machines. Smaller cod can go to model 38 or 338 Rundlaufer [horizontal revolving cutting table], spewing out 82 fillets per minute, or 181 Kopflaufer [vertical, receive whole fish headfirst], slower, but accommodating greater size range. Larger cod go to Super-412, fantastic device which grabs fish by tail and pulls them right side up through continually adjusting fillet knives, 50 to the minute.

1035: PA system booms out familiar monotone call, always twice repeated: “Hieven, hieven, an Deck, Einhol’; Hieven, hieven, an Deck, Einhol’.” Deck watch returns topside. Another haul is beginning. Where will new fish fit? Soon chains rattling and big steel bobbins rolling and gonging on steel deck immediately overhead. Add this to factory noises, and it’s strictly the anvil foundry, the devil’s workshop. Have to inch my way forward through threefeet-deep piles spotted wolffish which completely bury steel grating catwalks. Some still writhing slowly. Disquieting, since boys say healthy specimens can easily bite through oar handle. My thin Topsider boots not made for this sort of thing. Fish piled up in every corner. Will be no singing, joking by end of this twelve-hour watch. I am sure.

How grand to re-emerge in daylight! Wind is up, snow stopping, and lone shaft of sunlight bursting through to west. Grab rail stanchion and watch fulmar riding motionless in ship’s draft not four or five feet away. Bird keeps cocking head and staring silently at me. Evidently quite fascinated by my struggles to maintain footing and keep camera dry. Have curious feeling. Who is observing whom?

Big news during evening ship-to-ship radio chatter. Seems that Canadian patrol vessel John Cabot has apprehended Norwegian longliner and is escorting to St. John’s. Rumor is Norwegian drifted over from Greenland, no license, no documentation, nothing. At first resisted, claiming ignorance and disputing position, but Cabot threatened to call in navy for armed escort. Captain Ernst is not yet used to this sort of thing. “My God,” he says. “It’s Chicago on the high seas!”

To take fifty tons of fish in a ground trawl or bottom net is today rather exceptional on the Labrador banks. A more usual haul will run five to ten tons. The kind of net used to make such catches is an impressive and costly piece of equipment utilizing over three miles of synthetic twine of varying diameters, at least 200 feet of high-alloy steel chain, 150 plastic floats about the size of junior league soccer balls, at least thirty 150-pound bobbins or steel roller balls, two steel paravane “doors” weighing two and a half tons each, and slightly over four miles of towing cable, three-strand, three and three quarters inches in diameter, and seventy-eight tons test.

To picture this assemblage dragging over the sea floor, think of a large-mouthed funnel with a long tubular tail, slightly fattened at its end. The floats spaced along the net’s headline “lift” or vertically open the funnel mouth; the bobbins of the ground rope, which is in fact a double-stranded chain, keep it snug on the bottom and help it to roll over the rocks and glacial boulders so often found off Greenland and the Labrador. Long tapering wings of light twine make the sides or walls of the funnel mouth at their base; their pointed tips help herd the fish. Riding far ahead of the net on the towing cables are the heavy doors, which behave like kites in the water and “open,” or laterally spread, the net. Some 500 feet back from the doors, at the end of the net assembly, is a large bag inside which the fish collect. This bag, called the cod end in many languages, has a stretched mesh size of two to three inches, as determined by international regulations, to permit small fish to escape. All largenet cod ends also have very thick twine laced with both horizontal and vertical ribbing ropes to withstand the pressures of many tons of fish; two rows of floats on their top sides to keep their shape and prevent twisting; and both a Medusa-haired stream of black rope baggywrinkle and a large piece of oxhide on their underbodies, without which they would soon chafe apart from ground abrasion. Adding the length of the wings and their stabilizing bridles, most nets tend to be longer than the ships that tow them. This means that the net must be “fleeted,” or brought aboard in sections and laid down zigzag within the confines of the working deck by a battery of winches and a bewildering array of horizontal-, vertical-, and diagonalpull cables. Ground trawls are typically hauled back every two or three hours, night and day, an exercise which in heavy weather requires seamanship of the highest order. The helmsman must pay constant attention to the ship’s heading relative to the wind, since quartering and following seas can crash up the stern ramp and carry away the men who at certain stages must work right at its edge, coupling or uncoupling chains and cables. Meeting the seas bow-on can also bury the ramp through excessive pitching, producing the same dangerous effect.

