Just six weeks into the new fishing year, Gloucester and other New England fishermen and their federal regulators share a common belief that the very existence of the fishery is in peril, yet both sides remain entrenched in their feelings regarding how to deal with the crisis the federal Department of Commerce acknowledges is an “economic disaster.”
For Joe Orlando, who skippers the 65-foot dragger Padre Pio out of Gloucester with his son Mario as the only crew member, a recent Saturday proved a good day in a season he thinks is bound for the rocks.
Hot sun and calm waters buoyed the Padre Pio and her catch, mostly flounder, that Orlando expected would fetch $1,300 on the market Monday. But with most catch limits cut by about three quarters in the fishing year that began May 1, a few more good days and Orlando may have to hang it up by midsummer, he said.
But Orlando, who went out fishing about 100 days annually in recent years, estimates he hauled in about 10 percent of his flatfish quota in that one day, during just 13 hours at sea, a few miles off the coast of Cape Ann. And other fishermen who gathered with him at Fisherman’s Wharf Tuesday told of being caught in a similar squeeze.
The drastic catch limit cuts — cuts of 78 percent for Gulf of Maine cod, and more than 50 percent for several other stocks — were set by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration were a response to a crisis that could doom the once mighty cod and other fish that live near the seafloor, according to NOAA and the environmental scientists who helped draft the stock assessment for the New England fishery.
But while NOAA Northeast Administrator John Bullard continues to claim the agency must curb the amount of groundfish the New England fleet can haul, the skippers and nearly every top elected official in Massachusetts argue that the scientific models the federal government uses are antiquated, and it is the catch limit that will leave boats like the Padre Pio rusting on the wharf.
A lawsuit filed May 30 by stare Attorney General Martha Coakley claims the new limits and NOAA’s imposition of regulations are illegal, in that — among other things — they fail to consider Magnuson-Stevens Act provisions requiring consideration of their economic impact on fishing communities and that they are not based on “the best available science.”
And provisions in the new state budget proposal, now before reconciliation talks among House and Senate lawmakers, aim to address fishery science issues. Those include what’s called the Gloucester Genomics Initiative — an effort to identify and sequence the genetic code of groundfish such as cod, and experimentation in the use of sonar technology to provide real time supplemental data on the size and location of stocks in the Northwest Atlantic.
State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante say sonar efforts, particularly, could complement NOAA’s method of scientific trawling – which was begun in the 1960s, according to Jud Crawford, a scientist who has participated in the stock assessments NOAA uses. But Tarr notes that NOAA has been “myopic” and resistant to suggestions from people in the industry.
“Instead they’ve insisted that there be some sort of a day of reckoning for the fishing industry, almost as if their mission is to punish the people that harvest fish,” said Tarr, who, along with other officials, has long urged that rank-and-file fishermen be allowed a role in carrying out stock assessment trawls and other research.
Crawford, however, stands by the NOAA assessments.
A fishing science and policy leader for The Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Initiatives, Crawford says overfishing, including foreign factory ships that are now barred from within 200 miles of the coast, could have so pummeled the codfish and other groundfish that they may have been knocked off their place in the food chain.
“The fishermen are in trouble because there aren’t enough fish and everyone feels badly about that, myself included,” Crawford told the News Service last week. “We need to decide, do we want to have fish and fisheries in the future or not? And if we do, then we need to start facing up to some hard choices that we have to make, and these hard choices are forced on us because of decisions that we made before.”
“When you take your foot off the gas pedal of the fishing, you hope and expect that, ‘Well things are going to come back to what they were,’ but they might not,” Crawford said. With ocean temperatures rising because of climate change, the fish off the Massachusetts coast are in an even more fragile state, Crawford said, and Massachusetts waters are about the southernmost limit for cod.
None of that gives fishermen any short-term help.
“If this stands right now, we’re all out of business,” Orlando, 58, told the State House News Service shortly after heading out at 2:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday. He said, “We’re gonna lose an industry that’s been around forever.”
A Gloucester fisherman since he graduated from high school, Orlando said he knows no other line of work, and now he worries about his future and that of his son, who has a wife, three children and a new house with a mortgage. With the high cost of boat upkeep, there is another concern if the industry goes under.
Two times during their Saturday trip, Joe and Mario Orlando hauled up the net from 50 or 60 fathoms below, and spilled a heaping, flopping, gasping pile of fish on the deck. Large, gray wolf fish – which Crawford said are better equipped to survive the rapid journey from sea floor to sea level – gnashed their teeth before being tossed overboard.
About a third of the time, a federal observer will accompany the father-son team on the water, ensuring regulatory compliance and taking scientific measures. On Saturday, Ashley Traverse-Taylor, a fisheries observer, sat on the deck removing the ear bone of a flatfish – which can indicate their age – as the slop of gutted monkfish washed past her and into the water. Fish that are too small are weighed and subtracted from Orlando’s annual catch limit before they are dumped overboard and gobbled up by gulls that follow the boat while it’s fishing.
Orlando measured a gutted cod, and then tossed it to Traverse-Taylor.
“I’ve got to give it to her,” he said. “She marks it down and it comes off my quota. Quarter of an inch. Perfectly good fish.”
Orlando’s cod quota was cut from 80,000 pounds in 2012 to 16,000 pounds this year, and he had attempted to avoid them Saturday in favor of the flatfish.
Orlando calls the on-board computer that NOAA uses to monitor his travel “big brother,” and off the coast in the hot sun, the two-way radio the skippers use crackles in Italian and in English denunciations of the federal agency that they need to ask 48 hours in advance for permission to head out.
“They gave us no fish, and we’re going to catch them anyway,” one voice said in the morning.
But Tarr and others have noted the fishing crisis extends beyond the boats and the piers of Gloucester, New Bedford and elsewhere.
He said the grave state of affairs is best exemplified by Gloucester’s Cape Pond Ice, a crucial and longstanding piece of Gloucester’s marine industrial shore infrastructure — and one for which owner Scott Memhard has put the land up for sale.
“If you don’t have fish coming over the wharf, you don’t have an ice house. And if you don’t have an ice house, you don’t have a fishery,” Tarr said.
“When the ice house is for sale; when crews are being laid off; when people are having to find other jobs because they can’t support themselves in fishing,” he said, “a whole skill set and a whole infrastructure is about to be lost.”