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Rough Waters: The Ongoing Fight Over Regulating New England Fisheries (Part One)

Monday, August 16, 2010
by Phillip Martin, WGBH
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[8 min 59 sec]
Fishing Boats
Commercial fishing boats in Gloucester, MA. Since the 1970s, regulations in commercial fishing off the coast of Massachusetts have limited the number of days fisherman can spend at sea. Photo: WGBH
BOSTON -- Environmentalists and marine scientists have long argued that the stock of common food fish such as cod and flounder are in danger of being harvested to the point of extinction. In the 1970s, the federal government began a regulatory system to restrict commercial fishing off the nation’s coasts in an attempt to save and replenish these endangered fish stocks. This regulatory scheme evolved into an oversight program known as Days at Sea. Anglers who were used to catching fish 300 days out of the calendar year were suddenly reduced to half or less of that number, and the effects on fishing communities were disastrous.

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk. Photo: WGBH
The stakeholders in this on-going controversy of course include the fishermen and the fishermen's wives. Then there are marine researchers and other top scientists with decidedly different points of view. Policy experts and environmentalists are major players in the debate over the future of the Northeast fish industry, and so too are the leaders of fishing communities, such as Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk and New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang. All of these people are passionate about New England fisheries, but not all of them can agree whether the fish stocks are depleted. To understand why groundfish stocks in the Northeast were overfished and how that led to the crisis in the fishing industry today, we have to go back in New England's past.

"Do you have any cod on the menu?" It’s a dark, orange twilight evening on the terrace of Harvard Square’s best known fish restaurant, and I’m scouring the dinner menu for cod. My waiter informs me that no cod is available, but they do have plenty of haddock. So how did cod—once a food as easy to come by as hamburger and as cheap as chicken —become so unavailable?

The answer lies in the way cod and other groundfish have been harvested in the past and, quite a few would argue, the way that resulting fish management polices have been carried out. Many would also say that the polices themselves devised by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , better known as NOAA, are the reason for cod's disappearance. As far back as the 19th century, fishermen began noticing that some fish stocks were shrinking, but most observers—including government scientists— believed that there was an infinite supply of cod, pollock, hake, flounder and other species of groundfish.

Ed Barrett
South Shore fisherman Ed Barrett. Photo: WGBH
In the 1970s, US fishermen faced massive competition from foreign fleets from as far away as Italy, France and the United Kingdom. According to Reidar Bendiksen, "We had a lot of Russians. They were the biggest bunch that came here." Bendiksen’s father and grandfather were fishermen in Norway. He continued that tradition when he moved to New Bedford to explore new fishing grounds in the Northeast Atlantic. When Bendiksen arrived, he found that he was not alone, " I see Russians in the 60’s and then they kind of spilled over into the 70’s. Once you saw the fleet and you tried to fish with that fleet, the fish would disappear, quickly, but there was a lot of fish out there at the time. They didn’t clean up the fish, but they did a good dent in it, let’s put it that way. They really reduced the numbers quite a bit." They took so much fish that fishermen began lobbying the federal government for protections from foreign fleets. The result was the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act passed in 1976, which expanded American jurisdiction of fisheries from a 12-mile limit to 200 miles offshore. Suddenly, the industry exploded with activity. Individuals who maybe a year before had been driving cabs for a living or were even practicing law became fishermen. Guys who had been fishing all their lives jokingly viewed these newcomers as fly-by-nighters. One such fisherman is like Ed Barrett from the South Shore. He says, "There was a lot of growth in the early 80’s. There were a lot of boats being built." Too many, in the view of both environmentalists and fishermen—one of the few points on which they seem to agree.
More Rough Waters:
Part Two: Rough Waters
Rachel Gotbaum examines the transition from "Days at Sea" to "Sectors."

Part Three: Rough Waters
Phillip Martin looks at the alarming decline in local fish populations.
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.

Part Five: Rough Waters
Phillip Martin reports on how new conservation rules are affecting the lives of those in the local fishing industry.

