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

Fishing Communities

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Ludden reports on the struggle of New England’s fishing communities to cope with Federal restrictions on catches, designed to reverse the depletion of cod, flounder and haddock stocks in the North Atlantic.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The United States and Canada have recently drastically reduced fishing in the North Atlantic. The mix of limits and bans is an effort to reverse the crash of the cod, flounder, and haddock fisheries. In Canada, fishing industry workers are being compensated with a multi-billion-dollar program while stocks rebuild. But on the American side, the Federal Government has offered a far more modest package of about $30 million to help communities through the crisis. And there is still no long-term plan for the future of the New England fishery. Jennifer Ludden of member station WBUR in Boston reports from New Bedford, Massachusetts, on the struggle of the region's fishing communities to find a vision of their future in a badly-depleted resource.

(Work on a fishing boat)

LUDDEN: The early morning sea air is brisk as the crew of the Seal heaves its haul on-shore in New Bedford. These 4 men have just returned from a 10-day trip, where each worked around the clock, 9 hours on, 3 off. Their catch: 17,000 pounds of cod that's being packed in ice and sent to market. The haul is only a fraction of what boats routinely caught a decade ago before years of over-fishing turned once teeming stocks of cod, flounder, and haddock, into a trickle.

TOM LEES: It's terrible, it's disgusting.

LUDDEN: Fisherman Tom Lees.

TOM LEES: You tow the net for 3 hours and haul back and get maybe 2, 3 fish. And sometimes nothing. It's just, just a few handful of skates. The future, there is no future in this.

LUDDEN: The immediate future is bleak, both because of the crash in groundfish stocks and because of Federal attempt to restore the long-term health of the fisheries. Boats must cut their fishing effort in half during the next 5 years, and strapped owners are laying off crew. The head of the local fishing union estimates a quarter of his members are out of work. Others, like Tom Lees, plan to leave soon. Still, for every Tom Lees there are those like his brother, Toby: men in their 40s and 50s who have families and see little future on the seas, but even less off.

TOBY LEES: My value with some other job is probably minimum wage, and I can't live on minimum wage.

LUDDEN: So what do you think the next 5 years will be like for you?

TOBY LEES: Everybody's walking around with question marks. We don't know if we're going to be here next year, 2 years, 3 years, 5 years. We're just trying to survive right now.

LUDDEN: To help people like the Lees survive, Federal officials unveiled a $30 million disaster aid package in March. But the impact of the aid has yet to be felt.

(Squeaking door, voices reverberating off walls)

LUDDEN: This office in downtown New Bedford is the first concrete result of the emergency assistance. It's one of 4 community aid centers where families in crisis can come to talk with a social worker, receive psychological counseling, or get information on applying for food stamps or Welfare. With an estimated 20,000 fishing-related jobs at risk in New England, officials had expected a flood of people at these centers. But so far, director Jesse Ely says turnout here has been slim.

ELY: I think what we're talking about is a very closed culture. Highly work ethic, traditionally on the water. I don't really think they've, it's really set in yet, that there is a downsizing in the fishing industry. There's going to be less vessels on the water and they're going to have to make some adaptation.

LUDDEN: The government is hoping to encourage adaptation through an array of grants and loans, which will make up the bulk of the $30 million package. But before it's even been distributed, there is a feeling in the community that the aid money won't meet their needs. Gary Golus is an outreach worker at the New Bedford Assistance Center.

GOLUS: The overall feeling is that there's just substantial money out there that will help them get retrained or help them with unemployment, and just get by in life. And that's really the difficult part as we suddenly looked at where all that money went for. There is no way a divisional assistance; it's only going to help certain people and not the entire people that really need help.

LUDDEN: Golus says that's because fishermen aren't eligible for retraining programs until after they've lost their jobs or their boats. And he says criteria for grants to research new ways of making a living from the sea are so technical that only academics and scientists really qualify. But there may be a more fundamental tension between the goals of the fishing communities and those of Washington. Many boat owners, crew, and processors want the disaster assistance to help them through the lean times. Federal officials, though, see the current crisis as more than just another low point in a boom and bust cycle. They say the future for many here lies in switching to new, under-exploited species, or getting out of fishing altogether. John Bullard of the Commerce Department oversees the aid program.

BULLARD: Nobody wants to come back 3 years down the road and say, "Where did this $30 million go? We've got nothing to show for it." And so, while some of the money without question will be used for the immediate purposes of debt restructuring or trying to avoid foreclosure, I think when all is said and done, we're going to see the great majority of this money being spent on longer-term issues.

LUDDEN: Despite the desire to plan ahead, Federal officials have been reluctant to say exactly what the future of the fishing industry should look like. They say that is up to local communities themselves. Yet, many here, like Howard Nickerson of New Bedford's Offshore Mariners Association, want Washington to take a stronger role.

NICKERSON: Fishermen are not planners. We are doers. And we don't have the time, most of us, to sit down and lay out what should be done for the industry and how and why. Maybe some of us don't know how and why.

LUDDEN: In the absence of an overarching Federal policy, those who do have new ideas are experimenting ad hoc, and increasingly many believe the future of New England's fishing industry doesn't lie in the open sea at all.

(Water running into tubs)

LUDDEN: Tubs full of hundreds of thousands of tiny cod larvae sit in this lab at the University of New Hampshire. The larvae are the first stage of an experiment to hatch in a lab cod which has become endangered in the wild. Researcher Hunt Howell ultimately hopes his project will lead to a program to restock the depleted seas. But without government help, he says, that's not likely to happen.

HOWELL: I can't imagine that any private company is going to be altruistic enough to release fish for the public consumption. After all, they're in business.

LUDDEN: Instead, Howell says private companies are more apt to use his research to grow cod in pens, than sell them directly to the market. While aquaculture would revive the supply of cod, it would also raise wrenching questions about the role of a fishing fleet conceivably made obsolete. In the end, it likely will be up to the government to devise a cohesive, viable future for not only New England fisheries, but also those in the Pacific Northwest, which are likewise struggling to maintain economies in the face of a diminishing resource. For the short term, fishermen on both coasts are counting on Federal aid to keep them in the industry. In the long term, they are hoping that whatever vision of fishing emerges, it includes them. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Ludden in Boston.



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