Empty nets

Empty nets

New regulations have commercial fishermen worried about their future

David Goethel has been fishing since 1981. Now 61, Goethel was hoping to keep going out in his boat, the Ellen Diane, out of Hampton Harbor, well into his mid-60s. But new regulations on the amount of cod commercial fishermen can catch might mean an early retirement for Goethel. He hasn’t fished since November of last year and the new regulations, which went into effect in May and will continue through April of 2016, could mean a short season this year.

“The regulations have just gone over the edge. Our businesses are not even remotely viable anymore,” Goethel says.

He isn’t alone. Throughout the Seacoast, commercial fishermen are worried that increasingly strict limits on cod — enacted by federal regulators to help the species’ population bounce back from centuries of heavy fishing — could put them out of business.

In the last three years, the total combined amount of cod New England fishermen can catch has dropped from a limit of 6,700 metric tons in 2013 to 1,550 metric tons in 2014 to, most recently, 386 metric tons in 2015, according to the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC). (A metric ton is equivalent to 2,204.62 pounds.) Each individual fisherman with a permit in the region has his or her own limit, known as the total allowable catch (TAC). Once a fisherman reaches his TAC for cod, he’s done for the season — even if he caught the cod unintentionally while fishing for another species, such as pollock.

“I’ve lost 95 percent of my cod quota in four years,” Goethel says. “If you took 90 percent of the stuff off Walmart’s shelves, Walmart wouldn’t exist anymore.”

NH_fishing1Boats docked on a rainy day at Portsmouth's commercial fishing pier.

Regulation and management
New England fisheries are overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The New England Fisheries Management Council acts as the regional advisory body to NMFS. Last fall, the council enacted emergency regulations limiting the amount of cod commercial fishermen could catch after reporting that cod populations had “declined to historic lows.” According to NOAA, Gulf of Maine cod stocks are at 3 to 4 percent of sustainable levels.

The cause for the drop in the cod population is hotly debated. Overfishing is often blamed; so is global warming. Cod is a cold-water fish and temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are warming faster than any other ocean, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute reported last fall.

However, Goethel believes NOAA’s cod population assessments are inaccurate. As he puts it, “I’m more sure this stock assessment is wrong than I am the sun will come up tomorrow.”

Fishermen are seeing plenty of cod in their nets, according to Goethel. Part of the disconnect between what fishermen are catching and what regulators say is out there is because regulators rely on random samples to determine population numbers and don’t use catch numbers from fishermen as part of the data. Where and when those random samples are taken can skew population reports, according to Goethel, who served three terms on the NEFMC.

“You have to have fishermen actually involved in the process,” he says.

That’s not happening, though, and the result is an adversarial relationship between fishermen and the regulators monitoring fishing stocks.

“The hostility toward the federal government is unprecedented,” Goethel says. “We just feel like nobody’s listening.”

NH_fishing9An anti-National Marine Fisheries Service bumper sticker.

For Geordie King, who fishes out of Gloucester, Mass. and New Hampshire and lives in Eliot, Maine, the regulations don’t match up to reality.

“If we weren’t seeing any codfish, I’d be worried. If we weren’t seeing cod, I’d say (the regulators) are right,” he says. “But, this year and last year, we’re really seeing a rebound in the cod stocks.”

However, NOAA regulators believe the limits are the only way to save cod populations and prevent a full closure of the fishery. Dan Salerno, sector manager for NOAA’s Northeast Fishery Sectors V and XI, which covers Maine and New Hampshire, did not return calls at press time. In a statement released last fall when NOAA set emergency limits on cod, greater Atlantic region administrator John Bullard said, “We have solid information, much from fishermen themselves, that tells us where cod have been caught and where they are spawning.”

Fish to dish
Andrea Tomlinson is general manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood (NHCS), a cooperative of local fishermen and consumers. NHCS runs a community-supported fishery, similar to the CSA at your local farm. Local consumers and restaurants purchase yearly shares; in turn, NHCS delivers fresh fish to its customers and local restaurants.

The goal, according to Tomlinson, is to channel some of the energy that made the farm-to-table movement mainstream to local seafood — what she calls “fish-to-dish.” Doing so directly supports fishermen and keeps them working. Founded in 2013, NHCS has 15 fishermen who are shareholders.

“People want to have fresh fish off the boat, and that’s really difficult,” she says. NHCS buys about 5 percent of what local fishermen catch; the rest is sold at regional auction. It’s a “drop in the bucket” of what fishermen need to make to stay in business, but every bit helps, she says.

NH_fishing8Andrea Tomlinson of New Hampshire Community Seafood.

In the last few years, there have been more local efforts to promote underutilized fish species like dogfish as an alternative to New England mainstays like cod and haddock. That could help fishermen stay afloat, Tomlinson says. Dogfish is popular in Europe as the prime ingredient in fish and chips, but largely unwanted here. If demand for dogfish increased in New England, fishermen would be in a very different financial situation.

Even then, though, fishermen will bump up against those cod limits, because ground fish all swim together. “You cannot catch underutilized species without catching cod,” Tomlinson says.

Too much, too late
Tomlinson says federal regulators move too slowly. Cod was in peril five years ago, according to Tomlinson, but the population is bouncing back. The cod limits in place now are “way too much too late.” It takes time to track fish populations and create and approve regulations. If the next stock assessment shows that cod populations are up, regulations reflecting that might not take effect for another two years.

“And, at that point, a lot of these guys might not be in business,” Tomlinson says.

In 2012, the federal Department of Commerce issued a disaster declaration for New England fisheries. That allowed Congress to appropriate $32.8 million in federal fishery disaster funds to help fishermen who were put out of work because of strict catch limits and low fish populations. It took until this spring for that money to reach states, though, with $1 million going to New Hampshire and an additional $2.3 million divided between New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine.

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Another cod stock assessment is slated for this fall. If regulations aren’t relaxed, Goethel says he’s getting out of fishing.

“I’d like to finish my career. But we’re just hemorrhaging money here. I’m spending my retirement money to stay in business. That can only go on for so long,” he says.

And, as the regulations push out long-time fishermen, Goethel says they’re also preventing young men and women from picking up the career. He points to his youngest son, who just finished a Ph.D program in fisheries biology, as an example.

“He told me, ‘You just can’t make it work.’ He desperately wanted to be a fisherman. And he was good at it. He would’ve been the exact kind of person you want as a fisherman. He’s conscientious, smart, and he had that fishy sense about him. He knew how to catch a fish,” Goethel says. “When we lose that generational connection, we’re going to have big problems in our country harvesting our seafood.”