your connection to The Boston Globe

A once great industry on the brink

After tough choices avoided, future bleak

Photographs by Bill Greene, Globe Staff

First in a four-part series

PORTLAND, Maine -- In the veiled blue of the sinking twilight, Knoep Nieuwkerk is guiding the 38-foot Hannah-Jo homeward, past the Portland Head Light, when two of his crewmen begin what seems an act of madness: tossing gleaming, freshly caught cod back into the sea.

One by one the fish hit the water, and slide to the ocean floor, dead. The 400 pounds of cod Nieuwkerk's crew dump that day would have earned them $600, at least, at the next day's Portland fish auction. Yet days spent fighting wind and waves often end this way, with the New England fisherman's most despised ritual.

The government allows small boat fishermen to catch only 500 pounds of cod per day and requires them to toss any extra overboard before they reach shore. The rule is supposed to protect the fish, but fishermen often can't help but catch too much cod as they scour the sea, meaning that every year more than three million pounds of fish are squandered in the name of saving the fishery.

Fishermen say the government won't even let them donate their catch to charity, though they have begged.

"It really makes no sense," Nieuwkerk says. "The fish are dead either way."

If a single word describes what has happened to the once-proud tradition of fishing in New England, it is this: Waste.

Twenty-seven years ago, the federal government seized control of the region's fishing industry in a bid to save it, then presided over its collapse, as the number of fish in one of the world's richest fishing grounds fell to historic lows. Tough choices were avoided -- like enforcing firm annual limits on the catch. And foolish choices were subsidized: the expansion and modernization of a fishing fleet that may now be three times too big for the fishery to sustain.

Instead of forcing the fleet to shrink, the government has deployed a bewildering array of half-measures -- like the 500-pound cod limit. Many local fishermen are living like Nieuwkerk, risking their lives on the open seas, yet finding it harder and harder to earn a living. And now many must face the possibility of a future without fishing at all.

Fed up with the failure of fishermen and their regulators to act, a federal judge has ordered the government to drastically reduce fishing in the region's waters. Next month, the council that oversees fishing here will meet to decide just how to do that. As early as next spring, New England's signature industry could be radically diminished -- a Draconian comeuppance for decades of indecision.

It is a sad, surprising turn that the first men who plied New England waters could have scarcely imagined. When European fishermen came upon the stretch of Atlantic off what is now called Cape Cod, the waters churned with schools of fish. New England's fleet of great wooden schooners -- nearly 800 of them in Boston and Gloucester combined -- were soon the envy of the world. In New England, cod was king. Enriched by a West Indies trade of fish for molasses, boat owners were referred to as the "codfish aristocracy."

Yet the story of how a great industry was laid low is not, as many assume, primarily a tale of unbridled fishermen's greed, unless Nieuwkerk's dream of helping his three kids get a start in life can be called greed. It is, instead, a familiar story of modern times: Technology has transformed the hunt at sea much as it has revolutionized agriculture and warfare, putting enormous power -- such as Nieuwkerk's GPS locator and nylon nets -- within easy reach.

But neither fishermen nor their regulators reacted to the change. The result has been an entirely avoidable, man-made disaster. These increasingly powerful boats have beaten down many stocks of groundfish -- the cod, flounder, and other species that feed near the ocean bottom. Although some species have begun to show signs of revival, the industry remains locked in economic depression, threatening the kind of collapse that has wiped out Newfoundland's fishing industry.

The risk is not to the regional economy -- once the engine, fishing is now, outside of a few ports, a small business here -- but more to regional identity. Surviving the loss of a few thousand jobs along the coast is imaginable in a way that New England without fishing -- home to the bean but not the cod -- is not.

And so the decisions made in the coming weeks will be among the most pivotal in the more than three centuries of our iconic industry. Yet setting a new course for fishing in New England is not as simple as picking one of the five complex options to be debated next month, options that include the kind of strict catch quotas that New England, unlike some other North American fisheries, has largely avoided.

