By Marjorie Nesin
---- — A few years back, when the feds advised Joe Orlando to increase his number of fishing permits, he invested some $400,000, continuing to follow all the rules and expecting to see the industry bounce back as promised.
He still signs checks to pay off those permits — permits he says are now all but worthless since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sliced quotas and landing limits by up to 78 percent this spring.
Now, Orlando, seeing no way out of the financial ruin that has overtaken the industry here, has joined countless other Gloucester fishermen in parking his 65-foot boat on the selling block.
“We’re done,” Orlando said Tuesday. “I still owe for these permits and now I’ve got nothing left to fish. We’ve been under NOAA’s rebuilding plan for the last 10 years, and now there’s no one accountable for it.”
In the two months since the new fishing year took hold May 1, Orlando has already reeled in enough fish to meet the 12-month quota for two species left on his permits. Those permits lost a huge amount of their worth when NOAA reduced Gulf of Maine cod quotas by 78 percent, and cut quotas for other valuable fish stocks by 40 to 60 percent.
State and federal lawmakers have both pushed for an easing of the limits, noting that the Department of Commerce recognized the entire Northeast groundfishery as an “economic disaster” last fall. And state Attorney General Martha Coakley has filed a lawsuit challenging NOAA’s actions, and the validity of the science on which the limits are based.
But NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator, John Bullard, has maintained that the dire cuts are needed to better rebuild the cod stocks and other species, and has refused to back off or extend 2012 interim limits that, while cutting limits by some 22 percent, gave the fishermen viability.
“It’s a sad, sad situation. They just killed us all at once,” Orlando said. “They just shut the switch off with those cuts. I can’t keep treading water, it just doesn’t work.”
Gloucester fishermen say they know of no market wanting to purchase their vessels; and one thing is clear, they add. No one in our region would be interested in buying.
Orlando’s 65-foot Padre Pio, tied up alongside the Gloucester House off Rogers Street Tuesday, has yet to draw a prospective buyer.
One of Joe DiMaio’s four boats has attracted a potential out-of-town buyer, but that sale is pending to a scalloper, not a ground fisherman, interested in the 99-foot Princess Laura.
And even that sale would far from solve the problems for DiMaio, who wants to work. A federal plan to release some added quota for other stocks would help fishermen “survive,” he said, but that has not come. In the meantime, the numbers just do not add up if he chooses to send out a boat.
The fish DiMaio’s crew landed on a recent four-day trip brought in only about $1,977, he said; meanwhile, the boat burned through some $2,500 in fuel per day over the four days at sea.
“We’re all beaten. I don’t want to get out of the business. Unfortunately I’m going out of business,” DiMaio said.
The impact of the ongoing fishing crisis is far-reaching.
The United States already imports about 92 percent of the seafood we eat, but that number threatens to lurch upward if the Gloucester harbor dwindles out as a fishing port. And the disaster is taking its toll on families.
Christine Sherman met her husband, Russell, in a classic tale of fish city love about 40 years ago. She was working as a bartender and he as a fisherman. A fisherman later lost at sea had connected the couple.
Russell had moved to Gloucester and began fishing after graduating from Harvard University — to the dismay of his mother, Christine said Tuesday. But the couple worried little about the upfront cost of maintaining their boats’ peak condition back then.
Now, Christine said, every cost is a loss. This year, the couple is due to replace a $5,000 life raft on Lady Jane, which is also up for sale.
“The littlest thing can just break you,” said Christine Sherman, who co-owns the boat and volunteers at Gloucester’s Northeast Seafood Coalition. “You’re just throwing good money after bad continuously.”
Sherman’s boat has stayed at dock, still costing the family $739 each month to tie up there, along with about 10 other Gloucester boats, some for sale and some not.
Russell, whose Harvard degree is in History, has reached retirement age at 65. And Christine said neither she nor her husband are prepared for an alternate career this late in life.
The only help, she said, would come in the form of a government overhaul on quotas or some kind of aide. But, she said, despite talks about assistance coming in the fiscal 2014 budget, assistance can not possibly come soon enough.
“My perspective as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, I was really a single mom because Russ was out fishing, working,” Sherman said. “We’ve been left with nothing, no dignity. We have to humiliate ourselves asking for help that will never come.”
Christine said she believes about half the Gloucester fleet suffers from depression, anxiety or both. The personal financial hardships coupled with the fading of an industry that has supported Gloucester families for generations, rock the fishermen’s emotions.
“You go to bed at night, you cry. You wake up in the morning, you cry,” Christine Sherman said.
“I feel sorry, not just for myself, but for each and every one of us,” she said. “That’s what makes this all so hard.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.