An Occasional Ramble By The Sea
June 22nd, 2004
By David Helvarg
After going through security at the Department of Commerce I buy a $25 dollar ticket and join the long line of some 1,000 people wending their way through one of the building’s high ceilinged marble and granite galleries. It’s June 16, 2004, another hot muggy day in our nation’s capitol with many more to go before the summer ends. We work our way past neo-Greco columns and down a set of narrow stairs to where a man in a “29th Annual NOAA Fish Fry” apron takes our tickets and we’re let into the building’s main cafeteria. The first thing we encounter is a Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) table and “Fishing Simulator.” This includes a white ‘fighting chair’, deep-sea rod and reel, and some sort of calibrated pulley system that yanks the fishing line of the volunteer “tournament” contestants who’ve lined up to take turns battling a giant sailfish leaping out of tropical waters on a big video screen twenty feet away.
RFA is a major battler in its own right, leading the opposition to no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that marine scientists and environmental advocates argue could function as unique ‘national parks in the sea,’ while also helping restore America’s depleted fisheries. But RFA believes no part of the sea should be exempted from recreational fishing hooks, even areas where commercial fishing has been banned. For years the commercial and recreational fishing industries have argued over allocation, over who gets what share of the public’s declining fisheries, often couching their contending claims in terms of ‘resource conservation.’ If RFA gets its way on marine reserves and also ‘right to fish’ laws it’s pushing in various state houses future recreational fishers may need to practice their ‘virtual fishing,’ skills, as actual fish may no longer be around.
Next in the line is a NOAA t-shirt table followed by the first serving table full of fried and broiled fish, beginning with Grouper, an arguably depleted and downsized species. This is followed by your choice of talapia, whiting, shrimp, flounder, crab legs and all sorts of other seafood both sustainable and non-sustainable, also corn on the cob, potato salad, soda and beer.
Outside in the big tree shady courtyard below eight and ten story interior walls tent stations have been set up with more and better seafood samples provided by a range of restaurants and fishing industry outlets. The crowd here is Black and White, young and older, mostly in short sleeved casual office wear but also some suits, semi-formal dresses and aloha shirts. Bush Secretary of Commerce and Texas Oil man Don Evans is in a Navy blue suit and NOAA ball cap wandering around with a few aides, a photographer and two secret servicemen. He stops by the Maine aquaculture display to try shucking some farm grown oysters. After attempting to open an already opened half shell, he’s given a whole oyster and manages to get the blade in and pry it open, smiling for his photographer.
I head over to the open sided Legal Seafoods tent that includes politically correct and delicious Wild Alaska sockeye with seaweed garnish and Asian glaze. There are also University of New Hampshire Farm raised halibut from open ocean cages, mussels, catfish and many other offerings on display. Someone wanders by with a paper plate full of sushi. There’s McElhaney’s Seafood Gumbo and Seawatch International clam strips and crab cakes with corn bred and farmed salmon pate. Hubbs Sea World is offering fish kabobs and there’s Budweiser and wine stations and the National Esturine Research Reserve’s “Taste of the Reserves.”
Personally I can’t help feeling a bit strange that the big annual social event for the nation’s leading agency for our endangered seas is a cook out serving several tons of marine wildlife. It’s as if the Forest Service were to stage an annual Bonfire feeding the flames one of every kind of tree in America.
After eating my fill I talk with a couple of fish-eaters from Oceana, a conservation group, several NOAA employees, a scientist I’d met on an offshore expedition, an editor from ‘Sea Technology’ magazine and an aquaculture industry rep (who complains about fishermen and environmentalists). I then wander into the ‘National Aquarium’ section of the building, which is being kept open late for us.
Recently renovated it still looks like a medium-security fish-jail. I watch some leopard sharks swimming in circles and a large ramora waiting for a ride that will never come and wonder if the fish out in the courtyard might not have it better off.
In this fish eat fish world I’m not opposed to getting some tasty animal protein from the living seas. I just wish we’d learn enough restraint not to kill the golden cod, and that the agencies mandated to protect our public seas weren’t always partying with the industries they’re supposed to regulate.