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


Air Date: Week of

Norway's Laerdal river has just been deliberately poisoned with rotonone in order to control a deadly parasite, Gyrodactylus salaris. The tiny worm was infecting scores of Atlantic salmon, but while rotonone destroys the parasite, it also kills most fish and many other acquatic species. The treatment has been controversial since its introduction more than 20 years ago and its use in the river has brought opposition to a head. Vera Frankel has our report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
On May first, the New England fishing industry hit a new low. People who hunt for lucrative ground fish, including cod and haddock, are now restricted to only 88 days a year at sea. It's the latest in a series of government measures aimed at helping the devastated North Atlantic fisheries recover. For generations, ground fish were the backbone of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the new cuts threaten the very life of this port. Today, many fishing captains are selling their boats, while others look for some answer to help the town's fishing industry and its heritage survive. Gloucester resident and Living on Earth producer Sandy Tolan brings us the first in an occasional series of reports: Gloucester at the Crossroads.

(Surf, a buoy sounds)

TOLAN: The British came here first, back in 1623, to this place where I am standing on smooth granite boulders looking east to sea. They called it Fisherman's Field. Long before the Revolutionary War, schooners sailed from these waters. Fishermen dropped their nets beyond the horizon, and came back heavy with cod and haddock. For Gloucester's fish came fruit and wine from Europe, sugar, rum, and coffee from the West Indies, beans and bacon from the Carolinas.

(Surf continues)

TOLAN: For 300 years fishing has made Gloucester. For the English colonists, then the Irish, the Portuguese, and now the generations of Italian immigrant families. It's been an endless supply, enough for Gloucester and the world. The ocean too vast, too profound, to ever stop yielding its bounty. So it seemed.

(Surf continues. Fade to a man speaking on a boat; an alarm goes off; metal clanks)

TOLAN: The trawler St. Mary lands at Gloucester's Fisherman's Wharf. A scruffy looking 64-footer, its crew is weary from a day of dragging the sea bottom for cod.

SPINOLA: I'll get on the hatch in a minute.

(Gulls call)

SPINOLA Just trying to get a day's pay. It's not very good right now. We're starving right now.

MAN: Starving to death.

SPINOLA: There's nothing, yeah. It's horrible.

(Pulleys sound)

TOLAN: Captain Emilio Spinola has been working the St. Mary for 50 years and he's never seen it so bad. It takes a grand total of 5 minutes to unload the day's catch. Half a dozen boxes of cod plus some yellowtail and black bass.

SPINOLA: On really good days you work a half a day and come in with probably 100 of these, 150 of these, mixed fish, you know? But now of course we worked all day of this, for 10 boxes of fish. You know, it's really gone downhill.


TOLAN: The problem: there really wasn't an endless supply. The first warning came in the late 60s when floor and factory trawlers began to suck fish out of the sea faster than they could spawn. The catches dropped sharply, and in '76 Congress banned foreign vessels from fishing inside the 200-mile limit. The fish stocks recovered as Gloucester boats rocked in the waves or George's Bank. Men in their yellow slickers were up to their hips again in haddock and cod. And so, more boats came, backed with Federally guaranteed loans and decked out with high tech radar fish finders and global satellite mapping. Some guys even hunted down schools of fish from their private planes for their partners down below. It was too much, and the stocks crashed again. Finally, Congress imposed new restrictions. George's Bank is now closed to haddock and cod and other ground fish. Many fishermen are now selling their boats in a Federal buy back program. And new laws that went into effect May first now restrict ground fishermen to 88 days at sea per year.

CALOMO: And how can you make a living on 88 days of work, fishing work, and have 365 days of expense? The average fisherman pays for insurance on his vessel, about on the big boats somewhere between $35,000 and $50,000 a year...

TOLAN: Vito Calomo wears a fish hook tieclip. The gold schooners printed on his tie are from the days of Captains Courageous. He's director of the Fisheries Commission for the city of Gloucester.

CALOMO: I say it's very bad and getting worse. You have a late 40, early 50 year old person coming out, and some have been, migrated from Italy and Portugal and stuff like that. Talks broken English. How do you retrain that -- what is he going to be, a carpenter? They're going to be a lawyer? No. Very few are going to make anything.

TOLAN: On Vito's desk, wedged between stacks of papers, there's a bottle with a ship inside. His old ship, the Italian Gold. The ship he sold back in '82, when he says he saw the writing on the wall.

CALOMO: And it was sad, very sad. Maybe because of the 65 years my family's been in it that I understand it more than others. The camaraderie that goes into a fishing crew, the families tied to it, the kids that come down the boat and help the father hold the net to mend the nets. The painting of the vessel, putting the flags up at fiesta time. You become a real part of it. A fishing port is a society in a society. So, I really took it personal that I would try to figure out something to try to save part of Gloucester's fleet.

TOLAN: Like the fishermen, Vito Calomo and the town of Gloucester face a plight. Will fishing just die, leaving only souvenir shops, whale watches and fishing museums in its wake? Or can the city sustain a working port while the fishing families await the recovery of George's Bank? Vito and others saw an answer in a small oily fish called herring. He started checking the biologists' data.

