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
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
“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