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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New England's Fisheries Crisis

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Ludden of member station WBUR in Boston reports on new federal measures to protect New England fishing stocks by placing heavy restrictions on some commercial harvests. Haddock and cod populations off New England have declined drastically in recent years, threatening a livelihood that was once a cornerstone of the New England economy.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

The sacred cod at the Massachusetts State House, and Cape Cod, which juts out into the North Atlantic, both symbolize the importance of fishing in New England, where the cod, haddock, and flounder are what the locals call groundfish. But the groundfish stocks off New England and to the north, off Canada, are in serious trouble. Canada has virtually shut down its east coast fishery, paying some boat owners to stay in port while the stocks try to recover. On the American side, the fishing continues, although Washington recently announced severe restrictions on haddock fishing off New England. But there are serious questions as to whether those steps are enough to protect the fish or the fishing communities. From WBUR in Boston, Jennifer Ludden has our report.

LUDDEN: More than three centuries ago, European explorers discovered that the Atlantic waters off the North American coast, from New Jersey to Newfoundland, were teeming with cod, haddock, and flounder. These bottom-dwelling groundfish provided protein and profit for the New World and sustained generations of fishing families. But ever-larger fishing nets and boats with ever-advanced tracking technology have exerted a harsh toll. New England's groundfish population has steadily declined for decades. During the last 30 years, haddock spawning stock in George's Bank has plummeted from 160,000 metric tons to just 10,000 metric tons. Barry Gibson is with the New England Fishery Management Council.

GIBSON: Haddock, just a few years ago, amounted to almost a third of the catch of the total landings in New England, and somewhere around a third of the value. Haddock in 1993, it's estimated, is going to be less than 1% of the value and less than 1% of the landings in New England. That, as some scientists and some government people have suggested, makes this species economically extinct.

LUDDEN: The Fishery Management Council has spent the past three years developing a plan to revive haddock and other groundfish. The measures will cut in half the number of days fishermen can go to sea. Two boats can no longer pull a single large net between them, and most newcomers are barred from the industry. Few question the need for drastic action, yet Federal officials acknowledge the rules will further hurt fishing communities.

(Boat engine, sounds of fishing crew at work)

LUDDEN: Frank Cimataro walks the deck of his 86-foot Vido Sea, part of the shrinking commercial fleet on Gloucester, Massachusetts, the oldest and one of the most vibrant seaports in the US. Cimataro is pessimistic about the new regulations.

CIMATARO: The impact is going to be real hard, real bad. It's going to be a disaster for New England. You're going to see people lose their boats, lose their homes.

(Sounds of radio and radar scope, other equipment)

LUDDEN: As he flicks on the high-tech equipment that allows him to easily pinpoint fish, Cimataro admits over-fishing is a problem. Still, he believes the Federal government should share responsibility for this, since it promoted fishing in the past.

CIMATARO: That's how my dad built his first steel hull boat. The government gave him the money on a low-interest rate. Not just him, they did it to everybody. Here, he's the money. Build your boat, go fishing, go working. Now, you did that for us, we respected you, we paid our taxes. Now respect us. Give us something back. That's all we want. Let us fish, or if you don't want us to fish, subsidize us.

LUDDEN: But regulators like Barry Gibson of the Fishery Management Council shuns such demands for compensation.

GIBSON: It's like digging gold in your back yard. You know, if you go digging and you find some gold and you dig and you dig and you dig it all up and you sell it, and there's no more gold, well, you know, is that anybody's fault? What do you do then? I mean, should you be bailed out by the guy that sold you the shovel? You know, it's a very difficult thing.

LUDDEN: Commerce Secretary Ron Brown says he will seek $2-1/2 million in grants to help buffer the economic shock to communities who depend on fishing. But such a small amount may not accomplish much.

(Sounds of street traffic)

LUDDEN: In Gloucester, as elsewhere, the collapse of the fish stock has closed dozens of fish processing plants. It's also provoked an identity crisis in this place where Cod is the state fish. Chamber of Commerce Director Michael Pistello believes there may be some relief in developing markets for underutilized fish like mackerel and skate, but he doubts the social change in Gloucester can be reversed.

PISTELLO: I don't think that there are enough fish in the sea right now to bring the vitality back to this waterfront that it once had. So I think we need to definitely look at a diversity of use of the waterfront in some, maybe dramatic ways that we haven't looked at it before.

LUDDEN: Federal officials say the success of their new regulations depends on whether fishermen comply with the rules. To ensure they do, boats will have electronic transmitters, or magnetic cards to punch in and out when they go to sea, allowing regulators onshore to track the vessels. Officials admit the system smacks of government as Big Brother. But Richard Roe of the Commerce Department says it's crucial that groundfish not be depleted beyond the point of sustainability.

ROE: We don't know what those points are and probably never will. But it's a big ocean out there, and you can almost assume that at some point you'll get such a low population that fish have a hard time finding each other any more. And that's the point at which, you know, they could very easily go to extinction.

LUDDEN: At best, Roe says the new regulations will merely stop over-fishing. He says more restrictions will be needed to actually rebuild the stock to levels where fishing can again be a viable industry in New England. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Ludden in Boston.



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