If there is to be a solution that works -- one that does not just set new rules but creates a climate in which they will be accepted and obeyed -- it can't come from the government or courts alone, veterans of the conflict agree. The present dilemma is very much the result of a clash of cultures between three very different groups of people -- scientists, environmentalists, and fishermen -- whose interests and passions have collided time and again at the water's edge, building a deep well of distrust that has worsened and sustained the crisis.

It falls to scientists to determine how many fish are left -- and thus how many can be caught -- yet the ways of these ancient animals are difficult to plumb. Counting fish has proved a profoundly difficult thing to do. Most fishermen believe the scientists are not up to the task; indeed, some have even actively sabotaged the fish counting effort that ultimately will govern whether they have work or not.

Environmentalists have also played a crucial role, filing lawsuits that have moved the government to forcefully intervene to stop overfishing. But their idealism has come at a price: the imperiled livelihood of hundreds of fishermen and their families. Environmentalists increasingly see the need to find a middle way, balancing advocacy for the fish with compassion for those who catch them.

Finally, there are the fishermen themselves. Many are focused, naturally enough, on survival. But to survive as a group, this band of individualists will have to come to consensus on a gut-wrenching fact: Some must go.

"In the past, it's been a complete disaster," says Vaughn Anthony, a retired National Marine Fisheries Service scientist who has watched the crisis build over more than 30 years. "But we have a chance for a magnificent fishery again."

The killing machines

They appeared like giant sea creatures in the 1960s, pushing through the frigid Atlantic just a few miles off New England's coast.

And, in a sense, they were monsters. With their football-field-size nets, the 400-foot ships were nearly perfect fish-killing machines. Called "factory trawlers," they came from the Soviet Union, Japan, and other nations to scour fish from international waters and then fillet and freeze everything right on board. The boats were so efficient, fishermen swore that the seagulls that followed them in search of food starved to death.

"After the trawlers came, if you happened to be somewhere when they descended on you, two days later there were no fish," says Jake Dykstra, a white-bearded 82-year-old Rhode Island fisherman. "We didn't believe it could happen."

Before the trawlers, Dykstra and his peers had little reason to think of fish as anything but an unlimited resource. Even after the government stepped in to seize control of the nation's fisheries from these giant boats in 1976, fishermen continued to see the ocean as eternally able to rejuvenate itself.

For Dykstra, as for many, the equation was simple: Rough work for a decent living. And it was very rough work.

Dykstra, who started fishing when he was eight, has constant pain in his knees from decades of kneeling on a pitching deck, picking fish from his net. Today he can't stand for long. But he loved being on the open water catching scup and butterfish, and he also loved the money. Fishing bought Dykstra a boat, a house, and a good life.

"It was what I knew," Dykstra says. "But it also paid."

Yet the fishery he knew was already diminished from its glory years. Before the arrival of modern boats, New England's waters were even richer, and the fish were huge. Some legends say fish were so plentiful, it was hard for a small boat not to bump into 3-foot-long cod; one fish, caught in 1895, weighed over 200 pounds. Today, the average size of cod on the Scotian Shelf, a stretch of Atlantic off Nova Scotia, is 6.5 pounds. In the 1850s, it was 20 pounds.

New England became an international hub of the trade in cod cured with salt, a signature food item before the invention of refrigeration. Cargo ships brought loads of salt here from as far away as Sicily and left heavy with salted cod caught in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland for destinations around the world. These were the "salt bankers" described in Rudyard Kipling's "Captains Courageous."

The cod became a symbol of prosperity in New England, with its image carved in the woodwork of wealthy merchants' mansions. A carved wooden cod still hangs in the Massachusetts State House.

And so there had seemed little cause for worry when the foreign trawlers steamed into view. The fish might be smaller than they once were, but the nets were full. Thus, the early reception was friendly. The trawler captains were mostly interested in herring, mackerel, and squid -- species New Englanders snubbed. When local swordfishing boats ran out of live bait, East German captains would happily dump a load of herring on their decks.

