Losing Ocean in the Ocean State

A fishing industry in crisis

by Kion You

Illustration by Julie Benbassat

published November 17, 2017

After the rush of summer tourism at Point Judith, a small village home to Rhode Island’s largest fishing fleet, only those working on the docks remain; fall days become quiet and methodical. On a November morning, a small day boat arrives with the morning’s catch, dumping a load of scup onto a conveyor belt. A group of workers hurry onto the dock, sorting and throwing the fish into the appropriate crates. But most of the workers simply mill about, propping cardboard boxes into shape to prepare for the next landing. A silence cuts through the still waters. 

Point Judith boasts seafood processing plants, engine repair shops, net stores, restaurants, and coast guard stations, all revolving around an economic focal point: commercial wild harvest fishing. Called the “commerce center of Rhode Island fishing” by Richard Fuka, the president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Association, Point Judith is responsible for transporting 16 million pounds of seafood and shellfish each year: squid, lobster, flounder, and scallops are the most abundantly caught. 

Overall, Point Judith is emblematic of Rhode Island’s commercial fishing industry at large, described in February 2016 press statements as “vital to our economy and embedded in our state's tradition and culture” by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and “an essential part of our economy that supports thousands of good-paying jobs” by Congressman David Cicilline. Gina Raimondo sees fishing as “an industry ripe for growth.”

For Fuka, “the whole industry is just special.” A burly and affable man, Fuka graduated from URI’s commercial fishing and marine technology program over 30 years ago (the program closed in the 1990s). Fuka has spent his entire life immersed in the industry: he grew up in the fishing village of Belport, New York, worked as a fisherman for decades, and now advocates on behalf of Rhode Island fishermen, through policy initiatives and education.

Commercial fishing contributes about $750 million in sales to Rhode Island’s $57.4 billion GDP, when accounting for its indirect impact on distributors, grocers, and restaurants. According to a study by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension Marine Program, commercial fish sales alone add up to around $200 million, and provide $22 million to state tax revenue. Around 7,000 individuals are directly tied to harvesting, processing, distributing, and selling fish in the state.

Today, however, commercial fishing stands on much more tenuous grounds. The same Cornell study cites that between 2005 to 2011, the number of state-licensed boats dropped from 1,488 to 1,298; state-issued multipurpose licenses dropped from 1017 to 867; and  sales have dropped to historic lows. The average fisherman’s age is 54, and the average age of a sea vessel is 26. Overall, Rhode Island’s fishing industry is in desperate need of recovery.

J.V. Houlihan, a local for 40 years, states that “the footprint [of Point Judith] hasn’t changed.” However, the environment has changed from a fishing port to an embarkation port. “People come here to go somewhere else,” Houlihan says, namely to nearby Block Island. What once was a thriving fishing port has now become more geared towards tourism.

Increasingly restrictive federal regulations, such as a drastic 2013 groundfish catch limit that was spurred by the failure of groundfish to rebuild their population, have cut the commercial fishing fleet in half over the last four years. “The fishing industry... cannot afford to go backwards,” Fuka states. These suffocating catch limits and the severe lack of young fishermen may soon turn Rhode Island’s fleet into “museum pieces.”


John Bullard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Administrator, balances commercial, environmental, and governmental interests in the realm of fishing from North Carolina to Maine. Bullard, who also grew up in the fishing town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, sees fishing as crucial to Rhode Island’s identity. “While Rhode Island is a small state, it is the Ocean State,” Bullard says. “Fishing has a far greater impact than what an economist could measure.” For Bullard, the “planet is defined by the ocean, and fishing defines the character of a place.” And that character, for Bullard, is one that recognizes uncontrollable external circumstances: “When you’re out in the ocean, it changes you. There’s a humility that’s rare on land.”

Recently, fish off Rhode Island’s coast have also taken lasting hits to their population size and ability to reproduce, causing a conflict between those in the industry and environmental activists. As waters have warmed with climate change, species like cod and summer flounder have moved north. Overfishing has also decimated historically populous fish such as alewife, shad, and smelt. Overall, overfishing has contributed to steep declines in populations across the board. According to a joint study by the URI and the Department of Environmental Management, fish populations have dropped 81 percent from figures reported in 1898. Shellfish biomass has dropped 88 percent in that same period.  

Oceans also acidify when taking in more carbon dioxide, which has inhibited creatures like scallops from forming their shells and exoskeletons. (Moreover, because the oceans take in more energy, storms have become more severe, further impacting fishermen.) The NOAA Fisheries Science Center estimates that about half of the 82 fish and invertebrate species in the region are highly vulnerable or very highly vulnerable to climate change.

