by Phillip Martin, WGBH
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
Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk. Photo: WGBH
"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.
South Shore fisherman Ed Barrett. Photo: WGBH
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."
New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang. Photo: WGBH
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