By Richard Gaines
---- — 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.
Then, there are the harbor porpoises, seals and dogfish. All these creatures feed on cod; the Marine Mammal Protection Act has mandated that the porpoise and seal populations are nurtured while federal fishery regulations have considered dogfish a species of concern even as fishermen find them a voracious and ubiquitous nuisance; where dogfish are found, fishing for more valued species is hopeless.
To protect harbor porpoises, which from time to time entangle themselves in the gillnets, NOAA has barred gillnet fishing out 18 miles east from Gloucester, Portland to Cape Cod during February and March.
The “consequence” closure arrived at a most inopportune time for Capt. Smith and his crew aboard the Ryan Zachary.
Fishing on Stellwagen during the last two days of January before the ban took effect, they found yellowtail flounder had moved in. On Jan. 30, the Ryan Zachary’s crew hauled up 2,500 pounds of yellowtail, and the next day 1,100 pounds. Selling for $2.50 a pound, the catches brought in $9,000.
“Those were two decent half days,” said Smith. After deducting for fuel and supplies, the remainder of the gross is split between the owner and the crew, risk and profit sharing being one of the quaint anachronisms that will vanish if and when investors, now patiently licking their chops at the declining value of catch shares, buy up the industry.
But then, Stellwagen was closed to the gill netters for two months, and Smith had to take the Ryan Zachary father out, beyond where he is comfortable in such a small boat.
“On Thursday, we had to get off Middle Bank (the section of Stellwagen nearest Gloucester),” he said. So, Smith took the boat 40 miles out to get beyond the harbor porpoise “consequence” closed area, dropped the nets and steamed six hours back to port. The weekend gale kept the boat in port, but on Sunday, with a NOAA mandated observer on board, the Ryan Zachary steamed six hours out to retrieve the catch.
The observer was seasick all the way, retching continuously, Smith said, creating a health hazard. And while that was bad enough, what came up in the gill nets was nothing but dogfish
What Smith and most fishermen consider insane is a 3,000-pound daily limit on dog fish, which meant dumping 9,000 pounds of the pest overboard and proceeding back with 3,000 pounds and a sick observer.
The dogfish fetched $0.20 a pound, for a $600 gross for all the effort. “We got in at 7 p.m. on Sunday night,” said Smith. “The boat smelled like puke, the next day we had to clean it up.”
Beginning in May, NOAA will transfer 50 percent of the cost of observers to the boats after subsidizing them for the first two years of catch share fishing.
Gillnetters are facing other obstacles as well.
Water temperatures and acidity are rising, and the fish seem to be following different prompts and are not where they usually are; or maybe there just aren’t enough fish left, especially the prized cod and flounders that make nearly translucent and luscious fillets. At least, that’s what NOAA scientists have calculated with their complicated formulas and proxies. After they got finished with their buffers for uncertainties, the inshore cod catch for the coming year is set to be cut by 77 percent — on top of a 22 percent cut for the fishing cycle that ends April 30.
Smith becomes philosophical about the dim future of his industry; for a man of his age, there aren’t many options, he says — and besides, he clearly adores the exquisite isolation of the fisherman, even with an observer hanging over the side growling in internal agony.
“If you can do better than any other job, that’s all you need, there’s a successful thing,” he said. “If you make it back again with some fish, then you’ve won.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.