SEABROOK — Neil Pike can see his fishing trawlers bobbing at their moorings from his home near the harbor, but the president of Yankee Fisherman's Cooperative is worried about the future of New Hampshire's 400-year-old fishing industry in light of the latest federal fishing restrictions implemented last year.
Fishing since he was 16, the 57-year-old Pike said he doesn't see good days ahead for his fellow fisherman in the state's roughly 25-boat commercial fishing fleet if things continue as they are.
"When I used to go out fishing, I saw fishing boats all over, maybe 25 or 30 out there at a time," Pike said. "Now, I see maybe three others. In the future, it might not be feasible for our guys to keep fishing, so we'll have to lease all our catch shares to others."
That would mean the demise of New Hampshire's fishing industry, a notion that state Commissioner of Development and Economic Resources George Bald said would change the essence of the Granite State, which features a ship on its official state seal.
"The cultural impact of fishermen to the state of New Hampshire, well, I can't overstate that enough," Bald said at a recent fishing conference in Seabrook. "The state would look different if we lose fishing."
Bob Campbell, manager of Yankee Fisherman's Co-op, is every bit as worried as Pike. Before catch-share regulations, the co-op unloaded 23 boats a day in 2008, 19 in 2009. Last year, the first catch-share year, that dropped to seven or eight a day.
The catch-share system, meant to improve management of the fishing industry and safeguard fishing stocks for the long term, has generated bitter controversy up and down the nation's northeast coast. Fishermen have complained it has benefitted large-scale fishing operations and squeezed out smaller, independent fishermen. Catch share has also come under fire from several New England congressmen and senators, who have argued it's a flawed system.
Like many other New Hampshire fishing boat captains, Pike was hurt by the catch-share program, which regulates the amount of fish a captain can land per year. Under the former "days-at-sea" fishing regulation, Pike ran three boats with crews, fishing most every day during the season.
But that changed almost overnight for fishermen under catch-share permits, said New Hampshire's Fisheries sector manager Josh Wiersma. The new system determined how many pounds of fish each fisherman could land based on the amount of fish each had harvested from 1996 to 2006, Wiersma said.
Pike said many New Hampshire small-boat captains had limited their fishing, on advice from federal regulators who said that by limiting their catch, stock would be replenished, leading to better fishing in the future.
But when the standard changed to catch history, many local fishermen were literally caught short, Pike said.
"They lied to us," Pike said of the federal regulators. "As a result, we didn't have the poundage when they switched to catch-share."
New Hampshire's fishing sectors received a small catch-share allocation, compared to others. Last year, his first under catch-share regulation, Pike's income dropped by half, and now he only runs two boats and crews, three days a week.
"I pay my crew 20 percent of my take, and the government 25 percent in taxes," Pike said. "After expenses — which this year means $1.40 more per gallon for the 50 to 70 gallons I use per trip — I make about 20 percent right now."
Randy Gauron, another veteran co-op fisherman, said his income fell about a third last year under the catch-share system. He's frustrated about the federal government's increasing enforcement methods. When regulators mandated fishing boats install GPS vessel monitoring systems, the equipment and installation cost him $3,000, and the equipment has nothing to do with safety.
"It's so they can know where my boat is 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said.
If Gauron wants to take his wife for a cruise on his own boat some nice summer night, he has to get federal permission. He has to send via computer an out-of-fishing declaration to regulators. Although he's never been refused, it can take from two minutes to two hours to get a response back, he said.
Rye fisherman Jay Driscoll told federal commerce department officials he sometimes feels like a criminal wearing an electronic ankle monitor while he's fishing because of the vessel monitoring system.
Carolyn Eastman, whose husband has fished for years, said fishing is probably the most regulated industry in the country.
"Forty-eight hours before my husband goes out fishing, we have to file a report and ask the federal government for permission to fish," Eastman said. "Basically, every time we leave the dock we have to file a report with the government."
Campbell said, "You tell me one other business in American that has to contact the federal government and ask permission to do business 48-hours before it opens its doors? What other industry has to put up with that?"
The 48-hour notice isn't an end to it, Gauron and Pike said. When the federal government sends an email confirmation to the 48-hour notice, it can require captains pick up a federal "on-board observer" before going out to sea. This season, Gauron had observers on about half his trips, the same amount Pike experienced last year, they said.
Then, on the day they fish, before they leave, fishermen send a "start hail" email to regulators, and await confirmation, Pike said. Once received, captains with such orders pick up the observers, he said.
"The on-board observers come on and do a safety inspection every time, even though I received a safety certificate from the Coast Guard," Pike said. "They come on the trip with us, measure my net, watch where I go, what I catch, what I throw back, basically everything."
When nets are hauled in and fish sorting done, fishermen send an "end hail" to the government, providing information on what they've landed before heading back to shore, Pike said. Then about half an hour before arriving, fishermen call federal dockside monitors, giving them an estimated time of arrival, he said.
"When I get here, the dockside monitor is standing here watching as we unload to make sure I'm not lying, even though I might have had an on-board observer with me the whole trip," Pike said.
Currently, the government pays for observers and monitors, but regulations require fishermen pick up the cost in years to come, estimated at thousands of dollars a day.
"In America, we're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty," Campbell said. "That's true unless you're a fisherman, then you're guilty until proven innocent."