His city’s best fishing days may be long past, but lifelong Gloucester resident Ron Gilson still sees what once was when he drives by what remains.
There’s the waterfront lot, littered with discarded fishing nets and lobster pots, where any more vessels in the famed fishing fleet once docked. The clatter and grit of a top maritime machine shop downtown has been replaced by Cruiseport Gloucester. And on the Jodrey State Fish Pier, where Gilson briefly parks, the sounds of year-round work have given way to the quiet whir of his idling Prius.
To the 79-year-old Gilson, an author and historian whose book “An Island No More” largely chronicles his growing up on the city’s waterfront, the decline of the industry has stolen jobs, community spirit and opportunity. And it’s not over, Gilson says.
“This is the lowest point,” he declares on a clear February day. “Tomorrow will be lower.”
Come May 1, New England’s fishermen will see the most dire cuts yet to the number of fish they can catch, thanks to votes last month by the New England Fishery Management Council. And the limits for the 2013 fishing year are, as of now, pegged to continue for 2014 as well — all drawn down from the current year’s interim catch levels that had been trimmed by 22 percent from 2011.
The cuts will shrink the catch limit by another 77 percent for cod in the Gulf of Maine and 61 percent for cod in Georges Bank, off southeastern Massachusetts. That’s the worst of a series of reductions to the catch of bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as haddock and flounder, that many fear could be fatal to the industry.
The cod cuts are so dire that many fishermen believe they will cover only the cod that is brought up accidentally as bycatch when fishermen are targeting other species; that means fishermen may be barely able to specifically go out fishing for cod — the Massachusetts and New England fishery’s iconic catch — at all.
“They’re going to wipe it out!” said Gilson. “The only thing that’s going to be the same is the ocean you’re looking at.”
No price impact?
As hard as the cuts are likely to hit fishing communities, local seafood eaters may not notice at all. In the region’s markets, grocery stores and restaurants, imported fish dominate, and the cuts make that less likely to change. For fish consumers, a sharp drop in the local groundfish catch may jar a select group of diners who seek fish caught that day. But the cut’s effects may not ripple further than that.
Just 9 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is domestically caught, the federal government estimates. In New England, locally caught cod was just a slightly larger fraction of all cod eaten, 12 percent, according to fisheries economist Jenny Sun of the Portland, Maine-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute. And she estimates that could drop to 4 percent after the coming cuts.
Much of the imported cod is caught and frozen in Norway and cut in China, and there’s plenty of it, Sun said. If the local cod catch dips to near nothing, fish processors “could easily fill in with imports,” Sun said.
In fact, the biggest issue for one Maine seafood processing executive has been the perception that the New England industry’s troubles mean he won’t have fish.
But prices will likely change little after the cuts because substitutes are plentiful, said Chris Fream, senior sales executive at North Atlantic Inc., a processor in Portland, Maine.
“The sky certainly isn’t falling because a) we knew it was coming and b) we’ve prepared for it and there’s other species that are around,” he said.
The remaining fishermen have limited options. The Northeast’s groundfish fleet had 420 boats in 2011, a drop of 150 in just two years, and many of those who continue to fish do so because they have no choice.
Scituate fisherman Frank Mirarchi noted wryly that, at 69, he has few employment options. The fishermen with whom he cooperates, pooling quota and resources, have discussed taking even more boats out of the water and trying to hang in with whatever they can catch.
“This is not a long-term strategy,” Mirarchi said. “Something needs to happen before 2014 or we all go down the tubes.”
The crew on Gloucester fisherman Richard Burgess’s two boats is now limited to family.
While a growing number of independent fishermen are selling out of the business, however, he said he hasn’t considered that — because of his family crews.
“I put them out on the street, where are they going to get a goddamn job?” he said. “These are men who have devoted their lives to feeding the country fresh fish. And now the country is stabbing us in the heart.”
Groundfish accounts for 50 percent of the business for Richie Canastra, co-owner at the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction in New Bedford and a principal in the Buyers and Sellers Auction (BASE) that operates out of Fisherman’s Wharf off Rogers Street in Gloucester.
Canastra said he can still depend on New Bedford’s robust scallop catch, but he said he’s already laid off four of 30 workers and anticipates another 10 layoffs when the new groundfishing cuts kick in May 1 and continue through the next two fishing years.
There’s talk of government aid for fishermen coming down from Congress, through a renewed push by Congressman John Tierney, whose district includes Gloucester and all of Cape Ann.
But lawmakers and fishermen are irked that, even after the fishery was declared an “economic disaster” last September by Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, neither NOAA or any other Commerce officials have come forward with any relief aid to address it.
The best hope for many in the industry seems to be a correction in the science that many fishermen view as deeply flawed. There’s also a belief that natural fluctuations have made fish scarce over the last year, but that those same fluctuations can bring them back.
Canastra recalls the story about a 1928 Massachusetts license plate that featured a symbol of codfish that appears to be swimming away from the plate’s abbreviation for the state. The cod catch suddenly dropped that year, prompting superstitious fishermen to demand the plate be changed to show the fish swimming toward the state name.
It was, and the cod came back to Massachusetts. It can again, Canastra said.
“My point is, there are cycles,” he said.