Top regulators of New England’s endangered fishing industry have asked the region’s fishermen not to take out their frustrations over regulatory rules and low catch limits on the onboard, federally-commissioned catch observers who monitor what they pull up or throw back.
The request came in an open letter to fishing permit holders last week, a little over two weeks into a fishing year that has seen the groundfishing fleets of Gloucester and other communities facing cuts in catch limits of up to 77 percent from the previous year.
Observers have reported increased verbal abuse in recent months and the letter is a reminder that such anger is misdirected, said Rip Cunningham, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council and one of the letter’s five signees. There have also been incidents involving monitors in the past; one Gloucester fisherman, John Cusick, was sentenced to two months in prison after a federal jury convicted him of sexually harassing an at-sea monitor during an off-shore fishing trip in 2010.
‘‘I think you can look at what’s happened in New England — with some of the really serious fisheries issues — some of the folks are, you know, quite frustrated, and sometimes that frustration gets taken out on whatever the nearest person is,’’ Cunningham said.
Many fishermen say they can’t catch enough fish to survive with such steep cuts on already diminished quotas.
NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator, John Bullard, doesn’t dispute the industry is in crisis, but has said he believes the cuts are needed to bring the fish populations back to health. Industry officials and some state and federal lawmakers have questioned the validity of the science behind the stock assessments and limit cuts, and have questioned why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration refused to extend a second year of interim cuts of some 22 percent, which state Attorney General Martha Coakley and others have said is an option under the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
The open letter sent last week by NOAA acknowledged ongoing disagreement over whether fish species truly are in dire condition and how much blame goes to fishermen, scientists or regulators. But it emphasized directing concerns to regulators rather than observers and at-sea monitors.
‘‘They work hard to accomplish difficult jobs and they bear no responsibility for the predicament in which we find ourselves,’’ said the letter, whose signees included Bullard.
At-sea observers monitor both the catch of prime fish and the discard of unmarketable fish. The program is expensive, with fishermen often noting the cost of observers is sometimes more than their profit per trip. But Cunningham noted the observers are employed by private contractors. In addition, the government has paid for the observers since 2010, and will cover the projected $6.7 million cost this year.
The observers are often recent college graduates with a concentration in biology and can be green at sea in more ways than one, as stories about seasickness are common. Gloucester fishermen have also complained in the past about monitors who have broken vessels’ electronic equipment and failed to understand their mission. One monitor showed up at a Gloucester pier with eight suitcases for a dayboat groundfishing trip, fishermen said.
Gloucester fisherman Joe Orlando, a 40-year veteran, said he doesn’t mind taking out observers, as long as the government pays, because he can’t afford it. He said it frustrates him that a kid who knows almost nothing about a fishing boat can climb on his and declare it unsafe.
Orlando said he hasn’t heard about increasing confrontations between observers, captains or crew, but understands why they encounter resentment among fishermen facing ruin.
‘‘You’ve got to understand something, we’re all out of a job,’’ Orlando said. ‘‘They’ve still got a job.’’
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
''You've got to understand something, we're all out of a job. They've still got a job.'' Joe Orlando, Gloucester fisherman