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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) Starting Wednesday, New England fishermen face a 77 percent reduction in the volume of codfish they are allowed to catch in the Gulf of Maine this year – a policy that led many of the state’s top elected officials and fishing crews to a protest rally at Boston’s Fish Pier Monday.
What has caused the reported population of cod in the Gulf of Maine to plunge recently is a matter of intense debate: Is it a symptom of overfishing? Is it a symptom of global change and cod fleeing warming waters? Or, as many fishermen contend, is it something that isn’t even actually happening, just a reflection of inaccurate and arbitrary science?
Whatever the answer, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s answer to the problem – ordering a steep cut in the allowed cod catch – is coming under attack from a broad, bipartisan group of officials.
“We're here to fight for a way of life that we believe in, and that's what we're going to do, and we're going to do it together," Senator Elizabeth Warren said as she led off a rally denouncing the policy.
Interim U.S. Senator William “Mo” Cowan promised to lobby the fisheries service ceaselessly to reevaluate the policy in his remaining two months in office, saying, “The fishing industry, the shoreside businesses, and all of you and all of us who depend on this industry need congressional help."
And Attorney General Martha Coakley said the codfish cut “threatens to put you out of business and out of your homes, and I think that’s wrong."
Coakley says studies show the ban could cost up to $2 billion in economic activity and 80,000 jobs.
John K. Bullard, regional administrator of the fisheries service and former mayor of New Bedford, came to hear speaker after speaker denounce his agency but stressed, the policy has been backed by a 12-4 vote of the regional fisheries council and is intended to keep enough groundfish uncaught that species won’t go extinct, and fishermen will be assured of a future once, as is hoped, fish stocks rebound.
“The fishermen in New England are feeling a lot of pain, and they're going to feel a lot more pain in the coming year. They need help, and and that's the purpose of this rally. I'm supportive of that," Bullard said. “Many fishermen and their representatives have said, ‘We want relief. We want you to raise the quotas.’ Well, legally, we don't think we can do that, and if we could legally do that, I don't think we should. I think we really need to rebuild those stocks, and so that's an answer nobody wants to hear, but that's an answer that we really have to give ... How do we rebuild these stocks? You rebuild them by setting very low quotas, and the New England Fisheries Management Council did that."
However, many fishermen, like Frank Mirarchi, whose family owns the day-fishing boat Barbara L. Peters that operates from Scituate, Mass., say the government fish counts are just wrong. “You see somebody on a 300-foot-long ship telling you there aren't any fish when you're fishing commercially and profitably alongside them -- you begin to say, ‘What's wrong with this picture?’"
Paul Theriault, owner of the fishing vessel “Terminator,” one of the last two fishing boats working out of Pigeon Cove, Rockport – there were eight not long ago – said, “They're saying there's no yellowtails [flounder] and we caught more yellowtails than we've ever seen -- and it happens like that year after year" with different species fishermen are catching abundantly the government is saying are heading towards species collapse.
Theriault estimates that with the lowered codfish quotas, he will be losing close to $100,000 a year.
“That's a big hit for a small business to take," Theriault said.
Environmental groups like the Conservation Law Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts, however, agree with government scientists that the drops in groundfish numbers reported by the government have been repeatedly reconfirmed.
“That doesn’t mean we can't do anything," Bullard said. “There are abundnant stocks out there. There are stocks of haddock on Georges Bank, of redfish, of pollock and hake ... Let’s work with fishermen so that they can transition to those stocks and catch those quotas that are out there."
But fishermen scoff at the idea that it’s that simple, saying many of the alternate species the government wants them to catch fetch much lower prices than cod or flounder, require expensive new equipment or boats that can navigate much deeper waters, or just can’t easily be caught in higher numbers because they’ll be brought up in nets with codfish or groundfish that are subject to the lowered quota and can’t practically or legally just be thrown back in the ocean.
“You've got to be very careful about where you fish, when you fish, and what you catch – it’s not that easy” to try to switch away from restricted groundfish," Theriault said.
Mirarchi said of moving to other species, “There are barriers. It's not just as simple as making up your mind: I’m going to catch something else, and going to do it. And we need some help with the regulations, and we need some help with product development and market development in order to make this a reality” and get restaurants and consumers interested in eating what are now often derided as “junk” fish.
Bullard said that the new groundfish limits show are that the New England fishing industry is at a turning point and many fishermen who have been used to focusing for decades on specific species now under profound strain need to adapt – much as many have already shifted towards harvesting, say, lobsters or scallops.
“It's not going to be easy. There is pain," Bullard said. “And there will be pain. There's no getting around that."