Spaniards visit Gloucester to talk fishing

SEAN HORGAN/Staff photoTalking about fishing industry problems common to Gloucester and Spain are, from left, Antonio Basanta Fernandez, cabinet chief of Galicia's Department of Sea; fisherman Al Cottone, director of the Gloucester Fisheries Commission; Begona Nieto Gilate, the Spanish Embassy's Councilor of Agriculture, Fish and Food for the United States and Canada; lobsterman Mark Ring, chairman of the Gloucester Fisheries Commission; and Mercedes Rodriguez Moreda, director general of fishing, aquaculture and technical innovation in Galicia's Department of Sea.

Antonio Basanta Fernandez and Mercedes Rodriguez Moreda had completed their tasks at the Seafood Expo North America in Boston and were scheduled to first fly to New York and Ottawa for meetings before returning home to the Spanish region of Galicia.

But before they boarded the flight to New York on Tuesday night, the two executives of the Department of the Sea within the regional government of Galicia had an important stop:

They wanted to come to Gloucester and talk fishing.

“We know that Gloucester is one of the most important ports in northeast America,” Basanta Fernandez said Tuesday during an afternoon meeting at Gloucester City Hall with Fisheries Commission Chairman Mark Ring and commission director Al Cottone. “We think we share a lot of interests and there are a lot of similarities between our regions.”

In the past five years, the city of Gloucester has made something of a cottage industry of inviting foreign delegations of fishermen, seafood buyers and other executives to Gloucester to tour the city’s waterfront and fishing industry infrastructure.

Those connections often were forged at events such as the massively international Seafood Expo North America, which closed out its three-day run Tuesday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. They were timed so the delegations could hit Gloucester while already in the region.

But this visit was different. This visit came out of the blue.

“I got the call from someone with the Spanish embassy on Monday, right after we finished the reception at the Seafood Expo,” Ring said. “They wanted to visit, so we said sure, come on up.”

For 90 minutes, the Galicians and Gloucesterians sat around a table in a first-floor conference room at City Hall. It was quickly apparent that Basanta Fernandez was right. The two fishing communities share similar histories and traditions — in Galicia, as in Gloucester, the business is dominated by families — as well as similar problems and challenges.

Both communities operate under the yoke of strict regulation, though clearly Spain’s membership in the 28-member European Union makes for a much more complicated regulatory landscape.

Both have problems with quotas; more specifically, reductions in the amount of fish they can catch. And they both suffer with the science used to set fishing limits, with each sharing their tales of disconnects between what fishermen see on the water and what regulators see on paper.

“If fishermen see the cod, they’re not real,” Cottone said. “It’s only real when (regulators) see them on paper.”

“Si, si, exactly the same,” Basanta Fernandez said, laughing.

Cottone described the effective shuttering of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery with a series of cuts that have stripped the Gloucester dayboat fleet of any cod quota beyond enough to cover bycatch. Basanta Fernandez described a 90 percent cut in blue whiting quotas imposed upon the Galician fleets.

The issue that bonded them most closely, however, is the demise of the traditional pipeline for supplying crews aboard fishing vessels, as economic conditions and massive exiles from the industry have left captains scrambling to find reliable crews.

“From the late 1990s until now, we’ve lost a whole generation of crews,” Cottone said. “Once I age out in 10 or 15 years, there’s no one behind me.”

Basanta Fernandez said the same problem exists in Spain, even when unemployment is high. That leaves captains and vessel operators to mine a shrinking pool of qualified crew, often from cadres of foreign nationals.

“We need people, but people are not interested in joining crews,” he said. “We have lots of skippers. We have lots of mechanics and engineers. People now are joining businesses on land. They don’t want to go to sea.”

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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