Phillip Martin and Rachel Gotbaum on The Emily Rooney Show

Working Waterfront Festival
Celebrating Commercial Fishing, America's Oldest Industry
September 25 & 26, 2010
Port of New Bedford
Shortly after the US Presidency transferred from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, the government began offering low interest loans to speed the “Americanization” of the fleet. Suddenly, from the coast to 200 miles out at sea, bigger steel boats with better technology appeared on the horizon. American corporate factory ships using enormous bottom dragging nets were capturing anything in their paths. Haddock, perch, red snapper, wolf fish, skate and other ground species were scooped up in massive quantities without much consideration given to the question: just how many fish are there in the sea? According to Ed Barrett, "By the early 1990s, a lot of fishermen were already saying something’s wrong here. We need management."

The program that was institutionalized in direct response to dwindling fish stocks was Days at Sea. Angela Sanfilippo says to many people, the cure was worse than the disease, "Before then fishermen were free to fish. With the passage of the act, rules and regulations came to be which made life difficult. We’ve had ups and downs through the years. Things got much worse in ’94. By one estimate, 6,400 fishermen lost their livelihoods during the time the program was in place." Yet Ed Barrett says there were objective benefits to Days at Sea. He says, "We made tremendous gains with the stock populations when we started to do these things. And we saw dividends. The problem came as we interpreted the sustainable fisheries act in very strict senses. And that came about through the lawsuits from the environmental industry."

Several lawsuits by key environmental organizations were filed between 1996 and 2006. They were intended to stop overfishing and to strengthen the Days at Sea program. Environmentalists argue that the failure of Days at Sea was the result of mismanagement, not its objectives. Peter Baker is a top researcher with the Pew Environment Group and a northeast fisheries specialist. He says, "the Days at Sea system just got too ridiculous and got to the point where guys had 23 days at sea. With 365 days in a year, that's 342 days you are not going out to do your job. The fisherman that wanted to make a living fishing had to go out and buy another permit. All of sudden you have fishermen who are carrying half a million or a million dollars in debt and they have to borrow against their house. They’re only a bad trip or a blown motor from going bankrupt."

Scott Lang
New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang. Photo: WGBH
Tom Warren, a policy analyst for NOAA in Gloucester, doesn't agree Days at Sea was a failure. He contends that "Days at Sea is a tool that has been used and some still prefer it, so we're in a period of evolution. The environmentalists are concerned we're not acting quickly enough, achieving our objectives quickly enough, whereas the fishing industry is concerned that we are acting too quickly and need to slow down the pace at which we reduce fishing effort. Overall it's been successful at reducing fishing mortality from historic levels and at rebuilding many stocks."

Indeed, fish stocks —with the exception of several species of cod, wolfish and hake— have made a dramatic rebound since the 1990s. Even so, fishermen argue that if federal policies and regulations were carried out correctly, the government could have saved both the fish and the families that rely on catching them for a living. The federal government has acknowledged that the livelihoods of thousands of families have been adversely affected by the Days at Sea policy. However, some fishermen and their supporters say that the government's new regulatory policy to replace Days at Sea may be far worse in terms of negative impact.This stance has led to a major lawsuit against NOAA. New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang believes that NOAA has overstepped its authority in their management of the New England fisheries. He argues that, "This agency in their mind has become bigger than the law, bigger than the people that they’re accountable too."

The lawsuit is spearheaded by the mayors of America’s tenth largest and largest fishing communities, Gloucester and New Bedford. Mayor Lang explains, "what this [lawsuit] is all about is bringing [NOAA] back to a level that is appropriate and within the check and balance of federal, local, and state systems. If they don’t clean it up, Congress will, and if Congress doesn’t, a judge will, but one way or another, this has to change."

The blame and counter blame for the impoverishment of many fishermen who no longer make a living from the sea continues to the present day. but not all fishermen agree that the latest government policy option—called sectors—is a bad idea. Some are even embracing it as a way to save their fast dying industry.

Part Two | 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 – photographer and researcher
Nic Campos – researcher
Robin Moore - engineer