But between 1963 and 1974, New England's groundfish declined by almost 70 percent, according to US government statistics. So many trawlers were on the water, Dykstra remembers nights at sea lit up like Times Square.

Dykstra, then president of the Point Judith Fishermen's Cooperative Association, Rhode Island fishermen who collectively processed and marketed their catch, suggested a one-sentence law: No one but US fishermen could fish within US waters.

It took more than 50 pages to finally say it, but in 1976, Congress passed a bill now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. The law, which claimed all fishing rights within 200 miles of the American coast, took effect in 1977.

The foreign trawlers were kicked out, and American fishermen had the fishing to themselves -- and, before long, a new problem.

High times in Boomtown

By the late 1970s, the tired, old Italian fishermen playing cards and drinking beer in Gloucester's St. Peter's Club were sitting up straight at the conversations they overheard.

Fishermen were talking about making money again. St. Peter's was the unofficial headquarters of Gloucester's fishing community, a rectangular building on Main Street with a worn bar on the first floor. Photographs of sailors and their boats lined the walls, and a 600-pound stone statue of St. Peter -- the patron saint of fishermen -- rested on a pedestal nearby. For years St. Peter's was where fishermen went to complain about the trawlers and the bad fishing.

Now, the fishermen were clanking mugs together and boasting about steel-hulled boats and newly painted pilothouses. They took daily bets on who would bring home the biggest catch.

With the foreign trawlers gone, and with government assistance pouring in, an irrational exuberance had taken hold. Landings of cod and other fish shot up, and the money poured in.

"The times were high," remembers Vito Calomo, who finished building a new steel-hulled boat, the Italian Gold, in 1980. "Fishermen wanted to have bragging rights. Their chest would come out like they won the Olympics, and it was all about who could catch the most fish the fastest."

The US Commerce Department and other federal agencies had begun trying to rebuild and modernize New England's aging fleet, with loan guarantees, even before the foreign trawlers left. But with foreign competition gone, opportunity beckoned. New tax laws gave lucrative credits to people investing in boats, drawing in money from bankers, businessmen, and others riding high in the go-go 1980s.

The boom hit everywhere. Off Portsmouth, N.H., a Badger's Island boat-building company arranged "package" deals for investors to take advantage of loan guarantee programs: If they built a boat, the company would provide a bona fide captain to catch the fish.

In New Bedford, fishermen remember bank officers in shiny shoes coming down to the docks to woo them into taking out loans. The construction of new groundfishing boats in the northeast tripled in just three years, peaking in 1979 with the launch of 176 vessels.

It was easy to be swept up in the excitement. In Virginia, a businessman named John Hastings and four partners took the tax credits and built the Virginia Gentleman, an 83-foot steel hulled boat in an Alabama boatyard. A government loan guarantee secured a low-interest rate.

Vito Seniti, an Italian immigrant, purchased the Virginia Gentleman for $425,000 in 1986, with the help of the government loan.

"When I bought the Virginia Gentleman, the government called me, and they said, `We'll even give you another boat,' " remembers Seniti, who still fishes. "They wanted you to fish."

These were killer boats. Armed with modern electronics; powerful diesel engines; and sturdy, efficient trawls, they could take many more fish than the previous generation of vessels. One marine economist estimated the productivity of the average groundfish boat increased by 10 percent annually between 1977 and 1982.

The number of fish being landed at New England ports soared. Between 1976 and 1982, the amount of Georges Bank cod landed jumped from about 15,000 metric tons to a high of more than 39,000 metric tons -- about 60 million servings -- worth more than $60 million in 2002 dollars. In 2001, fishermen landed 10,635 metric tons of cod from Georges Bank.

Standing between the growing army of fishermen and the fish stocks was a government group called the New England Fishery Management Council. Created by the Magnuson Act, the council was charged with deciding what restrictions are needed to ensure that fishermen don't overfish.