COLOMO: The United States Department of Commerce, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, says the overall biomass level if high, spawning biomass level is at record highs. Unexploited.

TOLAN: Ten billion pounds of herring in New England waters by some estimates, 97% of it just swimming away, Vido says, dying of old age. So the city invested $400,000 from a Federal grant for a herring development plan. Local wharf businesses made their own modest investments. Meanwhile, Vito approached Frank Elliot Junior, President of Eliot Shipping in Gloucester. Elliot had done business with the Europeans in the past, and he convinced a Dutch company to build a $10 million herring plant on the state fish pier. It would create maybe 150 permanent jobs. Another $3 million would ggo in low interest loans to retrofit Gloucester boats to fish for herring. Everything seemed to be going well, until some of the fishermen spoke their minds.

DORR: My name's Austin Dorr, and I haven't lived 69 years for nothing to listen to about return on investments. You build this plant here, and the return on investment will be with the investors. We don't have herring here. They're not here. Where is the biomass?

TOLAN: In a public meeting organized by a citizen's group called Gloucester Initiatives, fishermen after fishermen spoke out against the plant. They challenged the biologists' numbers. If there are so many herring in the sea, they ask, how come lobstermen, who use herring as bait, couldn't find any?

ROMEO: I was devastated. What do you mean they couldn't get herring? I thought there's so much they couldn't get beat. Well let's think of them first...

TOLAN: By the time a second meeting was called, community support for the project was eroding. So far only one Gloucester fisherman has volunteered to join the herring fleet. The Fishermen's Wives Association, a powerful political force in town, voted to oppose the plan. Vice President Sefatia Romeo demanded that local fishermen who rely on herring be given preference before the resource is shipped off to new markets in the former Soviet Union.

ROMEO: Make sure they get a contract, or they get something saying before Russia gets theirs, our Gloucester, all local gets theirs first. (Applause from the audience)

TOLAN: Some of the backers of the projects, Vito Calomo, the Commission chairman, the mayor, and a tense Frank Elliot, found themselves on the defensive.

ELLIOT: This wasn't a rush job run in secretly while nobody was looking...

TOLAN: Elliot said the numbers show there's plenty of herring, enough to let Russian ships come into Gloucester harbor now, every summer, and buy herring from local boats.

ELLIOT: There's a biomass, okay?

(Audience interruptions. A man shouts, "Whoa, whoa -- please, gentlemen, you'll get your chance, wait a minute!")

ELLIOT: There's so much fish, we the Americans are giving it away because we don't have processing and harvesting capacity here in the United States. As the amount of domestic annual harvest comes up, the amount of allowable catch for the foreign joint ventures, including Russians working in the port of Gloucester, taking away American jobs, that's going to come down. So what you're really doing here is Americanizing the fishing.

TOLAN: Herring is cheap, about a nickel a pound. So Elliot says you have to catch a lot of it to make real money. The plan includes a 450-foot warehouse on the state fish pier to pack and freeze the fish, and a factory freezer trawler longer than a football fish to ship the frozen herring to the European markets. But no need for local fish cutters, ice companies, or truckers. Ninety-eight percent of the profits will go to the Dutch company Parlevliet and Van Der Plas.


MAN: We were shocked when we saw this plan. We had never heard of this plan. It came in completely unexpected...

TOLAN: The next morning, members of Gloucester Initiative stand in a stiff breeze at the state fish pier, squinting from the sun-dappled water. Gloucester's clapboard houses crowd up Portuguese Hill behind us. It's a diverse group: a former Naval engineer, an economist, an ex-city councillor, a Unitarian minister, fishermen, and a Greenpeace activist. A curious alliance, some say, but united in opposition to the plan. This is Damon Cummings.

CUMMINGS: We're repeating history here completely. This has happened in fishery after fishery. The biologists told us that there was a huge stock of whiting out there. The whiting are gone. The biologists said there was a huge stock of redfish out there. The redfish are gone. The biologists said that we ought to go fish dogfish; everyone rigged up, the dogfish are gone. The biologists said to go fish the sea urchins; the sea urchins are gone. Now the biologists are telling us to go fish hagfish and the hagfish are almost gone. It happens again and again and again.

TOLAN: For Gloucester Initiatives, the common enemy is the Atlantic Star, a giant Dutch trawler now being retrofitted in Norway. Although the Atlantic Star will be flagged as a US ship, it recalls for some the days when foreign trawlers vacuumed George's Bank of its bountiful cod and haddock. Steve Parks is a fresh fish wholesaler for a gourmet grocery chain.

PARKS: I'm so angry about it. I'm so angry that they want to bring factory trawlers into a fishery that maybe is a little healthy, sure. So let's bring a factory trawler and wipe it out. It's as simple as that.

TOLAN: It's an irony. Gloucester boats have fished out their valuable dollar fish, and now the town must consider whether to invite a foreign company to harvest thousands of tons of the penny fish that remain. Meanwhile, the European Union recently implemented strict herring quotas, and some super-trawler owners there say they're looking to fish in distant waters. Niaz Dorry of Greenpeace says Gloucester fits into a global corporate strategy.

DORRY: This company is basically the equivalent of the 900-pound gorilla who's looking for somewhere to eat. And all these guys have just allowed a shell organization to be put forth so that this company can come in and do their business and just like they've done in the North Sea, they're going to go to the next place where the fishery is healthy. It's a highly mobile, highly capitalized company that's going to be looking for places to roam around the globe. And Gloucester is one of their stops.

ELLIOT: Is Parlevliet and Van Der Plas coming over here with the intent of fishing out the fishery? It doesn't make sense.

TOLAN: At his office a block from the harbor, Frank Elliot says his Dutch partners are not stupid.

ELIOT: They're putting on the state fish pier of Gloucester a $10 million state of the art fish plant. They're making available $3.2 million so far in low interest rate loans to the fishermen to convert their vessels. They're taking a big risk. Why in God's name would they then turn around and try to destroy the resource that is going to eventually help pay back all these moneys that they're putting out here in the community of Gloucester?

TOLAN: For such a tiny, oily fish it's a pretty bitter fight. Both sides have been down to Washington in recent weeks to lobby Congress. Gloucester Initiatives wants Congress to ban all herring factory trawlers until the government implements a strict management plan. Meanwhile, the group has an alternate plan for the state fish pier. It includes herring but not Dutch investors. Instead of selling whole herring to Europe for five cents a pound, they say, let Gloucester entrepreneurs process the fish themselves and market a finished product that brings a high price. Damon Cummings says that's what the Europeans plan to do with the herring anyway.

CUMMINGS: We've realized it for years. The money is an added value, not in being a Third World supplier of raw material.

CALOMO: My heart and soul's in this. If I thought it was wrong, I would stop it immediately. I don't see where it's wrong.

TOLAN: Back in his city office in a trailer a mile from shore, Elliot's compatriot Vito Calomo is just about tearing his hair out. All these opposition claims and proposals. First of all, he says, you can't put public money into projects that would directly compete with local businesses. And anyway, why are all these people suddenly coming out of the woodwork, questioning the scientists' numbers, just when his plan was nearing completion?

CALOMO: Now, when everybody all of a sudden did everyone become a professor in herring? They all know about the herring business. Where did they come from all their lives? I'm fishing herring all my life,I built 2 big million-dollar trawlers to go fishing. But the abundance...

TOLAN: This plan he so carefully, so passionately put together, Vito says, would put people back to work. It would help preserve what Gloucester has meant for over 300 years, he says. It would mean saving many of Gloucester's bigger boats, at a time when so much of the fleet is going under.

CALOMO: Who are we saving the fish for? Tell me. Here's an opportunity to save half of the large boat fleet, which is probably 15 or so large boats left in Gloucester, 12 to 15. That's all those large boats, what I call large boats. We have a chance to save half of them, if they want to be saved.

(National Weather Service on radio: "Seas 4 to 8 feet, Tuesday night and Wednesday...")

TOLAN: Two a.m., black and moonless in Gloucester Harbor. Tom Brancclione stands in the pilot house with Paul and Dominic, getting ready for a week at sea. The 6-man crew is down to 2. His catch is a fraction of the good old days. He's not making any money. But he has no plans to retrofit his boat. He wants nothing to do with the tiny herring, or the gargantuan Atlantic Star.

BRANCCLIONE: That factory ship is going to manufacture everything aboard, so when the boat comes down here and the product's already finished it's going to be shipped by other ships, freezer trawlers in and bring them to other part of the world. When you can you have your own vessel, you know, have 10-15 boats work down here and maintain this fleet right here, and maintain the energy of Gloucester, what it's been and what it was and what it should be.

TOLAN: Tom Brancclione says he's fed up with it all: the bad fishing, the tight restrictions, the stress and headaches of trying to keep the whole thing alive. He says he's selling his boat to the government in the Federal buy-back program.

BRANCCLIONE: I don't have all this time to wait up this long. I'm 55 years old; if I'm going to wait another 10 years for things to become better I'm 65, what the hell have I been waiting for?

(National Weather Service radio: "For the waters south of New England, from Great South Channel to Hudson Canyon...")

BRANCCLIONE: They're spewing the hot air, it is, you know, especially when you get good weather and everything goes smooth, you know, you're in a happy mood about it. I remember many times up at New Year's Day fishing, would never come home for New Year's. The only time we used to be home on the holiday was Christmas, lucky you get there in the morning. Today, you know, I don't look at it that way. Holiday comes, I want to be home before anybody else. Because, you know, life is too short to think about it.

(A motor runs)

TOLAN: I step off the boat and Captain Tom Brancclione slowly moves his trawler away from the pier, making ripples in the black water of the harbor. Heading out into the uncertain waters of the Atlantic. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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