SEABROOK — Dealing what many see as the death blow to New Hampshire’s 400-year-old fishing industry, the New England Fishery Management Council voted this week to slash cod fishing limits in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent for 2013 and extended similar cuts for the next two years.
Cod restrictions in the Gulf of Maine are widely read as the end of direct fishing for the stock that has supported the inshore, small boat fleet since Colonial times. The ruling may asphyxiate small ports like Seabrook’s Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative, the only one remaining in the Granite State and the one that handles most of New Hampshire’s landings. Larger ports, like Gloucester, will be under unprecedented duress.
But that wasn’t the only misfortune fishing families will endure. Deliberating in Portsmouth on Wednesday, the council also voted to cut the cod allocation for the Georges Bank Grounds by 66 percent.
“This is just devastating,” Yankee’s manager Red Perkins said yesterday. “I can’t even predict what’s going to happen. We have to meet to see how cuts will affect our members. It’s just so drastic.”
When they meet, they’ll have more bad news to consider, for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast administrator John Bullard said the agency will require fishermen to begin carrying about half the cost of at-sea monitors on board each trip to make sure they comply with quotas. Bullard said NOAA’s budget didn’t allow the service to continue its full subsidy of between $3 million and $5 million.
All of this, coming on the heels of three years of diminishing quotas, will mean local fishermen have to determine if it’s worth leaving the dock to fish for any groundfish, like haddock and flounder.
Perkins said even those with permits to fish for other groundfish may not be able to survive. Fishermen can’t fish for only one species of groundfish at a time — when they pull in their nets, multiple species are harvested. As a result, Perkins said as soon as fishermen fill their lowest species quota, federal law dictates they can’t fish anymore, even if they have quota remaining for other species.
The loss of the sight of fishing boats in the harbors along the New England coast will be a culture shock to a region that is rooted in harvesting the sea. Consumers will likely also feel the impact of the council’s ruling, perhaps with both higher prices and a scarcity of fish from the ocean outside their front doors.
Perkins could not guess the effect the council’s move will have on Yankee’s new fish market, opened specifically to help fishermen survive financially after the catch-share fishing limits policy halved their incomes. The store is popular because it sells locally caught fish, often the same day it arrives on Yankee’s dock, and the question now arises as to if there will be anyone catching fish for it to sell.
David’s Fish Market owner Gordon Blaney described the council’s decision as “terrible news” for fishermen.
“And if it’s terrible for the fishermen, it’s terrible for all of us,” Blaney said. “I expect demand for fish to stay strong because of the health benefits fish provide are over and above any other type of protein. And when demand stays high and supply diminishes, prices go up. I grew up around here, when fish used to be a blue-collar food staple. Now, many of those people may not be able to afford fish.”
Started by his grandfather, Arthur David, in 1946, Blaney’s has run the Bridge Road, Salisbury, business since 1977. He said he doesn’t believe the council’s actions will increase fish stock in the Gulf of Maine or that local fishermen over-fish the seas.
“In my opinion, and that of many who have spent their lives on the sea, it is ocean temperatures and not over-fishing that’s led to reductions in the fish population,” Blaney said. “This has happened before when fish left the area to go to other places because they liked the temperatures there better, then they’ve mysteriously come back. (These drastic fishing limits) are not going to solve the problem of ocean temperatures.”
Blaney is skeptical of the government’s motives behind the drastic cuts to fishing quotas.
“People in (quota) enforcement have told me that they’ll be glad when all the small fishing boats are gone because when they are, they’ll have fewer boats to watch over,” Blaney said.”
On Wednesday, Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said “the game is over,” adding it was “tough to support a motion that says the best we’ve got is to collapse the fishery on the heels of a disaster.”
But N.H. Councilor David Goethel of Hampton received no support on Wednesday for his motion to do just that — shut down the entire directed groundfishery.
Goethel argued that it made more sense to shut it down and dramatize the hardship in hopes NOAA and Congress recognize the crisis with disaster relief and the need to rethink the science and management of the fishery. He said a dramatic act that spared no one was preferable to “throwing 90 percent of the fishermen under the bus.”
The acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Rebecca Blank, waited 11 months until last September to approve a disaster declaration for Massachusetts and the other groundfishing states, but offered no financial aid, and Congress deleted $150 million in fishery disaster funding from the $60 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster package before sending it to the White House earlier this week.
Yesterday, in light of the council’s actions, U.S. Rep. John Tierney, D-Salem, said he’ll introduce legislation providing relief in the short term, adding that’s not the end of the road. The nation needs to find “a common-sense solution to ensure the survival of this historic industry,” he said.
Calling the council’s actions “catastrophic” to fishermen across New England, Tierney added that even as the Department of Commerce acknowledged the economic disaster through its declaration in September, “the department seems unable or unwilling to provide any relief or common-sense solutions.”
“If Congress does not take action immediately, families and communities in Massachusetts and throughout New England are going to hit rock bottom,” Tierney said. “This is not rhetoric or hyperbole, this is real life.”
Gloucester Times staff writer Richard Gaines contributed to this story.