GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 25, 2013

Fishing crisis' collateral damage

Fishing crisis devastating crews, families, too

By Sean Horgan
Staff Writer

---- — They don’t know what to do. It’s as simple as that.

The rumble they hear, louder by the moment, is their world collapsing around them and Everett and Jenice Sawyer simply don’t know what to do.

Everett, 42, will leave on Thursday, heading out to fish aboard the offshore dragger F/V Sammy Jo out of Boston, out to Georges Bank, looking to land pollock.

That will leave 46-year-old Jenice, slowed by a series of health problems, to pack up the remainder of their stuff from their Commonwealth Avenue apartment, from which they’ve been evicted for owing about $5,500 in back rent, and . . . then what?

“I don’t know,” Jenice said. “Probably pitch a tent.”

In so many ways, the Sawyers are the untold story of the commercial fishing disaster that has ravaged the piers of Gloucester and beyond.

The headline players are familiar enough in this passion play. There is NOAA and its National Marine Fisheries Service, along with environmentalists, in one corner; the boat owners and commercial fishing trade groups in another.

Caught between the antagonists — and there really is no other word for it — are those simply looking to make their living on the boats as crew members, folks with nothing more than sweat equity, a stake in the catch and a curiously tenacious grip on jobs that slowly are sinking away.

The crews of Gloucester’s fishing fleet have undergone their own sea change. A large segment of the city’s veteran crew have retired. Many of the younger hands have sought other opportunities in the face of increasing layoffs and dwindling pay.

“I don’t know a boat captain in Gloucester who hasn’t laid off crew,” said longtime fisherman Joe Orlando, captain of the Padre Pio.

It’s become a familiar refrain and no one is immune. Orlando had to lay off his own son; Joe Randazzo, captain of F/V Razzo, had to lay off his brother-in-law.

All along the waterfront, most of the city’s traditional commercial fleet sits idle. Some of the boats still heading out are manned by captains fishing alone, such as Randazzo. Some head out with short-handed crews because their meager catches can’t justify the extra hand or no one wants to work for short money.

“The problem for me is getting a steady third man who shows up sober, willing to go to work and for not much money,” said Russell Sherman, captain of the 72-foot F/V Lady Jane. “The money is really down. We work two weeks now for one week’s pay.”

It almost always comes back to the money — or a lack thereof — that commercial fishing now pays those at the sharp end of the hook.

“I’ve been fishing for 24 years, started right out of high school,” Everett Sawyer said. “I’ve never seen it this bad. We’re going out again Thursday, but we can’t find a pollock. That means I don’t get paid.”

On this day, Sawyer is sitting in a Gloucester doughnut shop, a son of Gloucester. His hands are the hands of a fisherman, rough and strong when he shakes yours. A Bruins hat sits atop his head.

He talks about the days when he could make $2,000-$3,000 crewing on a 10-day trip. It was not so long ago, though it seems much longer. It started to turn in 2011; now he feels as if he’s fishing in a desert.

Jenice, also a Gloucester native, shows his pay stubs from his last four trips out. One is for $421.70, another for $286.05.Two were for $308 and change, and though one actually was for $500, he had to pay back a $200 advance.

“We’re paid by how much we catch,” he said. “We’re catching nothing.”

Now homelessness is staring them in the face. Their landlord, Kate Stanton, a retired teacher from Belmont, has carried them as far as she’s able. But she is in business, too.

“They’ve been in trouble since last year,” Stanton said. “Everett’s a good guy. That’s why I worked with them. They always paid me what they could.”

“I can’t say anything bad about her,” Everett said. “She’s been very lenient with us. I know I’m hurting her.”

In a way, landlords such as Stanton are another subset of the collateral damage from the fishing disaster.

“It’s really a circle of tragedy,” said Neil Rossman, a Peabody lawyer who lends assistance to fishermen — including Sawyer — who find themselves in dire economic straits.

Everett hears all the talk of financial assistance, of grants and loans and Saltonstall-Kennedy and Magnuson Stevens and wonders what exactly is all this noise?

“I’m just fed up to here with the way things are going,” Everett said. “There’s absolutely no federal funds and no funds from the state to help fishermen and their families. Any money coming in is going to the boat owners, and most of that is going to gear modifications.

“It’s not going to the crew.”

The Sawyers say they’ve exhausted whatever assistance their families could provide. They say they’ve applied for and been denied subsidized housing and food stamps.

“I make too much money, they said,” Everett said, not unaware of the irony.

They’ve contacted state and local elected officials in search of public assistance.

“(Senate Minority Leader) Bruce Tarr has tried to help, putting us in touch with Action Inc.” he said of the Cape Ann human services agency that helps people with community housing and other assistance.

Tarr said Tuesday his office has heard from many fishermen and fishing families in the same financial predicament as the Sawyers.

“They’re in a desperate situation, with the combination of losing the domestic harvesting capacity and the hardships throughout the industry,” Tarr said. “We first try to help with their immediate needs, housing or whatever it might be.”

They Sawyers have been offered rental assistance from other not-for-profits, such as the Gloucester-based Shaw Fund for Mariners Children, but currently have been unable to find a place they can afford and will accept their two cats.

Their cable television and landline phone have been cut off for nonpayment.

“We haven’t had a car for three years,” Everett said.

“Longer than that,” Jenice said.

Jenice has been unable to find part-time work, she said, because of her age, the economy and her health concerns. She said she suffers from cardiac problems, COPD, chronic back problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The ordeal has wrapped its cold fingers around Everett psyche, as well. In February, after long stretches of sleeplessness and depression, he said he attempted suicide by downing handfuls of Jenice’s medication and chasing them with a half of a fifth of bourbon.

Jenice found him, called 911 and he survived. That led to a week’s stay in Bay Ridge psychiatric hospital in Lynn.

“A doctor there said I have anger issues,” Everett said.

He said he understands now that suicide was not the answer and that his current medications have evened things out for him, even if he’s cut his dosage in half so he isn’t drowsy while working.

Everett heads back to sea on Thursday, in search of the elusive fish and a larger paycheck. He shrugs when asked where he will live when he returns.

He, too, mentions a tent.

Sean Horgan can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at shorgan@gloucestertimes.com.