By Sean Horgan
---- — The view from the back deck at The Gloucester House on Wednesday was of a pristine, late-summer afternoon, with sunshine streaming through a cloudless sky and glinting off the deep blue harbor in a tableau suitable for framing.
The view through Al Cottone’s eyes, though he sat on the very same deck, was far different.
Where the uninitiated might have seen the quaint calm of New England’s famous port, Cottone continues to see inaction and the economic withering of one of the world’s great commercial fishing fleets.
Where someone who doesn’t fish for a living might have seen glorious sunshine slowly edging toward evening, Cottone, the owner and captain of the 45-foot Sabrina Maria, saw only saw dark clouds figuratively massing on the horizon.
“I haven’t been out (fishing) in a month,” Cottone said. “I’m like everyone else. Everyone is devastated.”
It is a common lament throughout the harbor, as the city’s commercial fishing fleet struggles through one of the worst years in its long and vivid history, a year in which NOAA slashed groundfish quotas based on scientific data that fisherman not only question, but suspect to be purposefully inaccurate.
Their distrust of the federal regulators is palpable and deep. Perhaps worse, that exodus of that trust now seems to have taken all their hope with it.
“There used to 16 boats tied up right around where we are now,” said veteran fisherman Joe Orlando, owner and skipper of the Padre Pio. “Now there’s one. Mine.”
Orlando said he has spent the last couple of months fishing for whiting just to make ends meet, pay his bills and keep his boat working. But there still must be sacrifices. Some things have to go and others, such as repairs and maintenance, have to be put off.
“I used to be proud how I maintained my boat,” he said. “Now I can’t even look at it.”
Orlando recently decided he no longer can afford the insurance on the Padre Pio. His boat, like so many in the fleet, is for sale, but while Orlando has had it on the market for more than three months, it hasn’t generated one nibble.
“It really hasn’t been that good a whiting season,” Orlando said. “Yesterday (Tuesday) we went out and it looked like it was the end of it. We’ve been into this four or five months and it the whole harbor seems like it has shut down.”
The few boats still going out, according to Orlando, are fishing gray sole, or witch flounder, with most of those boats cutting back significantly on the number of days they fish, as well as the length of each day’s fishing to accommodate the shrinking quotas on that fish.
“People are fishing one or two days and then taking two weeks off,” said Vince Taormina, owner and captain of the Miss Sandy. “What are you going to do? Nobody’s got any quota left.”
And that’s the rub.
The wide-scale slashing of the 2013 fish quotas by NOAA — 78 percent in the case of cod and almost 60 percent in the case of witch flounder — leaves the fishermen with a choice that is really no choice at all:
They can fish until they quickly reach what, by any historical comparison, are miniscule quotas, or they can shut things down and hold onto their remaining quota in the hope of finishing out the season strong on cod.
“On gray sole, guys could have fished their quota out in two weeks,” Cottone said. “And they’re telling us there aren’t any fish.”
“We could have survived this if they left the grey sole (quota) alone,” Orlando said. “We could have squeezed by.”
Now? Who knows. The fishermen, aware that one good haul will give them almost their full cod quota for the season, don’t see this season really ending any better than it began.
What can be done to help them right now?
“It’s simple,” Cottone said. “We need more fish in the system or we need direct (financial aid) from the federal government. That’s it. Nothing else will work.”
Sean Horgan may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT