Change in fishing rules altering storied industry

Regulators to look at ways to protect fleet

“It is the end of fishing as we know it,’’ Steve Welch, shown in Plymouth, said of new fishing management rules. “It is the end of fishing as we know it,’’ Steve Welch, shown in Plymouth, said of new fishing management rules. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / January 27, 2011

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PLYMOUTH — Scores of fishermen have stopped going to sea in the past year as controversial new rules take hold that could fundamentally alter the storied fishing economy, culture, and communities of New England.

The region’s scenic harbors already shelter hundreds fewer fishing boats than a decade ago, but some worry that smaller boats may vanish altogether: There are some signs the new rules, which assign groups of fishermen a quota on their catch of cod and other bottom-hugging fish, could accelerate a trend of consolidating those boats into far fewer, more efficient vessels. Some small-boat fishermen are selling or leasing their allotment to others under the new rules because they cannot turn a profit.

“This may not be the end of fishing, but it is the end of fishing as we know it,’’ said Steve Welch, as he tinkered on one of his two boats, the Holly & Abby, in Plymouth. Nearby, his dog Hudson ate mussels that seagulls dropped on an icy dock.

Welch leased the fishing privileges on both his boats and laid off three workers this year. “We are talking jobs, tradition, culture,’’ he said. “All that will be left are large boats owned by corporations with deep pockets.’’

The fears over consolidation are raising questions among fishermen, environmentalists, and federal officials over what New England’s beleaguered fishing industry should look like when depleted fish stocks rebound.

Regulators are meeting today to decide what additional measures, if any, the fleet needs to maintain diversity of ownership, ports, and the size of boats under the new rules. What they do will have ramifications not only for New England fishermen but across the country as similar management schemes are proposed.

The new management rules — coming at the same time fishermen’s catches were reduced to hasten the rebuilding of fish stocks — have unleashed a political and legal battle. The cities of New Bedford and Gloucester have sued the federal government, saying the new rules violate the law. Some fishermen say they were given a smaller allotment than they deserve. Meanwhile, Governor Deval Patrick and members of Congress have pressured the Obama administration to allow more fish to be caught, saying in part the quotas are based on uncertain science, but Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has not budged.

Under the new scheme, most fishermen are divided into groups called sectors, which are given a share of the annual quota of cod, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling fish. That quota is then divided among fishermen. The rules were approved by the New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service in part to help fishermen deal with a brutal truth: Despite years of cutting fish catches to combat overfishing, the fish were still not coming back fast enough to comply with a 1996 law. That meant dramatically lower fish catches for most fishermen this year.

“We knew we had to make some drastic cuts and a lot of businesses weren’t going to survive,’’ said Mark Grant, a policy analyst with the federal fisheries service.

Sectors, he said, were a way to give fishermen and fishing communities some flexibility. For example, if a fisherman cannot make a profit because of his catch allotment, he could lease it to another fishermen to make some money until stocks recover enough for him to fish again.

However, it is inevitable, Grant said, that some fishermen will be pushed out of business for good because there are still not enough fish for all the fishermen. And that is a hard thing to take.

“Fishing is not what [these fishermen] do; it is who they are,’’ Grant said. “It helps define the community. You can’t say that about selling tires. They are a cultural icon.’’

Once, the fabled cod served as the currency of Colonial New England. The industry boomed until the mid-20th century, when foreign factory trawlers began plying coastal waters to vacuum fish from the sea. After those massive boats were expelled in 1976, the federal government invested heavily in fishermen to grow a US industry, but the fish, already depleted, never kept pace with fishermen’s growing ability to catch them.

The industry has already consolidated. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of vessels landing groundfish in the Northeast shrank from 1,024 to 477, according to federal statistics.

“And that was not a function of a management system, but a function of not enough fish,’’ said Peter Baker of the Pew Environment Group, an advocacy organization that is supporting the new sector program.

Since the fishing rules began nine months ago, there is scarce data on what is happening. One large boat owner in New Bedford said he is buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of quota from other fishermen. Several small-boat fishermen said they are leasing privileges to fish and, in some cases, getting out of the business altogether.

Saving Seafood, a fishing industry group, estimates that more than 330 fishermen and crew and probably many more are not fishing in Massachusetts this year, out of a total of about 3,000 full- and part-time workers. However, it is unclear if that is because of the new system, lower quotas, or other reasons. And federal officials point out that many permit holders are still making money because they have leased their quota.

On the West Coast, a similar program for the groundfish trawl industry included caps on quota ownership “out of concern that there could be a future where control of the fishery would end up in few hands, and this could have wide ranging impacts on fishing communities,’’ said Johanna Thomas, New England regional adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund Oceans Program.

“For New England sectors, it will be valuable to go through a similar exercise — how can well-designed caps help achieve longer-term goals for the fishery, while putting in safeguards for a diverse fishing fleet and fishing ports,’’ Thomas said.

The New England Fishery Management Council previously debated such quota limits for sectors, but decided not to adopt any because of disagreements and concerns that such limits could discourage sectors from forming. However, with the system now in place, the council has decided to revisit the issue today because concerns are still high over consolidation. One idea expected to be floated is to limit how much quota any sector or individual could own.

Still, there are some bright spots with the new rules. Some $5 million in federal funds has been allotted to New England states to buy fishing permits and lease them back, often at a reduced price, to vulnerable fishermen. Some fishermen say the new rules are successful, allowing them to keep catching bottom-dwelling fish while others are diversifying to go after more abundant species.

But some fishermen, like Welch, wonder whether there will be small fishermen left when the fish finally come back.

“I’ve been fishing for 33 years,’’ Welch said, proudly pointing out how he overhauled the electrical and hydraulic system on the Holly & Abby. “I’m a small, independent business owner. That should have value.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at