Six owners of federally-permitted Gloucester gillnet vessels have each adapted to today's groundfish laws, ebbing fish prices, flowing expenses, and year-round cod abundance off Gloucester by working two vessels in that fishery with just one crew, who often double-trip daily.
This May's sector management program will void that survival technique.
"I was one of the first (gillnet vessel owners) to get a second boat around 2001. The 120-day block was the original reason. Who can go unemployed four months out of the year?" questioned Phil Powell, captain and owner of approximately 43-foot-long and 45-foot-long gillnetters.
Groundfish regulations dictate every federally-licensed Gloucester gillnetter take an annual 120-day block (four month-long time out from fishing) which must be done "... in no less than seven-day increments and include a 20-day block in the spring and also a 21-day one in the summer," explained Richard Burgess, one of the vessel owners who works two sets of gillnetters within the 30- to 50-foot range with two crews.
Gloucester's approximately 25-strong federally-permitted inshore gillnet fleet primarily net medium and large-sized cod on grounds off Gloucester, out to 25 miles. Rolling closures have shut these grounds down in April, May, October and November.
Besides the 120-day block, each vessel also works under a Days at Sea (DAS) clock. Each vessel's 800-pound daily cod limit is often caught during a 4- to 6-hour, dock-to-dock trip, subtracted as 15 hours from each of its annual DAS allotment. Additional fishing time through permit purchases and DAS leasing can rewind a vessel's DAS clock after its original DAS allotment has been used up.
"We (the gillnetters) have been doing this (the 120-day block) right along, and it's not so bad if you have two boats," added Capt. Jimmy Santapaola Sr. "This way, you are able to fish at least one boat while the other is in block (and not fishing)," said Santapaola, who owns three Gloucester gillnetters — two of which are 30-footers that he skippers himself. His son, Jimmy Jr., captains the third, a 42-footer.
The senior Santapaola further describes another plus of the two boat, one crew survival adaptation:
"You can double your daily cod quota," he said. " A little bit twice is better than a little once."
With stretched-out fishing time from the quick trips and additional fishing time purchases, the six gillnet owners have often been able to get two daily cod trips out of their vessels, especially when their catches and prices are good.
Several of the six vessel owners once employed separate crews to run their boats, but, "I've had to lay three people off because of the rules and fish prices," said Billy Cunningham II, captain and owner of two approximately 30-foot-long gillnetters.
"Now, one crew does both boats. No one likes making two trips a day and going out 20 miles in these little boats and getting your asses kicked (by choppy weather)," he said.
"They work hard," said Sam Favazza of the gillnet fishermen. Favazza is a seat-holder at the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction who buys fish for Legal Seafoods and often sees the vessels off-load.
During this bad recession, cod prices to the boat have often ebbed to just $1 per pound or less.
"Eight hundred pounds (of cod) is not enough with low fish prices, high operating expenses and three families to support," said Capt. Don Smith.
"When (cod are) $3 a pound, that's OK, and when they are less than $1.50 a pound, that's bad," added Smith, who crews two of Burgess' gillnetters with locals Mark Gouin and Tom Ives.
Landing a double daily cod quota helps ease some of the crews' and vessel owners' low-boat-price discomfort.
"It's a 12-hour-long day for us (doing the double-tripping)," Smith said. "Mentally, it's difficult. You get in from your first trip thinking it's all over, and it's not, and you want it to be. But, if the fish come right up (in the nets, and you catch your daily quota quickly), you say to yourself, 'Hey, we can get back out here all right.'"
While double-tripping, the crews head right back to sea as soon as they have completed their first trip.
Santapaola, who did 47 consecutive double trips last June and July, explains his mindset for doing the double-tripping: "You just do it. If we are getting the fish, we (including his crew member, Mike Goodwin) go."
Powell has a special reason for doing the double trips: "I do it because of my family. Everyone wants the best for their family. Both of my boats support three families with children."
These gillnetters will no longer have to deal with the 120-day block, Days at Sea clocks, daily catch limits and closed areas after May 1; they will have to adapt to sector management then.
The bass controversy
Getting away from gillnetters and pouncing on a subject that's on the minds of many Gloucester Daily Times readers — striped bass — Roger Brisson, a local veteran commercial groundfish and bass fisherman and a recreational bass fisherman as well, reveals what he believes are the real reasons why bass have become less abundant in at least this state's waters.
"The main body of bass is now staying outside (in federal waters during their seasonal migration north). There's an abundance of bait (sand eels, herring and mackerel), and they are not being bothered by the dogfish so much out there," Brisson said.
"There has been a lot less bait coming into state waters," Brisson added, "plus there has been an abundance of dogfish there that arrive in late May. The dogfish compete against the bass for the bait and also harass and drive them away.
"That's what is really going on," he said. "The bass stock is doing fine. I would be the first one to say shut down the commercial fishery if I thought their population was in trouble."
Gloucester lobsterman Peter K. Prybot writes regularly in the Times about the fishing industry and related issues.