For these reasons beam seas are the preferred roughweather heading when the net begins to come aboard. The rolling that follows creates new problems. Cables and heavy hooks swing wildly; the big bobbins transform the deck into a demonic bowling alley, rolling and crashing athwartships. If the mate of the watch— who operates a ten-foot-wide console of winch levers, brakes, and gear-coupling switches from aft windows on the bridge—performs his job skillfully, he can do much to dampen down this confusion. If he does not, fouled gear, delays, and crew injuries will surely result. When at last a bulging cod end is nursed up on deck from breaking seas, hydraulically powered safety gates close off the ramp and the crew breathes a sigh of relief. All that remains to be done is to untie a large purse rope knot closely resembling a hangman’s noose at the tail of the bag and hoist it high on the twolegged gantry mast located near the stern of all trawlers. From this position the fish inside swoosh rapidly down through deck hatches to the factory. Forgetting to retie the cod end knot before the net is set out again is the most grievous error a crew member can commit. Certain New England fishermen call this “making a Boston tunnel.”

Cod and redfish are the “target” species most favored by foreign fleets in the colder waters of the northwest Atlantic. The latter is a small fish with goggle eyes and spiny fin rays which was first successfully marketed by Clarence Birdseye of Gloucester, father of the frozen food industry, during his early experiments with quick freezing in the 1930s. Its color, ranging from pink or rose to flaming red, sets it apart from all other fish in gray northern seas, like a cardinal in winter woods. Among its other distinctions, the redfish bears its young alive and may be one of the longest-lived of all marine fishes. Sexually mature individuals, weighing about two pounds and measuring fifteen inches, may be as old as eleven or twelve years; whoppers of over thirty pounds and forty inches are believed to be over fifty. Unfortunately, redfish are not much to look at by the time they are hauled up from the deeper waters they seem to prefer for much of the year. In addition to a rapid loss of skin color, their large sounds, or swim bladders, often rupture, forcing out internal organs and swelling already grotesque eyes, which is why redfish are seldom seen in fresh fish shops. But the reader may be more familiar with these fish than he suspects. Their meat is firm, white, and well suited to freezing. Sold as “ocean perch,” redfish are a prime constituent of the frozen fish sticks, fishburgers, and miniature cocktail fishballs found in every supermarket.

Any attempt to describe the numerous incidental species caught with cod and redfish, even scientists will admit, can be very heavy going. Worthy of special mention, perhaps, are the grenadiers, a widely distributed family better known to fishermen as rattails. These are the fish with glowing eyes that both the sea gulls and the Fischmeister, or factory manager, of the Wesermünde turned down. Although their scales may be too hard for fish meal grinding, grenadiers are nevertheless said to be excellent eating when skinned. Canada, in fact, is pushing them, offering the foreign fleets liberal quotas within her 200-mile zone.

In so doing Canadian authorities may still be influenced by the siren songs of the great oceanographic-sciences boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s. During those heady days, the reader may remember, oceanographers assured us that the fish protein resources of the sea were inexhaustible, largely untapped, and the obvious answer to world population problems. Prominent in their repertory of underutilized species were the grenadiers, which they described as one of the most abundant of all fishes both on continental shelves and in the deep or abyssal portions of the oceans. This assessment, however, had one serious flaw. Grenadiers are fairly abundant along the steep drop-offs of our continental shelves from 2000 feet downward—not the easiest places to fish, incidentally—but their presence on the deep sea floor is now recognized as extremely scarce.

In this the grenadiers symbolize a global fishing problem; namely, the great bulk of commercially exploitable fish tend to crowd together on the continental shelf and slope waters, whereas the very deep or abyssal portions which make up 85 percent of world oceans increasingly appear to be vast deserts, fish-poor and biologically impoverished in general. Since the United States’s establishment of a 200-mile zone last March, nations the world over have followed suit. At present writing nearly all coastal states are painfully staking out their 200-mile wide sections of the limited shelf and slope waters. If the owners of these newly created preserves are good husbandmen cooperating with one another in management, the outlook may be bright; given a little rest, depleted or nearly exhausted fish stocks show surprising powers of recovery. But there are already indications that developing nations may wish to sell off their new fishing birthrights to the highest bidders, so to speak, with little thought for the future. And, at this moment, there is a more ominous overall note. Often overlooked in the general scramble to claim new fishing sovereignties is the fact that the total world catch, after decades of dizzying rises, has leveled off for the last six years at approximately 70 million metric tons, in spite of great intensification of fishing effort. Some fishery biologists warned us about this long ago. Visionary oceanographers are now beginning to listen, and have changed their tune.

