For the three dozen inshore gillnet Gloucester-based fishermen in Northeast Sector 3, regulatory constraints have flattened the earth and left them gazing in trepidation over the edge into an abyss.
Added together, their years on the water comes to hundreds in rough numbers, yet the fishermen measure the uncertain future not in decades or years, but in months and see what time is left to their businesses as somewhere between bleak and nonexistent.
The desperation shows on their faces and in the risks they’re taking to keep their mom-and-pop businesses on a lifeline.
Take John Montgomery. With in-shore gillnetting prohibited in February and March as a harbor porpoise conservation measure, Montgomery took his 42-foot F/V Chandelle deep into the treacherous waters of the wintry Atlantic drop nets for monkfish.
”It took me 131/2 hours to come home at 4 knots” into the face of a gale, he recounted. “I shouldn’t even be out there in a boat that small.
”This is what I have to do because I can’t fish inshore,” Montgomery said during a visit to the Times last week along with a half-dozen commercial fishing colleagues.
Steve Smith told of how he has been forced to take the Lori B, a 45-footer, to fish for monkfish far from the shores of Cape Ann — on a month-long trip that yielded virtually no profit. The gillnetters operate at competitive and regulatory disadvantages. For one thing, the small scale of their enterprises mean that the cost of observers, which at least for now are being shifted in part on their boats, becomes a nearly insuperable burden, costing as much or more than the gross value of their landings.
The same cost of observers $300 to $600 a day becomes proportionally smaller as the boats become larger and their haul greater. The offshore trawlers can much more easily absorb these observer costs which are self-evidently regressive.
NOAA underwrote the cost for the first three years of catch share fishing, but in 2013, which begins May 1, NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard has forewarned the industry that the $1 billion agency does not have the budget to continue the full subsidy. William Karp, who heads the NOAA Science Center, more recently said he hoped that the full subsidy could be afforded, but uncertainty weighs.
“Observer funding is the 800-pound gorilla,” said Paul “Sasquatch” Cohan.
The harbor porpoise shutdown of the gillnets means “our sector is leaving 3.9 million pounds of fish uncaught in February and March,” said Richard Burgess, the sector manager. And we’ve only landed 720,000 pounds of fish so far in 2012.”
To see how opportunity has been reduced, Burgess said, the sector landed 1,466,868 pounds in 2011 and 1,700,000 in 2010.
Especially galling to the gillnetters is the so-called “pulse fishing “for cod — the fish of choice for the inshore fleet — by big offshore boats that are acquiring catch shares and pouncing when the cod make an appearance on Stellwagen Bank. That’s where the gillnetters would like to put out their nets, but can no longer do so because the larger draggers tend to ignore the gillnets as they churn through the shallows, wrecking the smaller boats’ gear as they go.
“If pulse fishing hadn’t occurred, our sector would have been able to catch our quota,” said Burgess.
“It’s a tremendous oversight to let the big boats work in shore,” said Ed Smith, captain of the 40 foot Claudia Marie. “And it wasn’t as if (NOAA) weren’t told” what was going on.
As early as the summer of 2011, members of Sector 10 (a group of mostly day boat fishermen from small ports along Massachusetts Bay) were complaining about big offshore boats hauling large quantities of cod from Stellwagen Bank using catch shares acquired in the commodity market that was established in 2010 to put the industry under modern market conditions.
The efficiency was evident, but an unintended consequence was heavy fishing pressure on the rebuilding inshore cod stock. The Sector 10ers began advocating for a return to trip limits which held the take from a day’s fishing to 800 pounds of cod during the effort control system that was junked in 2010 for catch share commodity trading which was designed to allow fishermen to take as much as they could acquire rights to do so.
“The offshore boats have raped the industry,” added Montgomery. “For the first time in my life, I have not been able to settle up in December. Forty years of history going down the drain.”
A final indignation to the hard-pressed gillnetters was the free pass given to the recreational sector, which was not made to share the constriction on catch limits for 2013. Although inshore cod landings are expected to be reduced by 77 percent, due to the stock’s stubborn failure to reconstitute strongly, the bag limit for the recreational boats was not reduced.
Even though the sector has failed to catch its allocation, “the recreational sector went unscathed,” said Ed Smith.
Looking toward the new fishing hear, which begins May 1, Burgess says that New England’s small independent boats need three things to be able to survive the year economically.
Those include a move by NOAA Northeast regional administrator John Bullard to allow a second year of an interim rule that cut Gulf of Maine cod limits for the current year by 22 percent — a far cry from the 77 percent cut now on the table. And they include emergency orders from Bullard to install trip limits and accumulation caps for quota and catch shares that would keep the large draggers from having unlimited access and scooping up the inshore cod from Stellwagen.
Bullard reiterated in a separate visit to the Times that he has no intention of easing back and extending a second year of the interim limits. Given that the fleet has caught only 54 percent of its allocated share of Gulf of Maine cod this year, he insists, that would encouraged almost unlimited fishing at this point, and hurt the rebuilding of the fishery.
”I know what this is doing,” he said. “I get it,” he continued, adding that he does blame fishermen for the recognized “disaster.”
”Is it fair? No. Is if necessary? I believe it is,” he said, adding that he is not certain whether he has the authority to issue the kind of emergency orders on trip limits and accumulation caps Burgess and other fishermen say they need to survive.
In the meantime, the calendar is turning toward May 1, and New England fishermen out of Gloucester and elsewhere have bills coming due, with little prospect right now of reeling in revenue.
That threatens their businesses, and their families, they said.
Fishermen B.G. Brown said he may turn to trying to land tuna. Montgomery said he may return to the risky trips for monkfish; given the cod cuts and other limits and regulations he says, there are few choices left.
”If somebody doesn’t have a monkfish permit, I don’t see how they can even afford to go out,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s the end.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.