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February 6, 2013

One fisherman's tale shows plight of many

A captain's lost trip spotlights plight faced by many

For a gillnet fisherman, these are trying times — with worse yet to come.

Captain Don Smith, a 57-year-old transplanted Mainer whose family roots are in Nova Scotia and has fished commercially from Gloucester for more than 30 years, doesn’t need to be prodded to speak to that.

Working for his friend and first cousin Richard Burgess, the owner of a fleet that has been pared from five boats to two, Smith leads a crew of three including himself on the 44-foot, fiberglass gillnetter Ryan Zachary, a nondescript former lobster boat without bunks or a bathroom.

“The ecosystem has changed a lot,” Smith said Tuesday. “It’s been two years since we saw a lot of cod on Stellwagen.”

Smith is referring to the shallow sandy bottomed bank that begins just 12 or so nautical miles south of Gloucester; the port’s fortuitous geology and geography have provided day boats — small trawlers and gillnetters — a convenient and invaluable opportunity to keep working, as limits on effort and landings have become more restrictive over the past generation.

Making life more difficult for the small boats are the big boats; these “trip” boats that traditionally worked offshore on the more distant Georges Bank. But the catch share trading system imposed by federal regulators in 2010 has liberated them to acquire quota from non-participants or day boats, and — no longer limited by daily catch limits —they have been induced to chase the pulses of cod onto Stellwagen, where they flaunt their scale and have their way.

The mobile gear is drawn wide by heavy metal doors and dragged along the bottom. Trawlers get to fish where they want, and gillnetters, who use monofilament mesh netting hung from floats and stretched to the bottom with lead weights, must accept the technological pecking order, or suffer the consequences of a ruinous trawl run through a gillnet.

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