All West German factory trawlers are in truth binational communities. The factory section workers, who comprise about one half of their sixtyto seventy-man crews, are almost entirely Portuguese. West Germany, it must be remembered, enjoys an economy like ours; German workers willing to heave fish or operate processing machines for long watches belowdecks are today almost impossible to find. The Portuguese ably fill this gap. They earn the equivalent of $520 a month in base pay, and bonuses, or “premiums,” per ton of processed fish, ranging from 38 cents for fish meal species to $1.65 for boneless cod fillets. The cod premium alone, for example, may add $1500 to their salary on an average three-month voyage. The same system extends to all crew members and officers, from the cabin boy to the captain, to whom it can mean as much as $20,000 on a good trip. On the Wesermünde three Portuguese were also members of the deck crew. Each was a veteran of the Portuguese Grand Banks dory schooners, the last of which was retired in 1971, and proud of his abovedecks rating. They got on well with the Germans, adding a constant note of zest and high spirits, it seemed to me, during the exhausting twelve-hour watches. And the thought of the premiums is so important to all hands that there is a little rhyme, often repeated. “Die Heuer,”the German fishermen say, “sind nur fur die Steuer.” “The base pay just goes for taxes.”

Thursday, February 10: Barometer skidding. Ugly SE wind. Forty knots, gusting to fifty or more. Has pushed all ice far to westward, so we plunge along without its beneficial shelter. Ivory gulls have departed. Even fulmars seem to be deserting us. Do they know something we don’t? Little kittiwakes alone stick close by, doggedly riding ship’s updrafts.

0910: Up on bridge alarm horn suddenly squawks; tension gauges for main towing cables showing red. First Steuermann trying various maneuvers. No avail. We are festgemacht, or badly “rimracked,” as New England fishermen say of major hang-ups. Soon needle on port gauge flutters, drops, and goes dead at zero, which means something on that side has given away. Long, difficult haulback. Flabby cod end, not more than three, four tons, finally recovered after fifty-five minutes’ effort, as against normal fifteen or twenty. Damage: port sweepline parted, ground chain broken, and big tear in belly or midsection net. Deck work getting very dicey. During confusion we have taken a sea or two up ramp, and one crew member already felled from knock on head by cable loop. But first Steuermann orders second net out and puts crew to repairing first. Some are stringing up broken ground chain from aft mast, trying to immobilize big bobbins with stops and guy lines. In this weather! I don’t want to look.

Kindly Herr Theo, third Steuermann, comes up from inspection trip below to show me deformed cod, with rear third of body bent upward almost at right angle. Says it’s a great good luck sign. Could use some now, I guess.

1530: Force 10 and rising. Captain Ernst has called it quits; all fishing and net repair suspended. Pass one old Russki, Pushkin class, now very rare. She is laboring. Pitching and slamming hard. And so are we, it seems, as storm intensifies. Every third or fourth sea produces great hollow bonging noise. Then come quivers running through entire hull. The big ones literally explode on impact with bow, sending sheets of spray over bridge and full length ship. Don’t know why, but looks much more appalling when you see other ships going through motions. In the distance is Junge Welt, enormous East German factory and all-purpose mother ship, with two of her small catcher boats, which periodically disappear hull-down in troughs of great seas. Captain says the catchers’ nets have detachable cod ends. Normal procedure in these rough parts is to drop them in water, festooned with extra floats and radio beacon, for mother ship to pick up in good time. But in calm weather she may take catchers alongside for direct transfer. Also says the “daughters” stay out for years on end, with crew replacements at sea. This explains tired appearance—rust-pitted, flaking gray paint, and generally drab all over, as are their names, which invariably celebrate heroes international socialism or founders German Democratic Republic, from Rosa Luxemburg to Johannes Becher. This in marked contrast to Russians, incidentally, who show some flair in naming, especially for writers and artists. After Pushkins, of course, came bigger and better Mayakovsky class, named after revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. And only last night in captain’s cabin, poring over registry fists, we discover Tolstoi, Turgenev, Gogol, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Gogh within ranks huge Soviet fleet, now estimated at over 700 large factory trawlers.

Ask Captain Ernst if he ever has friendly radio conversations with East Germans, as he does endlessly with his Bundesrepublik colleagues. Says some years ago he did, when there were older generation captains, but now it’s a younger lot who have grown up under communism, know nothing else, and consider idle VHF chitchat frivolous, decadent. “I tell you, I can’t stand to listen to them,” he says. “Occasionally they do joke among themselves, but it’s so childish. You hear them announcing some little gift, some present like a case of apples for a good catch or going over a quota, just like they were kids in school. Can you imagine? And there’s a commissar on the Junge Welt for monthly political meetings at sea. Then they send out announcements. Maxims, they are, straight out of Mao’s little red book. I don’t want to listen to it, it disturbs me so.”

