My first trip to Gloucester was on a brutally hot summer day. My family and I packed into the family station and headed to the North Shore – a series of coastal towns north of Boston. Having grown up on the South Shore, this was kind of a big deal. Rarely does a resident of the South Shore travel to the North Shore. I still remember eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches next to the tall bronze statue of a fisherman lost at sea. Even as a little kid, it was clear to me how important fishing was to this community.
A few weeks ago I purchased Mark Kurlansky’s book The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, which chronicles the history and development of Cape Ann into one of the most important and plentiful fisheries in the world – and the decline of the fishing industry in more recent decades due to overfishing and mismanagement. The city of Gloucester is the oldest fishing port in the country and despite the steady decline of commercial fishing New England, the commercial fishing industry continues to employ 80,000 people in Massachusetts.
This past weekend, the Boston Globe reported that the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction would be shut down for 10 days after being accused by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of falsifying records to hide the purchase of 20,691 illegally caught cod. This is only the latest in an ongoing battle between local fishermen, fisheries management and conservation groups around groundfishing regulations. The current regulatory system of New England fisheries is based on days-at-sea. A report recently published by The Pew Environment Group suggests that a regulations based on days-at-sea encourage waste of fish, and cost fisherman more money, while not significantly improving threatened fish stocks.
Help may be on the way as a new framework for managing groundfishing (which includes species such as Atlantic cod, pollock, and flounder) will be discussed and voted on this week by the New England Fisheries Management Council. The new framework would encourage fishers to form fishing co-ops called sectors that would provide groups of fishers with annual catch limits and end the current management tactic of establishing catch limits based on days-at-sea. The hope is that the new structure would provide fishermen with greater flexibility in setting their own guidelines, while depleted populations of species like Atlantic cod have a chance to replenish themselves.
There is still debate amongst fishermen and conservationists alike on if the new plan will be successful. On a weekend broadcast of Radio Boston, fishermen cited their fear that the proposed annual catch limits for each sector will not provide them with enough income to sustain their businesses. Conservation and fisheries management groups are concerned about the long-term health of the industry and fear that without significant changes to the current structure, we risk losing the commercial fishing industry forever.