Commercial fishing boats in Gloucester, MA. Fishermen here are under new federal regulations known as sectors. Photo: WGBH
On May 1st, New England’s fishermen faced a major overhaul in federal regulations. To comply with a congressional mandate to restore US fish stocks to sustainable levels by 2014, quotas were set in New England for the first time on all species of groundfish. For many of the region’s fishermen who have witnessed the downsizing of the fishing fleet and who have already endured federal cutbacks on fishing over the years, the new system is another attempt by the government to put them out of business. However, supporters say these new rules may be the only chance for the region’s embattled and historic fishing industry to survive.
At the Rocky Neck pier in Gloucester, a fishing boat called the Captain Novello has come to shore to unload silver hake. Sam Frontiero comes to greet his son Marc, the boat’s captain. Frontiero is 63 years old and grew up in Gloucester. He began fishing here when he was 13 years old because that is what his father and grandfather did. Frontiero remembers that "[his] grandfather had a string of boats. There were eight brothers and seven sisters, and every one of those brothers was a skipper or an engineer. It was just watching him. It was just a family thing."
Sam Frontiero says for much of his life Gloucester was a boomtown.Back then, “anybody could go down to the wharf and get a fish. The coffee shops were full, main street was full. They used to say Gloucester-ites didn’t even have to go over the bridge, which we didn’t. If you came from Gloucester, you never had to over the 128 bridge because we had everything here. It was just a good time in life to be a fisherman." Later, as fishing became subject to more regulations, Frontiero says he started to feel like a criminal.
At first the government closed certain prime fishing areas and began to restrict the size of fishing nets, then, says Frontiero, the coast guard began inspecting boats. Frontiero remembers that "there was young kid coming down from the coast guard carrier with a rifle telling us all to get up on deck. They were looking for drugs, they were looking for illegal mesh size. It’s crazy." A little over ten years ago Frontiero left fishing entirely because he says the regulations became too oppressive and it became harder to make a living.
Across town is City Hall, an old brick building not far from Gloucester's harbor. Carolyn Kirk is the city's mayor, and she says that since the mid-1990s, Gloucester has lost 70 percent of its fishing fleet. “Gloucester fishermen have been fishing out of this seaport for over 400 years and that is significant." She explains, "It's part of the DNA of the community, so to see the fleet shrink by that magnitude really altered the landscape of the city in many ways."
A new fishing regulatory system called Days at Sea was put in place. It reduced the number of calendar days fishermen could fish and imposed daily limits on threatened stocks. The goal was to help the region’s overfished species make a rebound.
The problem was those rebuilding goals came at a cost. "The damage done by Days at Sea can never be undone," says Peter Baker of the Pew Environment Group. He believes, "Days at Sea was a stunning failure. We saw participation in the fishery drop by more than 50 percent. We saw revenues drop by more than 50 percent, and we saw whole scale communities that were taken out of the fishery."
Under Days at Sea, fishermen were fined if they brought in fish beyond their daily limit. This meant that if the fishermen caught too much of the threatened stocks, they would often throw the excess fish overboard. This was called fish-and-pitch, says Baker, "You heard fishermen say it for years that the system was forcing them to pitch perfectly good fish overboard, and not a just a few fish, but sometimes thousands and thousands of pounds being thrown overboard dead."
This year federal officials put in place a new regulation system reflecting stricter mandates from Congress calling for all US fish stocks to be sustainable by 2014. Under the new system, groundfish fishermen in New England have formed fishing cooperative called sectors. Each sector is allocated a total yearly quota for each species. Within each sector a fishermen has his own quota, which he can sell or trade.
Peter Baker used to fish on cape cod, which is where he helped create the first sectors that are now the model for New England. He says, "with a sector they know how much fish they are going to catch of each species within a given year. They are working within a cooperative, so if they need to buy, sell, trade, within their cooperative…they can get the opportunity to catch the fish that is available to them. They can work on economies of scale if they want to, and it creates a lot more flexibility for their business while staying in the limits."
New Bedford fisherman Antonio Pereira in front of his boat the Blue Seas II. Photo: WGBH
A lot of fishermen in Gloucester and New Bedford don't share that view. Many have stopped fishing under the new rules because they say they don’t have enough allocated fish. At the New Bedford Pier, Antonio Pereira is standing in front of his boat the Blue Seas Two. Pereira came here from Portugal 34 years ago. He says because of the new fishing regulations, he had to sell his quota and tie up his boat. He explains that "when the rules went into effect on May 1, I see there is no way to make a living on a boat going fishing for the catch they allowed me. It was not enough to keep this boat running, … so I tied it up." Pereira says he cannot afford to buy any more quota and even if he could afford it, it's hard to find anyone willing to sell the species in highest demand.
"We do worry that where we are today is the end of the line for the Gloucester fishermen," says mayor Carolyn Kirk. She and the mayor of New Bedford are suing the federal government to try put a halt to the new fishing regulations in New England. They say the allocations are too low and the system has been improperly implemented. Mayor Kirk says, "It just doesn't make sense to me that we would have national policies that leads to the erosion of our coastal communities. We're taking the battle to the White House. We're not going to stop until we have president Obama's attention on this."
Some fishermen say they are doing better under sectors than they did with the Days at Sea system. Peter Libro fishes in Gloucester. He says under sectors he is getting paid more for his fish and the new rules are more flexible and more economical. He can now catch more fish per trip. He explains, "it has made us more efficient because under the Days at Sea trip limits you could go out and catch 800 pounds of fish and that was it, but it would cost $200 worth of fuel. Now with the same $200 worth of fuel, you can catch 2,000 pounds."
Supporter of sectors say it has worked in other parts of the country. John Sackton is editor of Seafood News, and he points out that "if you look at salmon, for example, in Alaska, one of the first things they put in their state constitution was to put strict limits on salmon fishing. Today, they have the biggest salmon runs that they’ve had in a hundred years." However, even fans of the new regulations say they could lead to the further demise of the small boat fishing fleet unless protections are put in place.
Gloucester fisherman Peter Libro worries about his future, but he says he is going to try to hang on. He explains, "the reason I am optimistic is because I think the stocks are going to get better and stronger in this system. I think it will be tough for a few years, but I think once things get stronger our allocation will come up. I think it will be more viable again to be a fisherman." While Libro and other New England fishermen try to adapt to their new way of life, Massachusetts lawmakers have asked the Obama administration for $150 million in immediate aid to help those fishermen hurt by the new regulations.
Part One | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five
"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 – researcher
Nic Campos – researcher
Alan Mattes - engineer
Subscribe to WGBH Science Emails