Although long recognized as leaders in electronic fish-finding and other sophisticated shipboard technologies, the West Germans remain as superstitious as all fishermen. They also retain a strongly traditional nautical vocabulary. The first or chief mate and second and third officers of merchant marine practice all carry the title of Steuermann on trawlers. Literally translated the word means “steersman” or “helmsman.” In German, at least, it has a fine archaic ring. Similarly the Bootesmann, or chief boatswain, of other ships becomes simply the Bestmann on a fishing vessel. His assistant is the Netzmacher. Both are very appropriate terms for the bosses of the rough-andtumble fishing deck, where strength, leadership, and net-repair proficiency are prime requisites.

Friday, February 11: Storm continues. Still hove to. At breakfast “Big Mosquito” Heinz, our estimable and spheriform young steward in officers’ mess, is dreaming about exotic drinks he used to sample when on HamburgAmerika Line tropical cruise ships. “Ach, ein echtes Bacardi Collins, das schmeckt so gut!” he says, pursing and smacking lips. Tells me there was quite a party up forward last night and appears to have mild hangover.

This morning heard violent argument between fish meal foreman and unidentified crew member in forward passageway. Then, at lunch, Fischmeister complains long and loud about insufficient help. Says owners reduced factory hands this trip. He can’t keep up the production; the Portuguese are good workers, but you have to keep eye on them every minute, etc., etc. Long chat in P.M. with radio officer, “I tell you, from the birth this ship does nothing right,”he says. “Mr. William, perhaps you think I will be crazy, but I believe every ship has a soul, and this one is bad from the birth.”

“But the captain, he is okay,”he quickly adds. “He knows how to catch fish. He will never get fired.”

Are we losing our Geistl Are nerves beginning to fray? Wesermunde has now been at sea 64 days; self, 31. Wouldn’t be surprised.

Although individual ship rules may differ, some drinking at sea is permitted on all West German trawlers. On the Wesermünde crew members were allowed to buy one bottle of schnapps and one case of canned beer a week. In the view of most captains, crews selfregulate drinking or other social problems. So strong is the motivation provided by the premium system that a man whose drinking interferes in any way with his work is quickly singled out and dropped by common consent before the next trip. So, too, of course, with born troublemakers. Morale generally runs very high; the flare-up and complaining moods noted above were unique to that day and undoubtedly reflected the restlessness that comes with unrelenting storms. Unlike the Russians, the Germans do not bother with special recreational programs. There are good reasons for this. Russian factory trawler crews remain at sea for five months, after which they are usually but not always flown home for one month’s leave. Thus their shipboard chess tournaments, singsongs or concerts, periodic dress-up banquets, and the much noted presence of women crew members, who most often work in the galley, presumably play some part in forestalling anomie. The West German fleet by contrast makes four separate seasonal-geographic-area trips averaging almost three months each in the course of a year: up the Norwegian coast in spring; Georges Bank off New England in late summer; the North Sea, the Hebrides, and sometimes Spitsbergen and the Barents Sea in the autumn; and Greenland and the Labrador in winter. The ships return to home port between trips for a week to ten days, during which all but a skeleton maintenance crew take short leave. In addition, all officers and crew members receive paid annual leave computed at two days for every seven spent at sea. Wives of German officers may accompany their spouses on any given trip. The winter Greenland-Labrador trip is not popular.

All West German trawler captains work their way up from the deck, without which experience they could not possibly understand the gear-handling seamanship that is an important part of their job. Much given to mild ridicule of their merchant marine counterparts (“Imagine, just steaming from one place to another, back and forth; I would go out of my mind! Das ist nicht Seefahrt!”), they have very high earnings in good years, comparable to those of corporate executives. But their tenure, if indeed it can be called that, gives them much anxiety. Possibly one and certainly two trips a year with below-par catches means replacement. Not surprisingly, one often finds former captains among the Steuermanner. They are content with what is still good pay. And none of the worry.

Thursday, February 17: Two days sub-zero temperatures, plus west winds, and ice has returned on this fine, clear morning. Praise be. With it comes better fishing, high spirits all around.

How does an ocean freeze, right before your eyes? Well, first it’s patches of gray slush, somewhat resembling oil slicks at a distance, but without any sheen. Ship makes pleasant hissing noise passing through. Germans call it Eisbrei, or “ice porridge”; Newfies [Newfoundlanders] rather onomatopoeically refer to it as “sish.” More technically, good old British Admiralty Arctic Pilot defines as “ice spicules and thin plates about one-third of an inch across, known as frazil crystals” and notes, quite accurately, how they reduce swell and smother wave crests. Next, this frazil freezes into small, roughly circular masses which break up and bump into each other. Water sloshed up in bumping action quickly freezes, making raised edges or rims and changing color to snow white. Thus “pancakes.” Finally, given continued cold and moderate seas, pancakes begin to stick together in sheets, which then thicken, break, rejoin, break again, and jumble chaotically into many varieties pack ice. Today it’s a mixture new pancake and older broken pack, or brash, with usual lakes and leads. Some pieces brash three or four feet thick.

Under water they have that inner glow—deep emeraldblue—exactly like wave-washed icebergs. Hope cold weather continues. Normally would have heavy pack and the beginning of harp seal migrations by this time of year.

Daily wireless from home offices in Bremerhaven carries news of expected reductions in herring quota for Federal Republic on Georges Bank next summer, under new U.S. extended jurisdiction. As result “Jupp” Merkler, our perky first Steuermann, is giving it to me. Says we have no conception abundance herring stocks off New England, which, to hear him describe, must be world’s richest. Since we don’t fish them, let others have good chance, etc. “It’s hard enough, anyway, with your Coast Guard always coming at the wrong time,” he says. “They’re smart. They’re not dumb, but they don’t understand about Pelagischenetze (mid-water trawls). They see us steaming all over the place; they think we have gone crazy. Look, the herring, they swarm in a shape like a pencil. So you’re hunting all day, all night for them, watching with every one of these damn things turned on.” (Here indicates with sweep of arm all six electronic fish-finders). “You get redeyed, you get a headache watching the instruments and steering the ship at the same time. It’s a wonder we can do it! Then you find the herring and you lock on to them with the instruments. A half-hour set and you’ve got enough for twenty-four hours’ work in the factory. Then, of course, your Coast Guard wants to come aboard. They think, ‘Ah, the Germans, they finally started to fish!’ By the time they finish inspecting, the herring have gone to Canada!”

Captain Ernst agrees, says if we don’t give foreign fleets better quota, herring will swarm up out of water and conquer the land. “You’ll have to wade through the herring on that island you go to in the summer,” he says. “You’ll have to swim in herring oil.”

“Vnd Kap Cod!” he finally snorts, lighting another rollyour-own cigarette. “Lieber Gott! Sie mussen den Namen auswechseln. Nicht Kap Cod. Kap Hering!”

Ironically, the winter which brought record low temperatures to our Atlantic seaboard was relatively mild in Newfoundland, the Labrador, and Greenland. As a result the heavy pack ice, which always builds out from shore, never reached the fishing grounds off the Labrador coastal shelf, which are anywhere from 80 to 150 miles offshore. When it does, the West Germans form convoys of ten to twelve trawlers—all are equipped for ice-breaking -to penetrate deep within the pack. Individual vessels then peel off to fish the larger lakes and leads with special rigging and techniques. This is not done merely for the sake of high adventure, although it is often just that when vessels get “nipped” or stuck in the ice. Rather, beginning in 1953, the Germans discovered that cod and other market fish gather in good numbers under the ice shelf, attracted by an upwelling produced by thermoclines, or layers of water with markedly different temperatures. In recent years the West German fleet has taken aboard many Canadian skippers and patiently taught them the special requirements of ice fishing. Cooperation of this kind is seldom found in the grab-bag competition of high-seas fishing.

The United States’s Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, which extended our fisheries jurisdiction last March, requires the secretaries of state and commerce to “consider” three criteria in determining the catch quotas for foreign nations fishing by permit within our new 200-mile zone. First is the extent to which such nations have traditionally fished in our waters; second, how much they have contributed to fisheries management research; and third, how well they have cooperated in enforcement of previous regulations and in conservation of stocks.

Although the Russians were the first to invade our Atlantic waters in 1961, the West Germans, who arrived on Georges Bank six years later, are handsdown winners on the other two criteria, which, one hopes, the secretaries of state and commerce might consider more seriously than any who-came-first contest in what is all a relatively recent phenomenon. The German research ships Walther Herwig and Anton Dohrn have offered by far the most and, it is said, the best joint-research cruises to American scientists from Woods Hole or other of our fisheries research centers. The history of enforcement shows a similar record. Prior to the 200-mile legislation, foreign catch quotas were set and monitored outside our then twelve-mile limit by the International Commission for Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF), which, although justly criticized for weak or “slap-on-the-wrist” enforcement throughout much of its history, began to provide some real controls in the last three or four years of its twenty-eight-year existence. After long and patient experimentation with inspectorial “exchange visits,” all ICNAF signatory nations, the communist bloc included, allowed boarding with complete belowdecks inspection by 1974 and thereafter began to adhere more closely to annual catch quotas. Although most ICNAF inspection was done by American inspectors on U.S. Coast Guard cutters, West Germany offered her fleet maintenance vessels for patrol duty and is generally credited by our enforcement authorities with close compliance to quotas during the ICNAF years.

