New England's Fishermen Face a Challenge in Every Direction

Jul 8, 2013

These are challenging times for New England’s fisheries: there’s a history of overfishing to overcome; climate change is impacting habitat; many fishermen don’t trust the science which attempts to quantify the fish stocks; and government regulators, who rely on the science, are hard-pressed to chart a path forward to a sustainable fishery.

Today WCAI is launching a 10-part series called “The Long Haul: The Future of New England’s Fisheries.” We’ll examine how the fisheries came to their difficult predicament. And we’ll also focus on the stories of people working to improve the future of the fisheries. In part one, WCAI’s Steve Junker looks at where we are now, and what it says about where we might be headed.

The 90-foot dragger Buzzards Bay in New Bedford harbor, preparing for a seven-day fishing cruise on George's Bank.
Credit Steve Junker / WCAI

The moment of departure brings uncertainty into sharp focus.

On a Monday morning in New Bedford harbor, the 90-foot dragger Buzzards Bay was at the dock preparing for its next fishing trip. Ice rattled through a delivery chute passing into the ship’s hold. Captain-owner Alex Smith looked over the deck where his three-man crew was repairing the nets, and he considered aloud the many challenges he faced as a commercial fisherman. Money was always tight, and he had been making hard choices.

“We used to always go five men," he said. "But there’s not enough money to pay five guys.  You try to cut back as much as you can in any department you can.”

Smith is 42. His father was a New Bedford fishing captain before him. The business, he said, is harder now than it ever was. “A serious problem now," he said, "is our expenses are so high – half of our trip is in fuel. Eight days cost us $21,000 last trip just for fuel.”

And it’s become much more difficult, he said, to find the fish. "20,000 pounds is a good trip nowadays. Used to be 40, 50 thousand pounds would be a good trip for a boat this size.”

With the ice loaded, Smith powered up the ship's engine. Crew members called to each other as the lines were cast off and the Buzzards Bay eased away from the bulkhead. Smith planned a seven-day trip on George’s Bank, dragging for groundfish.

He had agreed to call me on the return end, when he was six hours away from port, so I could meet him as he landed and learn the outcome of his trip. He wasn't sure precisely when that would be, of course. It all depended on the fish.

The Regulatory Seascape

The future Alex Smith used to picture – fishing from his own boat as part of the New Bedford fleet – seems more and more uncertain. He wants a healthy, sustainable fishery. That’s the aim of fishery managers, too. The big question is, how to get there from here? And if it takes years to achieve, can the local fishing industry survive to benefit?

Groundfish, the catch sought by the Buzzards Bay, is a broad term for many bottom-dwelling fish, including fourteen different regulated species. The Big Three of groundfish, the fish most sought after, are cod, haddock, and yellow-tail flounder. These are the iconic species of New England’s historic fishery, and some of the fish most severely restricted by regulations.

Preparing for a week of fishing, the crew of the Buzzards Bay goes over the nets, making repairs.
Credit Steve Junker / WCAI

You can’t talk about commercial fishing without talking about regulations. They are a source of unending contention: scientific, political, and cultural. This past spring, in the same week, the federal fishery regulatory agency was sued from both sides; by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley for imposing overly harsh groundfish regulations based on what she called "flawed science," and by two environmental groups claiming that measures intended to ease the impact of drastic cuts in the cod catch went too far in favor of fishermen. The opposing intentions of the lawsuits epitomized the polarization of the camps.

Broad-scale fishery management from the mid-1990s was based on a system called “Days at Sea,” which tried to protect the fish by limiting a fisherman’s number of trips and daily catch. Three years ago, this was exchanged for a new system that grouped fishermen into voluntary cooperatives called sectors. That’s where we are now.

Each sector receives a portion of the annual allowable catch and decides for itself how to fish it. Shares of the portion – fish not yet caught – can be bought and sold. It’s called quota. Quota is the coin of the realm for groundfish. It's a commodity. And it has a value not just to regulators and fishermen.    

The Third Parties

Advocacy groups are also interested in groundfish quota. Chris McGuire works for the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit increasingly active in the effort to develop sustainable fisheries. We met one morning at a commercial fishing pier, to discuss the group's work. The Conservancy, he takes pains to point out, is not anti-fishing. "We're anti-overfishing," he said, making the distinction. Still, it's not always easy to convince fishermen. “When you enter the room and say ‘I’m from an environmental group and I’m here to help’—you know, that doesn’t really go over that well.”

For several years the Conservancy has been buying groundfish quota, then making it available to fishermen – with a few conditions attached.

“We’re leasing quota out at cents-on-the-dollar to fishermen who are willing to experiment," McGuire explained. "We're also leasing out quota at cents-on-the-dollar to fishermen who are participating in cooperative research projects.”

The Conservancy wants fishermen to use smarter gear, like dragger nets that more effectively target healthy species while avoiding depleted stocks. “Our goal is to get fishermen involved in working to a solution. So we want to support the guys who are interested in finding cleaner ways to fish, where they’re catching more of a healthy target species and less unwanted bycatch  - which I think all fishermen want to do, but experimenting is expensive and a little bit risky.”

He calls it a market-based incentive for smarter fishing.  

The Nature Conservancy also pushes for improved data collection-and-management, to help scientists and fishermen better understand that state of the stocks. It's a unifying proposition, as even the most polarized factions in the fishery can agree on one thing: better information is needed about how the fish are doing.

The Electronic Observer

One of the information-gathering systems the Nature Conservancy has partnered with fishermen to test is called Electronic Monitoring. 

Currently, 22% of commercial fishing trips must carry a government observer. Observers record everything fishermen catch and throw back into the sea - the discard. This information is critical in the efforts of scientists to understand fish populations.

