By Richard Gaines
---- — An airing of grievances and an airing of fears rained down on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren Tuesday in her first meeting with the fishing community since she took office last month.
The grievances were those of business people, descendants of the nation’s earliest industry, who in one form of another had made their way harvesting the sea, but now find themselves trapped by government edicts and policy said to be posing as biology, according to Vito Giacalone, the local port’s best known and connected leader.
The fears were those of a community poised to lose it all in the weeks to come, when new controls on the harvesting of the sea take effect May 1, and families find there is no one left from whom to borrow when second mortgages and personal loans come due.
There was a poignancy in the life-collapsing stories told by one fisherman after another with little reticence because, in the ever-smaller circle of the Gloucester fishing fleet and associated supporters, pulled and pushed without notice by government regulators, most everyone knew most everyone else’s sad tale.
Setting the coordinates of the catastrophe were a handful of fishermen. Al Cattone said that, once the 77 percent cut in cod, voted by the New England Fishery Management Council last month, takes effect May 1, he would have about 3,000 pounds to himself for the entire year — less than 10 percent of what he took out three years ago.
Joe Orlando said his allocation would collapse from 108,000 pounds of cod to 17,000. And Don King, who fishes near shore with a state permit, added that the commonwealth has allocated only 122,000 pounds for the entire fleet of state permitted boats, 21 full-timers and 40 more part-timers.
“My payments are $1,000 a week, and I can fish four months in the year,” he said.
Scott Memhard — who owns Cape Pond Ice, and, like nearly all the boat owners, was deep in debt, $1 million to the U.S. Commerce Department alone — said his wife took a call in recent days from National Grid.
“National Grid was going to shut off my power unless we gave them $17,000 on a credit card,” said Memhard. “If you take us (the only ice house on the port) out of the equation, Gloucester falls apart very quickly,” said the second generation of icemen.
“My life is a financial ruin,” said Orlando. “No fish, no fishing, loans will not be paid, I may even lose my house. I feel like I’ve wasted 40 years of my life,” he added.
State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, likened the unfolding tragedy to “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s 1039 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of Oklahoma tenant farmers driven off their land by dust storms and bank debt.
Warren, who grew up on the prairies of Oklahoma and made her reputation as a fearless foe of Wall Street, listened wide-eyed, and was advised by Memhard against making hope of a hopeless situation and playing with the emotions of the audience. The gathering included about three dozen fishermen, shoreside business owners, representatives of the Northeast Seafood Coalition and the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, former Mayor John Bell, state Sen. Bruce Tarr, a representative of Congressman John Tierney and aides to Warren.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk was invited but did not attend. Ferrante said Kirk told her she had a previous commitment she could not break.
“We’re in the 59th minute of the 11th hour,” Warren said at the beginning after her introduction by Ferrante, who had organized the meeting during the weekend, which fit into a whirlwind, day’s tour of Essex County for Warren. “I’m trying to put the pieces in place to keep (the fishing community) from going away. I’m not backing down.”
“This is people on death row; we’re looking for a pardon,” said Chris Duffy after the breakup of the meeting. Duffy manages the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, one of the two public fish auctions on the Gloucester waterfront.
“A reprieve” would satisfy for now, Warren said after hearing Duffy’s description outside the second floor conference room of the Rockport National Bank branch office on Parker Street.
After more than an hour of blunt confessions of failure — or as the dayboat fisherman Paul Cohan preferred, intentional destruction of fishing rights to allow Wall Street investors to sweep up the scraps — Warren was almost speechless.
She said she was building a regional coalition and trying to energize the effort, dead in the water since the end of the lame duck 112th Congress for a $150 million fisheries disaster relief appropriation which was scotched by the House Republican leadership in January.
She also said she understood fishermen’s need to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continue paying the full cost of at sea monitors, which it did during the first three years of the catch share fishery management system that many in the industry blame for killing jobs and leading to the Commerce-declared “economic disaster” in the Northeast groundfishery.
The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition released a letter at the meeting urging NOAA to reverse its formerly stated position and allow a second year of interim, emergency catch limits on Gulf of Maine cod — which would hold the cutback to the 22 percent of 2012 rather than the 77 percent that the gathering agreed would be a death knell for the industry.
Addressed to the senators of the five coastal New England states and New York, the coalition, which represents about two thirds of the groundfishing interests of the region, said, “The forced transition of our New England groundfishery to catch share management and hard TACs (total allowable catches) came with all sorts of rosy promises of resource abundance and economic stability. Maybe even prosperity, the coalition letter said.
“That transition was difficult enough to survive, and many of our friends simply didn’t make it. But for those of us left standing, the situation today is simply unbelievable,” the coalition letter reads.
“There is no stability. There are only repeated, record reductions in catch limits. Prosperity is a discarded dream. This is a real disaster.”
Orlando, Cattone and others — including Sarah Robinson, an anthropologist and lawyer — emphasized that the disaster did not come solely through declining stocks.
“There is no stable understanding of the stocks,” said Robinson, and with each successive government assessment comes dramatic changes in the conclusions about the previous conclusions, leading to a whipsawing of catch limits as estimates of stock sizes go careening up and down and fishermen are made to respond.
“It’s a crazy, crazy system,” she said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.