, Gloucester, MA

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October 7, 2011

One fisherman's plight — and catch shares' toll

Around the inside shore of Massachusetts Bay, vestiges of America's earliest industry, small fishing boat businesses, are disappearing from scenic harbors, Hull to Scituate, Plymouth to Cape Cod, before our eyes.

In the last year, about one third of the 32 boats in Sector 10 — one of the business cooperatives organized in Gloucester by the Northeast Seafood Coalition — have ceased fishing.

A year hence, that number will be much higher, says fisherman Stephen Welch, himself included. And eventually, if things don't change, just about the whole sector will be gone, he says.

Welch's story is not unlike Gloucester's, which lost 21 boats from the groundfishing fleet last year. The fleet now numbers just 75, according to a study by the NOAA science center.

Welch was interviewed this week while servicing his 55-foot gillnetter, F/V Holly and Abby, at the Gloucester Marine Railway on Rocky Neck.

"We're off 50 to 60 percent," said Welch, who is 50 and began commercial fishing as a teenager. "I'm too young to retire, and it's not right to lay people off. I've got five guys working for me now. There were eight at the peak."

Welch was the only fisherman to testify at this week's Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Boston that was organized by U.S. Sen. John Kerry. But studies of his sector by the state, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and NOAA scientists, which were reported in written testimony, verify Welch's analysis.

Welch and his colleagues in Sector 10 are in the spotlight now due to mounting concerns about the impact on the state and regional economy of Obama administration fisheries policies, established under Amendment 16 to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The amendment is the framework that includes the catch share management system, whose primary backer, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, concedes will achieve a goal of fleet consolidation.

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