New England and Canadian fishermen, who have watched Russian and other foreign fleet depredations with mounting anger for many years, are quick to tell you that the West Germans are not only far and away the best fishermen, but also the “cleanest.”In fisheries parlance this means directed effort or the ability to catch the fish you say you will with a minimum of incidental, or “by-catch,” species which may be prohibited or in closed season. Different fish will always intermingle, of course, and a completely clean or 100 percent directed fishery is probably impossible. But the West Germans often come close to it, especially when fishing for sea herring on Georges Bank with mid-water trawls. These long nets, which “fiy” free of the bottom over a wide range of depths, were first successfully tried by the Germans in 1969. Although difficult to operate, they represent the ultimate in precision fishing. By using them in the summer herring fishery, the Germans frequently make haulbacks with a total, or all-other-species, incidental catch of less than 2 percent. Our present by-catch regulations require that trawlers incidentally taking prohibited species such as haddock or cod promptly return them to the water. But since nearly all fish taken in large ground or mid-water trawls are dead or dying by the time they come aboard, dumping them overboard is not the most effective conservation measure. Precision fishing is better and should be much encouraged.

With some reason, therefore, West Germany is somewhat disappointed to find herself ranked third among the four major herring-fishing nations for this summer on Georges Bank. Her quota of 4725 tons out of a total allowable foreign catch of 22,000 tons places her behind both Poland and East Germany and about 1300 tons ahead of the Russians. The USSR, however, is not primarily interested in such delikatessen as the Atlantic herring, and may in any case console herself with a quota of 164,500 tons for other species, or about thirteen times more fish than the median quota for all other foreign nations.

National differences aside, foreign fishing fleets have so far shown a remarkable degree of compliance with the provisions of the 1976 act in both our Atlantic and our Pacific waters. Although early Coast Guard patrols issued a much-publicized rash of warning citations and reports of violations—over 160, in fact, in the first two months of enforcement—to foreign vessels fishing our surplus stocks of squid and hake in Atlantic waters alone, subsequent analyses of these citations and reports have revealed a largely genuine misunderstanding by foreign skippers of the regulations issued under the authority of the act. These regulations, published at the eleventh hour in two installments in the fine print of our Federal Register, stand unique in the annals of government prose for incomprehensibility, ambiguity, and error.

This is especially true of the sections governing incidental catches; some candid officials of the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service admit that they cannot themselves understand them. Fortunately, therefore, hard-gained foreign understanding of the regulations has done much to improve compliance. During May 1977, the third month of enforcement, for example, warning citations and reports of violations in Atlantic waters dropped to seven and one, respectively. (And only a single citation in West Coast and Alaska waters.) But the New England fishing industry still finds such developments hard to believe. Well remembering the long history of foreign abuse, New England congressmen and industry spokesmen remain suspicious, and have roundly accused the State Department of “outrageous laxity” and closed-door meetings designed to subvert the intent of the act. The Department meanwhile must continue patiently to protect the interests of two far more important American fishing efforts. These are, of course, our much harassed Pacific tuna fleet and our largely Gulf-based shrimp fleet. The former has long operated entirely in foreign waters; the latter is doing so more and more, ranging now to South America and Africa.

More than the rant of New England congressional delegations, the greatest trauma for the State Department has been the thought of possible retaliatory consequences of the first and only seizures of our initial enforcement, the highly publicized arrests of the Russian factory trawler Taras Shevchenko and the refrigerated cargo ship Antanas Snechkus. Had the captain or crew of the Taras Shevchenko, seized under a technically difficult by-catch regulation, been subjected to the imprisonment provision of the 1976 act, the State Department would most certainly have faced major problems in preserving its long record of preventing the imprisonment of a single American fisherman from our foreign-water tuna and shrimp fleets. Anyone familiar with the international fishing community knows that it is quick to observe who is doing what to whom, whether at sea or in government offices, and to retaliate in kind. New Englanders may choose to overlook such considerations. The State Department cannot.

Friday, February 25: Damn! Gotten very warm overnight. Now -1°C and rising. Light SE wind, but heavy cloud bank far to west. Ice gone again. Barometer falling. Another easterly brewing, no doubt. Must start thinking how to get home.

