New Bedford harbor.
A fishing vessel heads out on a trip from New Bedford Harbor. Credit: David W. Oliveira / For The New Bedford Light

Nicholas Sullivan is an author and senior research fellow at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is interested in how developing technology is influencing the fishing and maritime industries in New England. 

His new book, “The Blue Revolution: Hunting, Harvesting, and Farming Seafood in the Information Age” uses New England, and often, New Bedford as a model for the fishing industry across the United States. Sullivan looks ahead to see how these staple maritime industries will change in the information age. 

Here, The New Bedford Light talks to Sullivan about his new book, “The Blue Revolution,” the future of the fishing industry, the challenges facing maritime economies, and the role of New Bedford in a post-industrial blue economy. 

New Bedford Light: Could you tell me a few words about your new book, “The Blue Revolution”?

Nicholas Sullivan: “The Blue Revolution,” is about the transformation of commercial fishing in the 21st century. Half of it is wild capture, and roughly half is aquaculture or mariculture — marine aquaculture — with a short section at the end on the global challenges of climate change, and piracy, and marine protected areas, and so forth. But the book focuses on New England and uses New England as a proxy for the U.S. at large, but it discusses other parts of the world as well. 

I started writing it in the middle of the pandemic, and initially, I was going to do a global study. But it turned out to be too unwieldy for one thing, and it was impossible to travel, really. So New England was much more feasible. It’s about fishing in the 21st century, or in the information age, as I refer to it. So many industries in the world, and in the U.S. have become kind of post industrial, you know, service industries or based on sensors — digital tools basically. Fishing, of course, has always been a throwback industry … but fishermen, particularly fish farmers, are increasingly using digital tools.

NBL: You mentioned that you use New England as a model for the global fishing industry and things like that. How is New England as a model? Is it accurate? 

NS: It’s a good model because of the importance of fishing to New England. Massachusetts was built on the cod … There’s a sacred cod hanging in the Massachusetts State House. So it’s got that history. And really, it was the nation’s first industry more or less. 

So, as a model for the world — well, the U.S. actually, as a whole is a really good model for the world because of its fishery management scheme — the Magnuson-Stevens Act — and the way it basically protects species. Which has not always been the case. The law was written in 1976, amended in 1996, and then again, in 2007, I believe, and it’s gotten better and better. So New England, and a lot of the U.S. is like the other parts of the world: Iceland and Norway, New Zealand, a lot of South America, Australia and most of the EU are all kind of on the same page in terms of strong fisheries management.

NBL: What led you to writing this book? What past experiences coalesced to bring you here?

NS: Well, most of my career as a writer has been focused on business and technology. Particularly computer revolution, Internet revolution, mobile phone revolution, and all that, and its impact on people and society. But before that, in the ’70s, when I was in college, I wrote about fishing — particularly the Russian factory ships off Cape Cod, and others from Eastern Europe that were raiding Georges Bank. And that was before the 200 mile limit — and you could see the Russian ships from the shores of Cape Cod. 

I actually interviewed the fishermen in Chatham, who had formed a cooperative to kind of bond together against the foreigners, and the fishermen of New Bedford, who were much more individualistic and didn’t do that kind of cooperative bonding like Chatham fishermen did. I had that background, and I even tried to sell a book in the late ’70s on fishing called “Fish Tails,” and it was really about the fishermen, as individuals, as cowboys of the sea — free market, individualistic, no subsidies — iconic figures that were very different than most of the other workers in the United States. But that never got sold. 

In the last 20 years I’ve done a lot of international development work, based on books I’d written on mobile phones and mobile money and development work in financial inclusion in developing countries. A lot of it was through the U.S. Agency for International Development. And when you go to developing countries and work with USAID, food security is an issue that always pops up. And in many parts of the world, food security means fish. So I started to wonder — you know, you hear all these dire stories about the end of fish and the resource depletion and environmental degradation — so I started to wonder where the fish were gonna come from, to feed the world. So that’s what got me into it.

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NBL: You sort of touched on this a little bit with your last answer. But why write this book now? Why is this the right time for this book to come out?

NS: I started the book in the ’90s. And then, starting in 2010, there were a couple of pivot points. And I think it’s really now accelerated into a whole new phase. The ’90s is when the cod demise was becoming apparent. The scallop industry was basically shut down, most of the beds were closed. And then there was that collaboration between fishermen, scallopers, scientists and regulators in the late ’90s that came up with this plan to rotate beds. 

So, for me, that was one big real pivot point in the industry, that was an unusual collaboration. It was kind of modern thinking. It was a behavioral shift, and policy shift. So not everything followed along those lines. And the whole cod thing went on and bumped along until 2014. Before they really shut it down for total rebuilding. 

But the Magnuson-Stevens act took effect in 2010 — switched from the days at sea regime, in terms of management, to annual catch limits. And that had a big impact on protecting fish stocks. And since 2000, like 47 stocks have been rebuilt. And as I say, several times in the book, it’s probably been better for the fish than for the fishermen. Because a lot of boats have gone out of business, people have lost their boats, people haven’t gotten quota and so forth. So it’s been a rough 20 years for fishermen. But it’s been good for the fish. 

