More than half of New England's groundfish fleet has stayed at dock this season, citing the new catch shares management system as the reason and sparking a heated political battle. (Heather Goldstone/WGBH)
BOSTON — The New England fishing industry continues to experience growing pains. For some fishing families, however, it is more like convulsions. This time last year, in an effort to sustain and replenish ground fish stocks, the national marine Fisheries Service implemented a new regulatory system called sectors.
Sectors are essentially cooperatives that pool together fishing rights based on histories of members. Marine scientists and some fishermen viewed sectors as a step above the previous system, which set limits on the days that professional anglers could be at sea.
Last Friday, we spoke with a longtime Harwich fisherman Eric Hesse, who had an overall favorable view of the new rules. "I have been able to fish in a way that is more effective for my business than under days at sea. I've been able to market my fish more effectively, choose my fishing locations and actually which species I target."
But another fisherman, Tim Barrett, views it differently. Barrett has also been fishing since the mid-1980's out of Plymouth. He spoke to WGBH's Bob Seay about the problems he says sectors are causing for his work. "The sectors from my aspect have essentially elimiated all my commercial groundfishing for the winter. I've lost about 60 percent of my gross income, due to the fact that I've been given a low allocation."
Click the player above to listen to Barrett's full interview.
Now travels to California, which has the most ambitious clean energy plan in the nation. But the state's efforts face stiff opposition from property owners and conservationists who prefer renewable energy from "local sources," such as photovoltaic rooftop solar panels.
Part Four: Rough Waters
Rachel Gotbaum profiles the historic fishing village of Port Clyde Maine--one of only three commercial groundfishing ports left in the state and where a group of fishermen are determined to save their fishery by trying some unorthodox ways of doing business.
It’s another summer night on the terrace of Slip 14 here in Nantucket and the working class is literally rubbing shoulders with the super wealthy. Conversations in the background are about yachts, Obama and Lady Gaga. But fishermen, Ed and Tim Barrett, are talking with friends above the din about the state of fishing. They’re speaking to the converted. The Barretts dock in Nantucket because the fishermen of Plymouth—from where they used to launch—have disappeared altogether.
Brother fishermen Tim and Ed Barrett. Photo: Phillip Martin
Slip 14 Restaurant Owner Jonas Baker scratches his head trying to recall where he first met the Barrett brothers. “Eddie and Timmie? It had to be over a beer somewhere…” he recalls. He says the Barretts keep his restaurant stocked with fresh fish, but that the same federal restrictions on them are also affecting his business. “They’re trying to meet a quota and usually their quota is caught by the end of our season,” explains Baker. “So when they start fishing for fluke, we got fluke straight through, but once that quota shuts down, than the fish have got to come from somewhere and think that’s where the whole dilemma is coming with everything.”
Four hours after Slip 14 closes for the night, the Barretts are starting their day. Older brother Ed has bought into the sector system that allows him to catch a certain allotment of fish. Tim has too few catch-share or quota to qualify, so he works for his brother as part of a family venture. But Ed—who has fished for 30 years— is not hopeful about the future. “Honestly, it gets me very depressed these days thinking about the future,” he admits. “And I know a lot of other people, especially from the South Shore feel the same way. We’ve all lost access in terms of catch share allocation and I’m worried that we’re not going to get that back.”
The cloud-streaked sun has barely made its way over the horizon when they push off from the city owned pier and head out into the open water. Ed is aboard the Sirius. Tim commands the Odessa. Hours later Tim surveys a Sonar screen streaked in blue and red markings, which designate fish in this area. He Barrett pulls a lever and heavy steel doors on both sides of the boat lift and then disappear beneath the surface dragging a heavy mesh behind the boat. “Sometimes you catch more fish than you thought you’d catch,” notes Tim. “The nets are designed to release the smaller undersized fish. Even the smaller illegal fish tend to get through the nets so we don’t have a lot of by catch.”
Wife and husband Kirsten and Reidar Bendiksen run Reidar’s Manufacturing, a small commercial fishing gear store in New Bedford. The store also serves as a place for fishermen to stop and talk shop while they wait for their order. Photo: Phillip Martin
Reidar Bendiksen of New Bedford fished for 30 years before he and his wife Kirsten opened an off-shore business that’s specializes in quality netting for fishermen—including the Barrett brothers by the way. But Kirsten Bendiksen says they are seeing a lot fewer customers these days and she blames what she calls over-regulation of the fishing industry. “If they were allowed to fish then they would be making more money,” she observes. “They’d be fishing up their boats, they’d be spending more money on the economy, they’d be paying off their bills here and we wouldn’t be carrying bills month after month after month after month for a lot of our customers. It’s a domino effect."
