SEABROOK — It’s been a long two months for New Hampshire’s small fishing fleet since the federal government slashed their fishing quotas.
In February, cod fishing limits in the Gulf of Maine were cut by 77 percent for 2013 and similar cuts were extended for the next two years. Cod restrictions in the Gulf of Maine were seen as a nearly fatal blow to direct fishing for the stock that has supported the inshore, small boat fleet, like New Hampshire’s, since Colonial times.
This blow, coming on the heels of three years of diminishing quotas, left local fishermen trying to determine if it was worth leaving the dock to fish for any groundfish, like haddock and flounder, or if it was time to hang up their nets permanently.
The fear was that fishermen at small ports like Seabrook’s Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative might not survive the measure. Yankee is the only remaining fishermen’s cooperative in the Granite State and the one that handles most of New Hampshire’s landings from Rye to Seabrook.
“We have about 20 boats remaining,” Yankee’s manager Red Perkins said Friday. “Five years ago we had about 35. Over the past years, some fishermen have sold their permits. I’d say there were about eight who did that.”
Due to the severe groundfish limits, Perkins said, local boats only went out to sea about 10 days this year, and even the winter shrimp season took a beating because of further federal catch restrictions and Mother Nature. Shrimping had been a way for fishermen to augment their incomes as groundfish quotas shrank.
“They did a little shrimping, but it became a disaster because of what happened with the storms this year,” Perkins said.
As June approaches, questions arise concerning what’s to come for the local fleet.
“I don’t know what’s to come — it all depends on the fishermen and how much quota they have left,” Perkins said.
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.
“When fishermen ran out of quota in the past, they could lease poundage from other fishermen,” Perkins said. ‘But we have no idea what people have left.”
Perkins said the financial health of Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative is still stable, primarily because of good planning by its members. The cooperative’s role is to land fish and market it for its member fishermen, taking a percentage to support it and the huge facility located in Seabrook Harbor.
“Right now, we’re OK,” Perkins said. “That’s because we put money aside for rainy days.”
Perkins is hopeful they’ll have local groundfish to sell at the cooperative’s on-site retail fish market soon. The market, built last year, is another attempt to keep alive the state’s 400-year-old fishing industry. Last year, it did well.
Prior to last summer, fish caught by New Hampshire boats was only sold wholesale, primarily to out-of-state fish processing plants. But since the new 500-square-foot store opened last Memorial Day, fish lovers were able to buy whole or filleted groundfish — like cod, haddock and flounder — as well as lobsters, shrimp and sea scallops, at the coop’s Route 1A location, only feet way from the docks where they were landed a few hours earlier.
“The market’s open now, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and we have local scallops, but no groundfish, because no one’s fishing right now,” Perkins said. “We have locally caught lobsters pretty much year round. Hopefully, come June 1, we’ll have more locally caught groundfish, like flounder, cod, haddock and hake, to sell.”
The community has rallied round its fishermen and supported their store. But because of the harsh quotas New Hampshire fishermen are enduring, the concern isn’t about attracting customers, it’s about being able to provide as much locally caught fresh fish as customers want.