Then the third thing: there was that scallop collaboration, the 2010 Magnuson rewrite, and then of course, there was the whole Codfather incident and the aftermath of that, with companies like Blue Harvest that came in and it’s just this new, modern, post-industrial fleet that is going after a different type of fish, going after underutilized species. It’s got state of the art processing, it’s just a different kind of animal. You can see the progression there. 

Then on the aquaculture side, which is not happening in New Bedford particularly, is very, very high tech with sensors, machine learning algorithms, artificial intelligence, and automation all driving the industry. 

NBL: Already a few times. You’ve mentioned New Bedford in this interview, what role does New Bedford play in the future of the fishing industry? Is there a big role for us?

NS: Yeah, well, of course, as you know, it’s the number one port by value — it has been for 20 years — primarily because of scallops. It’s now got boats from Maine to Florida docking here and offloading here because of the infrastructure. So, yes, it’s the dominant sport, by far on the East Coast. And it’s just attracting more and more boats. 

It’s become an issue in the harbor because of space. Boats are, you know, tied up four or five out. Now with the wind boats coming in, there’s going to be a real fight for dock space and pier space. But New Bedford, yeah, it’s got a huge, huge role to play. And it would be interesting if it were to use its infrastructure to get into aquaculture. I know, there have been some efforts in that regard, but nothing’s really taken hold.

NBL: What sort of efforts?

NS: Well, I’m not sure. About 10 or 15 years ago, there was a group that wanted to take over some old mill buildings and build fish farms in them, but it never went anywhere. Most of the new fish farms in the U.S. are land based, now. There are three new salmon farms going in Maine, an eel farm, barramundi farm in Massachusetts, branzino farm in Connecticut, steelhead farm in New York state. They’re all big land-base tanks. 

And they’re not competing with wild capture industries; they’re different fish. So, New Bedford — given the infrastructure, the processing infrastructure, distribution and retail infrastructure — would be able to really develop a strong farming industry.

NBL: And now in this new information age, how do you see our relationship to the sea changing? How do you see that change moving forward?

NS: There’s a lot of talk about the blue economy, and the original blue economy, of course, was fishing and shipping basically, but now it’s becoming more and more data collection. I mean, so little is known about the ocean, despite all the science and research that’s gone into it, because it’s just so vast. So data collection is a huge part of the new blue economy. 

A lot of fishing boats in New Bedford now have sensors on them. I don’t know how many boats out of, say, 350 boats, I don’t know how many, but through the New Bedford Ocean Cluster, they put sensors on the boats to track salinity, oxygen levels, acidification and so forth. And they correlate that data with catches, so they can target favorable species and avoid bycatch, and so forth. 

I think that the New Bedford Ocean Cluster is another great new development in the port. It was a spin off of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, which is a kind of networking —  incubation on the docks in Reykjavik. It’s like a Silicon Valley type thing where you’re trying to network small businesses together to create bigger businesses. 

They’re not fishing businesses, per se, but they’re utilizing fish products to build other products, pharmaceutical, health, medical. That is not happening here, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t.

NBL: Zooming out a bit from New Bedford specifically and from even the South Coast specifically, what is, in your mind, the biggest issue right now facing the future of sustainable fishing or the ocean based economy in the 21st century? And what is the solution, if there is any?

NS: The two biggest problems, I think, are one: illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing, you know, basically piracy, most of which is on the high seas, but a lot of it is within countries’ economic zones. And they estimate that as many as 30% of the fish that are caught, are caught illegally. And that’s $30 billion, particularly harmful to small rural artisanal fisheries in Africa and South America, because big Chinese ships are going in and sucking up all the fish.

That is a huge problem, and the solution to that is — there’s a thing called Global Fishing Watch, which monitors traffic on the high seas in almost real time, and they can identify, basically, the behavior of illegal fishing boats by the way they’re clumping together to offload onto big freighters and so forth — that’s a huge increase in transparency. 

Along with that, there’s a number of movements in terms of traceability. There’s a new global GTST, which is global standard for traceability, which will take all the different blockchain regimes and integrate them somehow. I know the U.S. in particular, which, you know, they say, 30% of the fish we import is illegal fish, or mislabeled, or both. So there’s a big push by the USDA and NOAA to trace that stuff. So there’s DNA testing, which they do periodically. But if there are millions of tons of fish coming in all the time, which there are, you’re not going to test them all, right? Because the U.S. imports, you know, 80% of what it eats, so it’s huge. 

So anyway, illegal fishing is one big problem. The other one is climate change, which is much harder to solve. But it’s warming waters. The Gulf of Maine is warming seven times faster than most of the rest of the world’s oceans. Acidification is affecting shell building in scallops, mussels, oysters. It’s much harder to devise a solution for that. 

