How Low Can We Go

Fishing down the marine food web needs to be done carefully

The North Atlantic sea cucumber (Cucumaria frondosa) - Courtesy NOAA

The North Atlantic sea cucumber (Cucumaria frondosa) – Courtesy NOAA

According to T. S. Elliot, “April is the cruellest month.” I don’t buy it for a minute. Right now April in any form would look damn good. For me, January is the cruelest month. The days have yet to gain any appreciable increase in daylight. There is an abundance of gray and white. And, yes, the Patriots did not make it to the after party. February, Groundhog Day and all, offers hope.

I had thought I would bring readers an update on the Omnibus Habitat Amendment working its way through the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) process, but due to the reality of the cruelest month, progress has been stalled. We’ll get to it in the not too distant future. In the meantime, something I have been reading about has my attention and it should concern those who are interested in the long-term health of the marine ecosystem.

Back in what seems to be a previous lifetime, a colleague in the fishing industry who had slightly reclusive tendencies, indicated that he wanted to be re-incarnated as a sea cucumber. That way everyone and everything would leave him alone. Nice try, but since those early days consumption of sea “cukes” has become popular in some cultures and, in fact, has been popular in Asain diets and medicine for a very long time. I make reference to this because it seems like our commercial fishing industry is going through a period of turmoil and is beginning to fish down the trophic pyramid. At the apex of this pyramid are the ocean roaming predators such as sharks, billfish, tunas. Below the apex predators are levels of carnivorous consumers until you get down to plankton and sea weed. In an earlier post, one of my fellow bloggers, John McMurray, talked about the need to protect some of the very important forage base, in his blog he discussed sand lance. We already know that there are problems with plankton production in the Gulf of Maine (GOM) and this alone spells trouble. Now some folks are expanding a moderately controlled local fishery that is taking and processing sea weed, also known as rock weed. I think we may now have fished completely down the oceanic food chain.

Along the Maine Coast, and perhaps elsewhere, there has been a reasonably small taking of seaweed or rockweed, as it is also called, which is processed into a variety of products such as: pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, cosmetics, fertilizers, animal feed and horticultural additives. All good things, for sure. This fledgling industry generated an economic activity of $20 million in 2012. Not insignificant for the coast of Maine. The number of harvesters has doubled in the last eight years and folks are looking ahead to an industry that will likely grow substantially.

While the current harvest has not depleted the rockweed biomass appreciably, this alga is a very important part of the habitat and ecosystem for a number of important juvenile species. Before this industry expands without any controls, there needs to be a much better understanding of how this benthic flora impacts all the other species and also just how much can be taken without an uncontrolled impact. Luckily, the State of Maine assembled a team to craft a plan to outline the industry guidelines for harvesting and maintaining the long-term sustainability of this resource. I am encouraged that Maine’s Department of Marine Resources is pushing this plan. The time to get a handle on these developing resource issues is at the front end, not after there is a big problem.

I still remain concerned that fishing down the marine food web is happening, but at least someone is watching what is going on.  And I think I am going to take a pass on the sea cucumber reincarnation thing.


"Rip" Cunningham, who owned, published and edited Salt Water Sportsman for 32 years, is also an accomplished writer and photographer. Cunningham has received several awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in such magazines as Field and Stream, Rod and Reel, Gray's Sporting Journal, Australian Boating and the Boston Globe Magazine. Among his many accomplishments, Rip was recognized as the Conservationist of the Year from both the International Game Fish Association, the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts, The Billfish Foundation and Federation of Fly Fishers. "I've earned a living from fishing, and I believe strongly that people with an interest in a given area should give something back,” he says. “It's rewarding every single day." Cunningham received his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA and his BA from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He has two grown children and four grand children and lives with his wife and hunting dogs in Dover, MA and Yarmouth, ME. When he's not fishing or working through the items on his wife's "honey-do" list, Cunningham does some hunting and skiing.

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  1. […] NEFMC Chair Rip Cunningham wrote a piece for recommending caution in fishing species lower in the marine food chain. Cunningham points to increased fishing pressure on species like sea cucumbers, sand lance, and […]

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