But, no matter. For the moment this A.M. we have clear skies, calm seas, and the gang’s all here. Make laborious ship count; forty-one in sight and a dozen more on outer settings radar! A veritable international passing parade, a Who’s Who, you could say, of big-time fishing. Junge Welt having a field day, calling in her tired daughters and taking alongside. Poles have reappeared with rusty old Lacerta and Libra, both about 2700 gross tons, out of Gdynia. Russian presence overwhelming. We have Almaz and Krasnopulitov, both typical Mayakovskys, out of Kaliningrad and Leningrad, respectively; Prionezye, double-stacker, Murmansk; huge Aktinia, Kerch, which captain says is one of new super-Atlantiks, 336 feet LOA, 3930 gt’s; and many more. One Atlantik I class, Nokuyev, Murmansk, sticks close all morning, finally passes between us and new Portuguese stern trawler less than a ship’s length away while we are both hauling back. Captain Ernst quite upset. Shakes fist, shouts “Tigerziege” (“billy goat”), and blasts long and loud on horn. Two longs, one short, two longs, one short, which means “we are heaving, we are heaving.” Nokuyev disregards, but slips through without tangles, which are serious business. Capt. Ernst returns to bridge wing, where he has been peering through binocs all morning at every cod end coming up ramps other ships, a basic form of intelligence gathering no captain can resist.

Spanish, whose biggest effort usually further south on Grand Banks with small pair trawlers, up here now with nice-looking new factory stern trawlers: Esquío, Dianteiro, Arriscado, all La Coruna. Snappier still are the French, with forward-raking stern masts, slim twin funnels, and white hull stripes which taper to a sharp point on bow. Joseph Roty II, St. Malo; Victoria, La Rochelle; the bleu riband winner Islande IV, Bordeaux, etc. Then comes peculiar-looking Pierre Pleven, which has bridge and all of superstructure on port side only, like aircraft carriers, and single derrick-type mast well forward. Peculiar, indeed. On second thought, may well be fishing vessel of future, since arrangement permits single long pull of net aboard, without time-consuming fleeting. Obvious advantages, both time and rough weather.

“Oh, you know the French,” says Capt. Ernst. “All is design; all must be beauty.” Claims they are fair fishermen, though, which from him is high praise.

And some new arrivals! Just before lunch spot first British, two old side trawlers from Grimsby, the William Wilberforce and Boston Comanche. Nice traditional lines. But so small and so very low to water, they seem out of place in this big boys’ neighborhood. Bows and midships heavily iced, dangerously so, it seems to me. Herr Theo explains British don’t come to the Labrador much in winter, since they are not built for ice, nor do they have enough power to work through pack. But now they may have to, he says, because their traditional grounds off Norwegian coast and Iceland more and more closed off. Having worked similar side trawlers in his youth, he feels sorry for them. Says two were lost here few years ago. Then, more recently, third caught fire. The Frithjof rescued crew, got her in tow, but plates buckled and she sank. This was same year, he thinks, that Icelandic side trawder Juni went down from heavy ice accumulation on decks and rigging.

“And they say England won the war,” Jupp Merkler says, staring at our new companions. “Grimsby! Good God, I’ve been there. It’s all dreck and they have rats running on the streets.”

“Let’s listen on the spy radio,” says Capt. Ernst, only half joking, as he searches on second VHF set with wider selection channels, regularly used to eavesdrop. “You can interpret.”

Catch two dreary voices, odd North-country accents, with most monotonously foul language this side Billingsgate. One is complaining about Canadian “fishing days” regulations. Other evidently has engine trouble:

“Oeh, Gordie, the foocking Communists, the foocking Rooshian Communists, they got the time on the ground. We got twenty days; no foocking point in it.”

“Yah, Tom, and what with this dickey engine of mine! We got a spare shaft, you know, but I can’t see doing that at sea. Way she is, she only does a foocking eleven knots.”

“And the foocking Germans, Gordie. They take all the foocking fish!”

Make report to captain, to wit, doubt we will learn much from this pair.

P.M. Weather closing in, seas making up again. Sight fine old Portuguese side trawler, hauling. Although large, she rolls sickeningly. Men having hard, wet time of it “drying up” or bringing in net’s midsection by hand over rail. Coming close, sec she is named Fernandes Lavrador, out of Lisbon. How nice. Good to think someone else besides Samuel Eliot Morison remembers old Joao Fernandes Lavrador, Azorean sea captain-farmer who discovered these parts, left his name on the land. Or more properly, his title.1 If memory serves, didn’t get a thing for his troubles. What would he think of today’s scene? Put in a claim for king’s fifth of all fish caught, no doubt. And live happily ever after, back on the farm.