But one thing that seems to be promising is there are more and more marine protected areas, which are controversial. There’s one offshore here that was closed by Obama, opened up by Trump, and now closed down by Biden. There’s some evidence that having large marine protected areas gives fish an opportunity to adapt to climate change. Because one of the issues with warmer water is that there’s less oxygen in the water, which affects, in particular, big fish. The bigger the fish, the smaller the gill size in relation to their volume. They have trouble getting enough oxygen to hunt for food. But if they’re trying to adapt, and also escape — elude capture, or hunting — it’s tough. So there’s some evidence that giving them areas in which they can kind of chill out and adapt might be helpful.

NBL: Why should the average person care about these issues? How is it affecting day-to-day life for a New Bedford citizen or someone living on the South Coast?

NS: Yeah, good question. Well, one thing became clear to me when I started doing this, you know, I started trying to figure out where the fish are gonna come from to feed the world. But as I got into it, and talked to people, I realized that the average person in the street has basically a very negative perception of wild-capture fishing and farm fishing. There was that kind of adage in the ’90s that said, “friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish,” because it was supposed to be so bad. So there was a lot of negative perception about fish. 

One of the things that I’ve tried to do with this book is rewrite that narrative because there’s so much positive stuff going on. And the other thing that’s happening is the idea of a “fishie” movement, mirroring the foodie movement that has been developing for the last 10 or 15 years. It’s the whole locavore movement, people want local fresh fish, or frozen fish, and they want to know where their fish comes from. 

The consumption of fish over the last 20 or 30 years has been growing much faster than the consumption of meat, partly because people like the idea of lean protein with Omega-three and Omega-six fatty acids, which are heart healthy and all that. But people want to know where their fish come from, they want to know that it’s sustainable, they want to know that it’s not reliant on forced labor. I mean, fishing has never been that transparent. I mean, there’s no fair trade fishing the way there is with coffee, cocoa and textiles and so forth. But I think that, with the traceability efforts now, it is coming. 

So I think the reason the average person should care is because more and more people are eating fish, more and more people are concerned about overfishing and sustainability, restoration of the oceans, and nearshore estuaries. And all of that is really a function of how we fish. 

It’s also a function of how we behave on land because there’s been a lot of dam removals which are connecting rivers to the ocean, which is good for herring and salmon — all the fish that spawn up river —– there’s been a lot of effort from the Buzzards Bay Coalition that has done an incredible job with nitrogen runoff from septics or fertilizer, trying to buy up land and protect it or to get different septic systems. A lot of what goes on, on land, is affecting the nearshore waters, which is where a lot of fish spawn.

So there’s more than a connection to the ocean. People should be cognizant of the effect of what they’re doing on land and how it impacts the ocean. So there are a lot of reasons why people should care about this.

NBL: What do you think is the most surprising thing that you’ve learned during your research for this book? Is there anything that really sticks out to you?

NS: Yeah, I think the number one thing is just how complicated fishing is. It’s a very complex system. I mean, you get all the ocean and the ocean science and the marine organisms, right? That’s one thing. Then you’ve got the fishing regulations and policies which are changing year to year. NOAA Fisheries monitors 450 stocks in the U.S. — and that’s a lot. You compare it to beef, pork and chicken — you got three. I mean, there are different types of beef, but you know, the range of marine organisms is incredible and it’s just very complex. 

And now with the changing climate, trying to devise policies that keep up with the climate is very difficult. For a boat captain to keep up with the policies and regulations, it’s almost like you need a law degree — there’s so much detail — and you have to know how to run a boat and manage a crew and find fish. So I’m just really in awe of how complex it is, both the ecosystem of the ocean, but also the ecosystem of the fishery management, and fishermen together.

NBL: Speaking of the variety of fish that you mentioned, what’s your favorite fish?

NS: Ah, my favorite fish? I like salmon from the Faroe Islands, I like cod and haddock, I like fluke, I like black sea bass. 

Black sea bass is a really interesting fish, because it basically has been a mid-Atlantic fish, and all the boats that have permits and quotas for black sea bass are mid-Atlantic, but the black sea bass are moving up into New England waters now with climate change. So the boats from the mid-Atlantic are chasing the fish up here, but the local boats really don’t have a quota for that, so they can’t fish for it.

So that’s kind of an example of just the complexity of the system and working out the balancing act between changing ecosystems and changing regulations.

NBL: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you’re just dying to talk about in regards to this book, fisheries, anything at all?

NS: Well, I call it “The Blue Revolution” because there was, in the ’60s and ’70s, something called the Green Revolution … which was designed to increase yields of rice and wheat, in mostly Asia, but also Mexico. And it worked, really, it tripled and quadrupled yields very quickly. It had some negative impacts though, because it was not very environmentally sound and they kept planting the same crops in the same fields year after year after year. 

Then in the ’80s, there was another thing called the Blue Revolution, which was a similar thing with aquaculture, and mostly in Asia, and mostly freshwater aquaculture. So I’ve expanded that blue revolution into the Western world or the rest of the world —  put it on the ocean, connected it to the blue economy and all the stuff going on. But it’s all on the same spectrum, the Green Revolution, the Blue Revolution, aquaculture freshwater, and now the Blue Revolution which is mariculture and ocean based. 

Sawyer Smook-Pollitt is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Bedford Light.

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