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Monday, 19 September 2011

When I Helped Count the Fish in the Atlantic Ocean

By Mort Reichek of Octogenarian

[EDITOR'S NOTE: About two years ago, Mort was injured in a serious auto accident. He was in hospital and then rehab for a long time and is now back home with his wife and a full-time caregiver.

There has not be a post at his blog since before the accident, but in a note accompanying this story, first published at Octogenarian in 2006, Mort tells me it is his way dipping his toe back in the blog waters.

For those of you new to The Elder Storytelling Place in the past two years, I urge you to check out Mort's blog; it of full of wondrous stories and you can learn more about him in this New York Times story.

For a guy who has never gone fishing in his life, and who is puzzled that so many people find pleasure sitting with a fishing rod in their hands while dangling a worm or other bait on a hook, I found myself in a bizarre situation during the late summer of 1948.

I was aboard a U.S. Government research vessel sailing on the Georges Bank, located off Massachusetts' Cape Cod. The Georges Bank, which is 22,000 square miles in size, is the chief commercial fishing grounds in U.S. waters. The boat's mission was to take a "census" of the haddock, herring, cod, flounders and other valuable commercial fish. Our voyage was the ninth of 10 scheduled trips devoted to finding ways for New England fishermen to produce more food from the sea.

I was there on an assignment from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), my first post-college employer. My job was essentially that of a press agent, and my task was to write a press release explaining the importance of what we were doing.

After years of lobbying by the local commercial fishing industry, New England congressmen had finally succeeded in getting a Federal appropriation for the program. But the project was ridiculed as a Federal boondoggle by critics who regarded the counting of fish as wasteful government spending.

My job was to defend the project. In my press release, I explained that, in addition to counting fish, the project involved the measuring of hydrographic conditions on the Georges Bank that affect fishing, the testing of new methods to handle and preserve fish and evaluating new fishing gear and the design of trawl nets to save small fish.

On my voyage, we just counted fish. We sailed from the FWS laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and were out to sea for nearly a week. The fish census-takers were primarily marine biology graduate students hired for the summer.

For most of the week, the students and I were sea sick. Unlike the vessel's operating crew, we did not adjust well to the rocky waters and the dreadfully combined smell of fish and the vessel's diesel fuel.

Nevertheless, we did our job, although I assume that many of the students finally went into a different line of work. The census was conducted on a random sampling method designed to obtain an average.

The Georges Bank was divided into "stations." At each one a trawl net was thrown into the sea. When a haul was made, the biologists segregated the fish by species and counted and measured them. Samples were taken to determine the ages of the fish, their stomach contents and their sex. Some of the fish were lucky and escaped this fate. To study migratory habits, these fortunate fish were simply tagged and released.

According to a press release that I wrote when I was back on land, "information collected on the number, size and species of fish taken at each station was analyzed by statistical methods similar to those used in the popular public opinion polls."

Considering that such polls are not infallible, 58 years later I still wonder whether our effort to count fish contributed very much to the welfare of New England's fishermen or to the nation's seafood consumers.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Mort - Over the last 70-plus years, I have spent most of my summers on the ocean on a variety of pleasure and racing craft. I have never been sea sick. In fact, the closest I have ever come to even feeling sea sick, was this morning when I read your description of tossing back and forth on the rollers of the Grand Banks, inhaling diesel fumes and dead fish smells, while at the same time counting, tagging, and dissecting the slimy creatures. Yuk!

Great story. - Sandy

Always thought a life at sea would be great..Loved reading about your adventure, by the time you mentioned the smell of the fish & the diesel fuel
I could feel for you & your fellow "sailors" about being sea-sick...It is always interesting to know if studies are A. ever read by anyone, other than the authors and B. whether their contents, information, etc. were deemed useful by anyone..At 70 I have come to think they have value if only for letting the rest of the world know such things are done..Thank god for "The Perfect Storm" because I really had a vision of you all on board and working away...sick or not...Share more of these stories..great reporting...Thanks...

I'm sure your reporting was accurate in spite of the seasickness you encountered, but what of the report? Just like all other fact finding ones that go on daily in our govt, just what did it prove and cost? Maybe only a waste of money and a seasick bunch of non-sailors.

Hello Mort,

I enjoyed reading about your fish counting but mainly I am delighted to see you back on these pages again.

We have missed you and are very happy to know you are doing well enough to write again.

Are you in Florida or the North?

Looking forward to reading more of your stories here again.

Your fish story reminds me of a family fish story. I'll write it and post it before too long. Thanks for the inspiration.

BIG smile! Mort is back!!

Mort--What Colleen wrote!

Mort! I'm so happy to see this post! It means you're okay and you're as sharp as ever! My youngest boy George has just left the nest to go study freshwater and marine biology at Napier University in Edinburgh. We'll find out soon enough if students still go out to sea to count fish. :-)

Whoo Hoo !!! You are back blogging and I am so happy, Mort. You were sorely missed while you were recovering from your accident. Thanks to Ronni, I now know that you are out of rehab and back home. It's the best news I have had in years.

So glad, I thought I had missed Mort's work, but I didn't - I actually responded to two, and I thought I remembered everything - aren't they famous last words?
I will miss your tales Mort..along with all your followers..Bon Voyage...

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