At the Fisheries Observer Training Center, in Falmouth, I met with Glenn Chamberlain, who works for the Fisheries on the Electronic Monitoring Pilot Study. In a nearby room new observers were being trained at fish identification procedure. We could hear their voices, even as Chamberlain showed me an array of computer equipment and cameras that might ultimately replace humans observers. He explained that the system, when mounted on a boat, is meant to collect weight data and length estimates on fish, as well as record fishing activity and discard.

Glenn Chamberlain demonstrates a sensor that registers a reflector to be mounted on a fishing boat's hauling equipment, part of the Electronic Monitoring system.
Credit Steve Junker / WCAI

Basically, it’s a sophisticated surveillance system. Cameras mounted over the deck capture information that is stored digitally. Back on land, when the fishing is done, a portion of the digital record is audited against the boat captain's self-report of the catch. The system has been used in Canada for years, and is now being pilot-tested in the Northeast.

To find out how fishermen felt about working under an all-seeing electronic eye, I tracked down Greg Walinski, a small-boat captain participating in the pilot study. “I’m one of two fishermen down here on the Cape that have the cameras on the boat,” he told me. He said Electronic Monitoring is a good technology to apply to the fishery – cameras don’t get in the way, and the system is cheaper than paying for an on-board human observer.

“I’ve had the camera on for 2 years and it records everything," he said. "An observer gets seasick. There are a lot of reasons why things don’t get done on a trip... but the camera’s just always running.”

Alternative Fishing Solutions

Even with advances in gear technology and data collection, Walinski was pessimistic about groundfish.

Walinski's boat is 35 feet, and he fishes a tubtrawl - a long line of baited hooks that sits on the bottom, targeting cod and haddock. He said recent steep cuts in the allowable groundfish catch won’t make much difference; while the big draggers can still scrape up a catch, for small-boat fishermen like him, he says, groundfish are essentially gone.

“I could get quota to go fishing," he said. "There’s quota available for me. But there’s just no fish to catch.”

He’s advocating a switch from depleted groundfish to a species formerly considered a trash species: dogfish. He says there are plenty of dogfish, all it lacks is a domestic market – meaning, locals who want to eat it. With education and outreach that could change, he says, and dogfish could save the small-boat fishery.

“If you want to eat a fresh, day-boat caught fish, that’s what’s left," he said. "There really isn’t any place I can go, that I know of, in New England waters where you can load up on cod and haddock any more.”

The Fisherman Returns

Nine days after setting out for fishing on George's Bank, Alex Smith called to say he was motoring homeward. Shortly before midnight the Buzzards Bay arrived in New Bedford harbor and tied up at the dock of the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction to unload for the next day's auction.

A large bucket container traveled a zipline powered by an electric winch. At a signal from a man on deck, the bucket was lowered into the ship's hold, where a crew member loaded it with fish. The brimming-full bucket was then hoisted and swung to the building's overhead loading bay, where another crew member dumped the fish into an icewater bath that fed a sorting machine. It was arduous, messy work - just like fishing. 

Before going out, Alex Smith had said that twenty thousand pounds would make a good trip. He had come back with just short of that figure: about 19,400 pounds. But to get to that amount, he stayed out two extra days. The first week on the Bank, he said, was a hard one, they didn't catch much. The two extra days made all the difference.

But the extra days also added a lot of extra cost. The boat burns $2500 in fuel each day of fishing. And even with near twenty-thousand pounds in his hold, he hadn’t caught as much top-dollar fish, cod and haddock, as he hoped. As he watched the fish drop down the conveyer onto the sorting table, he remembered better days back in the 1980s, when boats lined up to unload their catch.  

“You used to actually be excited and proud, right about at this time, thinking you made an achievement,"  he said. "Now, every trip... it just kind of takes the wind out of your sails.”

Exhausted and still working at two a.m., the men didn’t yet know how much they had earned for fishing round-the-clock the past 9 days, plus the day they spent getting the boat ready. The payoff was contingent on tomorrow’s auction, when buyers would decide the value of the fish they caught.

The Diminishing Tally

Alex Smith sounded tired when I got him on the phone the day after the auction. Each of his crew, he said, had earned from the trip $1,500, before taxes.   

He was philosophical. He said the main thing was, the trip didn’t actually end up costing money, which can happen. 

“We probably would have done okay if the trip didn’t take so long and cost so much in fuel,” he told me. He mentioned the pile of debts outstanding on his boat and equipment, which this trip had done nothing to pay down. 

He and his crew were headed back to George’s Bank for another week of fishing in two days.

The science says the groundfish are rebuilding, and will continue to rebuild, even as well-regulated fishing continues. But the stocks are rebuilding slowly. Alex Smith just wants to be here, doing what he loves, when better fishing returns.

WATCH: Below is a short video of the Buzzards Bay unloading just one bucket of its 19,400 lbs of catch - a sample of the noisy, hard work involved in New Bedford's commercial fishery.

Listen to and explore all our WCAI radio reports for The Long Haul:

Part 1: New England's Fishermen Face a Challenge in Every Direction

Part 2: Cooperative Research Improves Fishery Science and Relationships

Part 3: Dwindling Baitfish Stocks Worry Fishermen and Regulators

Part 4: Protected Seals Raise Many Questions

Part 5: Combatting the Sea of Debris 

Part 6:  Not Just Fun, Recreational Fishing a Big Business for Massachusetts

Part 7:  Investigating Fish Contamination Leads to Questions About Genetics

Part 8: Climate Change Forces Reevaluation of Fishery Management

Part 9: Aquaculture on the Rise Across the Cape and Islands

Part 10: Shared Hopes for Our Fisheries' Future