But the majority of the council is made up of fishermen -- not a group with an interest in raising a caution flag, particularly in flush times. It was a self-defeating formula for preserving the fishery. And, soon enough, the signs of defeat were unmistakable.

In its first decade of "saving" New England groundfish, the government allowed the overall population to drop by a stunning 65 percent. By 1989, even the reluctant council had to admit there was a problem, declaring cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder overfished, but did little about it.

At Gloucester's St. Peter's Club, fishermen started talking again about disappearing fish. Some blamed it on unusually cold water. Quietly, a few began seeing the wisdom in limits on the catch, as painful as that would be.

As St. Peter looked on, the debates raged over. But the peeling paint on boats down at the state pier and the rattling trucks in the parking lot told the real story: There were barely enough fish to make a living.

"We got scared," Calomo says.

Spreading the misery around

On March 9, 1994, a group of angry fishermen tore through the Gloucester waterfront, tipping over cars and tossing fish off a truck. Two days later several hundred New Bedford fishermen made their way from Leonard's Wharf to the local federal building, throwing rocks and setting off the kind of orange smoke devices used to declare an emergency at sea.

Up and down the New England coast that month, protests roiled virtually every major fishing port. The reason? The council had finally decided to act, announcing limits on the number of days fishermen would be allowed to go to sea. The restrictions were the first in a series of increasingly stringent measures, each one ratcheting up the outrage of fishermen, but each still inadequate to address the dilemma.

The council's choice was and remains to spread the misery around, tightening limits on everyone, instead of addressing the fundamental problem: There are too many boats, a fleet of 1,500 in a fishery that can sustain perhaps 300-400 full-time boats.

"The council has never made the hard cuts it needs to," says Andrew Rosenberg, the former northeast administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency which overseas the nation's fisheries. Rosenberg used to call his job "a thousand ways of saying you're killing too many fish."

Quotas are the rule in most well-managed fisheries. In Alaska, for example, the pollock catch -- the single largest in the world -- closes down when the annual limit is reached.

But here, after one early experiment with annual catch quotas triggered rage and cheating by fishermen, the council has relied on what is known as "effort control."

It is, simply put, a way to set limits on the catch by making fishermen less efficient. First, a target for the catch is set, based on scientists' estimate of what the fishery can sustain. Then the council decrees limits on how many days boats can fish, what kind of gear they can use, and when they must throw fish back.

Nieuwkerk, for example, is allowed to go after groundfish only 70 days each year on the Hannah-Jo, and he must use a net with a wide mesh that allows smaller fish to escape.

But effort control hasn't worked because the council has refused to set limits that are strict enough. And when the fishermen catch more than the target for the year, as they have routinely in recent years, the council has done little about it. In the 1996 fishing year, for example, the fleet caught nearly four times the amount of Georges Bank cod it was supposed to. In 2001, they were still catching more than twice the target.

"We only have those targets because the government says we have to," says one council member who asked not to be identified. "We don't like them."

As the council has dithered, the perils of inaction have been spotlighted outside our waters. In April Canadian officials banned both commercial and recreational cod fishing off Newfoundland, acknowledging that efforts to turn around their collapsed stocks had been a total failure. And a number of scientists have called for a total ban on cod fishing in the North Sea, saying that the population is so threatened it could go the way of Canada's stocks.

Beginning in the 1990s, Congress did attempt to reduce the number of boats in the New England fleet. But because the effort was driven by the desire to help struggling fishermen rather than encourage them into another line of work, it wound up having little impact on fleet size.

Congress spent $24 million buying back boats from fishermen and then ordered their destruction. But other boats quickly took their place on the water, according to a report by the General Accounting Office.

In 1996, Vito Seniti's Virginia Gentleman met its end in a gritty marina underneath the Fairhaven-New Bedford bridge. The government that helped pay to build it bought it back and ordered it destroyed.

"It killed me," Seniti says. "Everything on that boat was new."

