This is the first time I have met Rodney Avila. I meet him at his house, a split level just outside downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts--the salty haunt of Ishmael in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. There are two Harleys parked in the driveway next to a new pickup truck. We talk in his living room on separate couches. The room is decorated with floral patterns, fishing paraphernalia, family photographs, and on the wall across from me, a huge neon clock that chimes in Beatles melodies throughout the interview.
How long have you been in New Bedford?
Oh, I was born here. I moved for a short period, two and half years, to Stonington, Connecticut, when I was young. And then I came back to New Bedford. I fished for nine years out of Newport, Rhode Island. But I was based here; I would just leave the boat there and travel back and forth by car.
And were your parents fishermen?
Actually I am the fourth generation. My son is the fifth generation. My grandfather, when he was a young boy, was sold to a whaler. And he was from St. Michaels, Azores. And he said "sold" but I don't know.
What does that mean exactly?
Well, his family needed--they were very poor--so what they did was they bought his services for three years and they gave his parents money to live off of. So he said "sold" but I mean... And after that I think he made two- or three-year trips whaling. They landed in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and then after that he got off the whale ships and he went fishing out of Provincetown for a while. Then he migrated to New Bedford and that was it. He lived here. But with the money made, he brought his parents over and his brothers and sisters over. And they all lived here. He had seven sons, they were all fishermen. Three daughters, they married fishermen. All of them.
You guys are really a fishing family.
Oh, my mother's family, all the boys--there's three boys--they're fishermen. And my mother of course married my father, and I have another aunt, she married a serviceman. He's the only one that wasn't a fisherman in my whole family. Both of my sons are fishermen.
So, are you still fishing?
No. I stopped fishing in 1994. Once in a while I'll go out, make a fill-in trip if one of my captains can't go or somebody is injured last minute and they need somebody. But other than that it's only been a handful of trips since '94. I did fish for 17 weeks on one of my boats when one of my captains fell off the mast and shattered his leg and his ankles.
And you are a boat owner.
I own two boats. I bought the Trident in 1972 and I bought the Seven Seas in 1985.
When did you start fishing?
1957. I started when I was nine years old.
What?! Really? So what fish have you been--
What fish have I caught? Just about everything.
And now you do fishing safety training?
I worked for seven years with the New Bedford Fishermen's Family Assistance Center. I started off as Outreach Coordinator, worked my way up to Project Manager, and from there I left, and I went to work at the City of New Bedford's Harbor Development Commission, and I was Marine Superintendent there for three years. And then after, with losing all the boats, I got a little taste of it [safety training]. You were working with fishermen, you were teaching fishermen how to make it better. So I went to Alaska and got certified and I also took a Red Cross course. I'm certified to teach First Aid, CPR and AAD to fishermen. So that's what I do now is basically safety stuff. Little bit of Council stuff [the New England Fisheries Management Council].
Do you like it as much?
I really like it. I got a lot out of the industry and I think it's my way of giving something back. Making sure they're safe. I don't want to see any more casualties. We've trained over 950 fishermen since 2005.
And then how did you come to serve on the New England Fisheries Management Council?
Well, New Bedford always had representation on the Council. Then we went for a period of years without having any. This was in 1994, and I was always going to Council meetings. I would go, and somebody says, 'Well you know you should run for a position.' I said, 'Well...' So they talked me into it, so I put my name in and I was chosen.
How is groundfish doing?
The sad part is science hasn't caught up to what's up there. There's more fish out there than there was back in 1994.
That's the interesting thing to me, is that the groundfish assessments are always saying there aren't enough fish, and fishermen always get up at Council meetings and say there's so many.
I've got pictures on my laptop. Pictures from when we went in the closed areas of the fish that's in there. We do samplings in there periodically. But yeah, there's fish in there, and right now there's more summer flounder than there's been in the last 30 years, but the trip limits are so low you can't catch them. The science has not caught up to what's really happening out there. And they can't, when they do surveys every couple of years or every year. And to be honest with you, they got so much on their plate they can't keep up with it. So they're focusing on the weak stocks and not seeing what's happening to the rebound.
Well now that you're an insider, I'm interested in your management council perspective.
The thing about being a council member, this is hard for fishermen to understand, but I understood it right away. You take an oath. You've got to protect the resource. You're not a safety manager, you're a resource manager. So every time I take a vote I ask myself this question: Am I voting for the resource or am I voting for myself? And when you actually bring yourself back down to reality, you vote for the resource.
I've heard people in New Bedford talk about how they feel like the fishing community is going away or that the fishing industry is sort of going downhill. Do you agree with that idea?
It is and it isn't. Some of these smaller communities sold out their waterfront property to condos. Newport, Rhode Island, is one of them. They're selling the last fish house over there now. New Bedford has lost boats but it's also gained boats, and the people that didn't want to leave the fishing industry have either relocated to New Bedford or just moved their boats and drive back and forth. Generally there are about 320 boats here. We have people that own boats here that live in Tiverton, Rhode Island. It's like our children have gone but we've adopted others.
I'm interested to hear about how you think the fisheries have changed.
This is why we got the federal Magnuson Stevens [Fisheries] Act, because fishermen saw the foreign fleets off our shores fishing nine months steady at a time. We would leave and steam 180 miles out to Georges Bank and never lose sight of a foreign ship. So that's why we wanted them off our shores, to protect our fish. I don't think we ever recuperated from that.
Do you have a favorite kind of fish to fish for?
Swordfish. It's just fun.
You have the family history, but was there something else that made you decide to go into fishing for work?
I always loved fishing. I'm surprised it took you this long to ask. People ask me, "What made you go into fishing?" I tell them the easiest way for me to explain to you is like going out on a first date. 'Cause you can't wait to get out there. Can't wait to get on that date...
Do you ever go as far as the Gulf of Maine?
I've been to the Grand Banks. I have fished anywhere from Cape Hatteras to the Grand Banks. I've been to Flemish Cap. My trip out to Flemish Cap was 33 days. That's why I tell people, 'Not to brag,' I says, 'you know what? I can ring more water out of my socks than you've sailed across,' I tell 'em.
Do you see a lot of whales?
Well I haven't since '94. I haven't been out. Actually both my two sons and I are divers. So when we get out in the Gulf Stream we dive, and we used to see all kinds of rays and stuff. Once we were out on a drift net and we had a mother humpback and a calf come up to the net. The mother went under but the calf didn't. We got on our suits and we went over, we cut the net and the calf went right through. The mother came right alongside me and just took off, like to say thank you. Just alongside. I was kind of scared when I saw her coming at me. She just gave me a little brush, and she just took off.
A lot of fishermen seem to really resent the environmental influence among managers.
Well it's because some of them have their own agendas. Just like I told you when I take a vote I always ask myself. They don't. And fishermen know what's going on. That's what upsets them. That's why I say you gotta be working together, and that's the hard part. And don't get me wrong. I don't say that we all need to be cowboys and go out and catch every last fish. I believe in management. But I don't believe in overkill.
Do you think that the newspapers and the press are capturing what's really going on?
No. No, they want to sell papers. That's what they do.