“It’s useless,” says Kirsten’s son Tor on the amount of wasted netting. “The government didn’t take into effect the fact that we might have $100,000 dollars we have right now that we have to use up before we can go to the new size.
The Northeast fishing fleet has shrunk from a high of 1200 boats in the 1980’s to slightly more than 800 today. Of these, about 200 are responsible for about 90 percent of the total catch. US Senators representing New England and New York have asked President Obama to provide $50 million dollars in direct economic assistance to Northeast fishermen and $100 million in emergency aid for a voluntary groundfish permit buyback plan. John Sackton, the editor of Seafood News, thinks it’s a good idea, “bbecause that can help a guy stay in business.” According to Sackton, “if, let’s say, 10 to 12 percent of his revenue is going to come from ground fish, he can’t afford to go out and compete with a big boat to actually buy additional permits. But he could go to his local permit bank and say I want you to lease me enough catch quota so I can maintain my vessel in this harbor. I think that has been largely ignored in the design of the New England catch share program. And I think it’s really time that this be taken a look at.”
Congressman Barney Frank, representing New Bedford and Fairhaven, describes himself as “very much interested” in protecting the environment, “As are the fishermen.” “These are a people who have more of an interest in keep the supply of fish than anyone else,” Frank points out. “And we should understand they are the most regulated workers that I know about what they can catch, where they can catch it, and how many days they can fish. But I think you have had a bias frankly in the regulatory structure that has always erred on the side of too little fish.”
Frank recently rescinded his call for Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to be fired at the request of the Obama Administration. He says the option is still on the table. But NOAA administrators and policy makers say they are merely trying to balance the need to preserve fish stocks with the livelihoods of fishing families. “If it were easy to balance it would be done by now,” says Tom Warren, a policy analyst with NOAA’s Northeast Regional Office in Gloucester. “You're trying to balance both preserving Mother Nature, which is highly complex and dynamic, and preserving somebody's livelihood. And the fishing business is also highly complex and dynamic.
Fisherman Tim Barrett does not disagree on the larger point. “We have about a 90 percent retention rate on our targeted species,” he says. “Your livelihood depends on the health of the eco-system out here.”
It’s mid-day and he’s heading back to port in Nantucket. Several yachts pass by. On one 40-foot vessel, a man with a drink in his hand waves and a woman in a bikini looks skyward toward the noontime sun. Barrett figures he’s brought in about $900 dollars in scup and flounder today after seven hours at sea. Altogether, it’s a good haul. But he looks worried as he looks for a slip to dock his weather beaten boat
“We’ve lost a fair amount of working waterfront to marinas, condominiums, gentrification of the waterfront property,” he explains, taking a weighty pause. “We find ourselves being displaced into smaller and smaller working areas in each harbor.”
Tim Barrett says the same point can be made about the state of fishing communities throughout New England. Attention now shifts to Washington, where regional politicians from both parties are trying to pry money from a deficit-weary administration, and to modify ocean conservation rules that many fear may have gone too far.
Rough Waters: The Ongoing Fight Over Regulating New England Fisheries" is a multi-part series produced by 89.7 WGBH Radio.
Phillip Martin – senior investigative reporter
Rachel Gotbaum – reporter
Steve Young – editor and executive producer
Katie Broida – photographer and researcher
Nic Campos – researcher
Jane Pipik - engineer
About the Authors
Bob Seay Bob Seay is the host of NPR's Morning Edition on 89.7FM WGBH Radio. He got his start in radio during college at WMUH, got involved with WGBH TV while in graduate school at Boston University and formerly hosted ME at WRNI in Rhode Island. Heather Goldstone Heather Goldstone is the science editor at WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR Station. She holds a Ph.D. in ocean science from M.I.T. and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and spent a decade as an active researcher before leaving the lab to become a writer. In her nine years with the Cape and Islands NPR Station, Goldstone has reported on Woods Hole’s unique scientific community and key environmental issues on Cape Cod. Her reporting has appeared in venues ranging from NPR and PBS News Hour, to Cape Cod Times and Commercial Fishery News. Most recently, Goldstone hosted the blog Climatide – an exploration of how climate change is impacting coastal life in the region.
Phillip Martin Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at liftedveils.org.