Today the council can point to some successes. Yellowtail flounder in Georges Bank is thriving; haddock and winter flounder are staging a solid recovery. The council has totally rebuilt the scallop population, bringing an economic boon to New Bedford.

"I have been critical of the council myself," says Tom Hill, the council's vice-chairman. "But we have achieved some great successes."

But many fish species show little sign of bouncing back. A number of fish stocks are still near the lowest level they have ever been. And there is still this fact: Twenty-seven years after the government stepped in to revive the groundfish stocks, there are about the same number of groundfish -- and a lot fewer cod.

'Something is wrong'

Cranking in his third string of gillnets in roiling seas 43 miles off Portland, Nieuwkerk guided a monkfish down a deck chute to crewman David Barthelmey, who sliced the fish and threw its entrails to a waiting flock of seagulls. A cod came next, then a pollock, then a flounder.

Fishing is the only work that Nieuwkerk, a blond man with powerful arms, has ever known. The son of a Dutch psychiatrist, he began fishing as a child, escaping from sailing on his family's boat to go down to the Cape Porpoise dock in Kennebunkport and fish.

He chose fishing as his life's work in high school and painstakingly worked on boats, saving a little each week, to buy his first boat 21 years ago.

"I just don't know," Nieuwkerk says now, "what is going to happen."

Part of the allure of fishing is the stark independence of the life, of man and net, and the dangerous sea. But now Nieuwkerk's fate is tied up with a cast of characters he has never met.

There is Steve Murawski, a bearded man who once worked a swordfish boat out of Gloucester, but who now directs government scientists' efforts to count New England's fish from a crowded office in Woods Hole. There is Peter Shelley, a lifelong environmentalist who has lost some of the early idealism of his youth and now worries that some of his colleagues are going too far.

And there are others, too, who may have bits of wisdom to offer him: Gudrun Palsdottir, the matriarch of a fishing family in a tiny Icelandic village, where experiments with quotas are having some effect. Or Luis Ribas, a Portuguese-born fisherman who is convinced he has a novel way to save the fish and save the fleet -- even as he can't afford to insure his two old wooden boats.

For Nieuwkerk, and for all fishermen, there are many reasons to be angry right now. They love the ocean, and depend on it, yet environmentalists accuse them of wanting to exploit it. They find their lives and livelihood controlled by scientists who speak, sometimes patronizingly, in the detached language of statistics. Over the coming year, they feel they are going to be punished -- and many put out of business -- by a government that utterly failed to do its job.

In Portland, or any other fishing community, it is not uncommon to see the bumper sticker: "Commercial fishing is not a crime."

On a recent fishing trip, Nieuwkerk had to turn back early as the weather soured. The waves were 9 feet high, but the real danger was a wind that ripped around from southwest to northeast in a half-hour. Nieuwkerk's boat, little more than a pilothouse and an open deck with a thigh-high railing and three bunks below, was getting a vicious tossing. A coffee cup fell off a chair and rolled across the pilothouse floor. Cod, hake, pollock, and flounder sloshed in a long white freezer at the back of the boat.

In the warmth of the pilothouse, Nieuwkerk contemplated the mad world he has found himself in. It is a world in which he must throw dead cod back into the sea. It is also a world in which the fish seem to be coming back, but fishermen are about to be ordered to fish even less, or maybe not to fish at all.

"There is so much more cod out there than ever before, but the scientists say there still isn't enough," Nieuwkerk says as he gazes out at the relentless march of steel-gray waves. "Something is wrong."

Tomorrow: Counting cod, courting controversy

about the series
Part one:
A once great industry on the brink
 'I'm not going to do anything else.'
Part two:
Mistrust between scientists, fishermen mars key mission
Part three:
Some look for hope beyond courtroom
 'It's all about end runs for the special interests'
Part four:
For all sides, goal is preservation
 Inventive fisherman hopes for a net gain
related graphics
photo gallery
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives