SEABROOK, N.H. — The federal government's new catch share regulatory system has been almost literally killing off New Hampshire's commercial fishing industry, fishermen and state experts told a panel of federal officials earlier this week.
The controversial method of allocating who can catch fish has cost this state's only fishing cooperative, or "sector," based in Seabrook Harbor, $750,000 in business, fishermen told the visiting panel from the Department of Commerce.
It has cut the number of fishermen landing catches by two-thirds, they said. And it has killed off fishing jobs and exacted a high price on the lives of the men and women of the state's fishing fleet — resulting in a number of attempted suicides and divorces.
The hearing, hosted by a panel from the U.S. Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration marked a continuation of a tour of New England fishing ports that began two weeks ago in New Bedford and Gloucester.
And the panel heard echoes of what fishermen and public officials had reported in Gloucester: that the catch share regimen, which encourages fishermen to buy, sell or trade their allotted "shares" of an assigned catch among themselves, or to larger boats and corporations, is systematically driving small, independent fishermen out of business and creating an economic disaster for fishing communities from Gloucester, New Hampshire and throughout the Northeast.
But some of the testimony here took on an even heavier tone.
Second-generation Rye, N.H., fisherman Jay Driscoll, who lands his fish at Seabrook's Yankee Fisherman's Co-op, argued that time is running out to ensure fishing remains viable in the area.
For many, their way of life is on the ropes, he said. Deeply in debt, with federal regulations preventing them from catching enough fish to pay their loans, crews and support their families, many are desperate, he said.
"In the 22 boats in New Hampshire's fleet, we've had three suicide attempts and six divorces this year," he said. "In this nation of freedoms, we have to fight every day for our right to earn a living. Do you want a fishing industry here? You guys have to take a risk on us. We've been beaten down to a pulp."
"It's not inconceivable that the entire New Hampshire groundfishing industry could be gone, and not in 100 years, but within the next 10," Kelly Cullen, University of New Hampshire assistant professor of fish and wildlife economics, told the Commerce Department's economic assessment team. "The (catch share system) can be seen as economically efficient, but we have to be careful. We don't want to lose 400 years of history and the entire groundfish industry."
For the commercial fishermen in the room, Cullen's words were not breaking news.
David Goethel, a marine biologist, a 30-plus-year veteran Hampton fisherman and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, doesn't give New Hampshire's fleet of small independent fishing boats much more than two years before it's reduced to next to nothing.
New Hampshire's commercial fishermen were hit the hardest by the new regulations, he said.
For George Bald, state commissioner of Development and Economic Resources, New Hampshire without its fishing industry is simply not an option.
"The fishing industry is something we can't lose; it helps all of our economy," Bald said. "It helps out tourism tremendously. The cultural impact of fishermen to the state of New Hampshire, well, I can't overstate that enough.
"It's a way of life," he said. "The state would look different if we lose fishing."
Those who wonder how the new program has affected New Hampshire fishermen only had to listen to Seabrook's Yankee Fisherman's Cooperative manager Bob Campbell.
Groundfishing is the lifeblood of the New Hampshire's fleet, Campbell said, though lobstering, shrimping and fishing for whiting, tuna, spiked dogfish and herring is also done by co-op fishermen.
Since the catch share began in May 2010, the co-op's landings are down 47 percent, unloading about 1.4 million pounds of fish less this year than last, he said.
"That's a huge revenue loss." Campbell said. "It's a devastating number — three-quarters of a million dollars in sales (lost to the Yankee Fisherman's Co-op).
"It's the first year in the 20 years I've managed the co-op that I had to lay off people," he added. "I've had to lay off everyone but one employee this year."
Those numbers increase when Campbell explained what happened to fishing boats and crews.
"The most boats we've had in any one day this year is seven," Campbell said. "Last year, the most we had in any one day was 19, the year before 23. That's two-thirds difference in two years. To have seven boats be the most boats you unload in a day is unheard of."
Angeljean Chiaramida may be contacted at email@example.com.