Fleet concentrations such as the one described above may soon be a thing of the past. In administering its new fisheries regime, the Canadian government has relegated most of the foreign fleet effort for cod and other valuable market species to “areas relatively distant from the major Canadian fishing grounds . . . limited mainly to fishing by other countries using ice-strengthened trawlers.”Practically speaking, this means the Labrador and to a lesser extent certain far offshore portions of the Grand Banks. At the same time Canada is reserving closer waters—much of the Nova Scotian shell and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, for example—for her own fishermen. Such a policy makes eminently good sense. Like New England, Canada is woefully deficient in fishing vessels with true offshore capability, or the size and strength to keep at sea the year round, winter especially, on regularly scheduled trips of some duration. A recent government survey, in fact, reports that 95 percent of Canada’s 40,000 fishing vessels “are under 25 gross tons and generally stay within a day’s voyage of home port.”

In the winter of 1977, however, a considerable multinational community still fished along the Labrador and the banks to the north and east of Newfoundland. But in every policy paper or major address, Romeo Le Blanc, Canada’s minister for fisheries, warned foreign fishing powers that their quotas will be progressively reduced as Canada builds up her own offshore fleet through a generous vesselconstruction subsidy program. Meanwhile, in gratitude for ice-fishing instruction and cooperative research, Canadian authorities have granted West Germany liberal cod quotas, mainly through “joint ventures” in which German-caught fish are sold to Canadian processing plants normally idled in winter. Similar joint ventures, said to be advantageous to both parties, are springing up the world over among coastal states newly exercising their 200-mile fishing sovereignty. In fishing circles they are spoken of as the wave of the future. The United States has so far concluded one. It is with the USSR.

Like their American counterparts, Canadian enforcement officials have been agreeably surprised by foreign fleet adherence to new regulations. Although at first hampered by lack of ice-strengthened patrol vessels—only nineteen boardings were made in Newfoundland and Labrador waters during the first two months of enforcement—Canada has since built up her patrol fleet, and has also initiated dockside inspection of the great many foreign trawlers using Canadian ports, especially St. John’s, for water, fuel, and general resupply. After 240 high-sea and in-port inspections of the Atlantic foreign fleet over the course of five months, Canada has judged three violations serious enough to warrant seizure and civil court cases. One was the previously mentioned Norwegian longliner; a Russian and a French trawler were the other twm. In addition, one British trawler off the Labrador

—certainly not our Grimsby friend with engine problems -ran off from a boarding party in bad weather and steamed fast over the 200-mile line. She has been “put in violation” by exchange of diplomatic notes and will be seized should she reenter Canadian waters.

Shortly before transferring from the Wesermünde at sea and beginning my homeward journey, I wrote:

Sometimes on nights like this you stand transfixed, staring numbly through bridge window rapidly being obscured by frost. Temperature is —21 °C. Wind shudders the rigging, and flying spray carries back to funnels, where it immediately freezes in fingerlike striations. Slowly you overtake some neighbors. To port is new French ship showing two red lights on aft mast. She is badly hung up and will wait until we pass before trying to free herself. Ahead is another large German, toiling away, ploughing the sea. Tail kicks up white now and then with seas boiling up ramp. Altering course, you can briefly glimpse in glare of searchlights her great bulbous bow lifting clear of giant wave.

Suddenly, the question overwhelms you. Why? What are we all doing here? This is, after all, such a woebegone, bone-cold spot on the globe, exposed in the case of Ritu Bank to full sweep of the Atlantic during these wicked snow-bearing easterlies. Then you look at all the portlights, the cozy lights right down to lowest cabin deck, row after row of them. They make each ship look like a little city—much more so at night, anyway—within the bigger floating metropolis. Inside you know is warmth. The Portuguese coming off watch may play a round of cards, swigging their jugged red wine. The Germans will mutely watch a television cassette, wolf down a Holsten beer, and flop exhausted in their bunks. The British, still complaining, may be waiting for the nightly soccer scores broadcast; the Russians, if they have had a good day, for a songfest. Outside our deck watch is once again repairing a broken groundline, cutting the heavy chain with blowtorches and trying to control bobbins on a rolling, icy deck. The men pause to flap their arms, fighting off the cold. Bestmann kindly allows some to take a break, for brief huddle by stove in the Seemannsheim [bosun’s locker]. But then the loudspeaker drones again: “Hieven, hieven, an Deck, Einhol’ ...”◻

  1. A lavrador was a small landed proprietor in medieval Portugal. Following Fernandes’s voyage in 1500, early maps almost uniformly referred to the region as Tiera del Lavrador. Curiously, the definite article has stuck. One must still say “the Labrador.”