“I think it’s very hard to adapt,” Bullard says. “Fishermen are definitely victims of climate change.” It is on this foundation of struggle that Bullard attempts to juggle several different interests in his purview over fisheries management. A conflict between preserving and rehabilitating a dying industry while protecting fish populations arises, and though Bullard and Fuka agree on the importance of fishing, they lean towards different sides in terms of privileging environmental concerns versus commercial fishing jobs, respectively.


“Catch limits are unequivocally preventing jobs from growing in the industry,” Fuka asserts firmly. He describes the process of instituting catch limits as such: research vessels, such as NOAA’s Henry B. Bigelow, catch fish to set a model dictating the sustainability of a species. These numbers then determine the limit of fish that can be caught. The problem arises, Fuka states, when the amount of fish NOAA catches are much lower than that of collaborative research vessels (commercial fishermen working in tandem with government biologists) fishing in the same area. 

“What happens is,” Fuka states, “[NOAA’s] numbers are under so much scrutiny by the federal government that they are already on guard in not creating too much of a big number. In fact, the numbers are so conservative that if the number of Rhode Island was 100 metric tons for squid that season, that number would be would be cut 50 percent. And that’s something lobbied very heavily for by environmental groups.”

John Bullard explains the limits a bit differently, however. He claims that the catch survey is simply one piece of information out of many that the Northeast Fisheries Science Center uses to determine its catch limits for the year. Other factors include catch history from the vessels and metrics such as changing levels in ocean acidity and currents. Overall, reliable data on fish populations is still scarce, so NOAA generally issues very cautious projections that have very high values of uncertainty. 


These strict government regulations are connected to the lack of young people in the industry. “First of all,” Fuka states, “it’s impossible to get a boat today. Licenses are extremely limited, and no bank would loan you money to buy one.” Ultimately, however, it is catch limits, according to Fuka, that are disintegrating not only the commercial fishing industry, but also all the jobs related to fishing, including distribution, processing, and shipbuilding. “If we had more fish to catch, there would be more money to make, and then young people would join the industry,” Fuka asserts.

During a Resilient Fisheries RI workshop entitled “Fostering a New Generation of RI Fishermen,” third generation fisherman Joe Raposa stated, “a lot of the younger generation doesn’t know how to work or want to work.” During the same workshop, fisherman Josh Bird brought up how the death of “shop classes” in schools has discouraged students from pursuing hands-on tracks like fishing.
Bullard is a bit more optimistic about the future of the workforce, especially with the introduction of new apprenticeship programs through Governor Raimondo’s Real Jobs RI initiative, which provided $150,000 to train 15 fishing-industry apprentices. “Port Galilee [in Point Judith] has diversified tremendously to squid and butterfish, and as a result they are healthier,” Bullard says. “They’ve got the opportunity to attract a lot of people to it because they have a sustainable, healthy industry. You’ve got to give the apprentice program a bit of time to work.”

However, Fuka questions the efficacy of an apprenticeship program. “There was a mindset that if you could have a training program, you could become a fisherman,” Fuka says, and mentions that only around a third of the original fishing apprentices from Raimondo’s program are still working as fishers. “People have this Linda Greenlaw, Perfect Storm conception about fishing,” regarding fishing’s romanticized popular conceptions, “but in reality, nine out of 10 people quit the job.” On the flip side, the 10 percent who do stay are in it for the long haul, and often bring their families into the industry as well, kindling a multigenerational operation.


Moving forward, Bullard only sees a modest future for commercial fishing, but places his bets on aquaculture, the cultivation of seafood under controlled conditions. Aquaculture producers grow fish either in tightly contained ocean regions, or in man-made tanks and ponds. Bullard describes aquaculture as a technologically advanced and a rapidly growing $227 million industry that must be fully embraced. “Wild harvest can only produce a level demand, while the world’s demand for fish protein keeps rising. The only way to fill the gap,” Bullard says, “is through aquaculture.” 

According to Bullard, aquaculture will create an economic environment where 90 percent of United States seafood is not imported, and will answer Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’s question of “why are we importing fish, when we should be exporting it?” A World Bank study states that currently, aquaculture produces 50 percent of the world’s seafood, but in the United States, that rate is 21 percent. Aquaculture is expected to account for two thirds of global seafood production by 2030, and here in the United States, the industry is growing by eight percent annually.

Fuka, when spotting a newly installed aquaculture tank growing kelp on the docks, states that he avidly supports its use to raise shellfish and plants, but states that “it doesn’t have much success on the fish end.” For fish, Fuka argues, growing in tanks leads to a lack of biological stamina, and fish like sea bass and fluke readily catch diseases when placed in more ocean-like environments to mature. Overall, Fuka argues adamantly against giving up wild harvest fishing and its intimate connection to the ocean for aquaculture.


Amidst fluctuating fish populations (squid is now the major local catch), constantly shifting catch limits, and changes in the environment, commercial fishermen must continually adapt to volatile conditions. “Fishermen here in Rhode Island reinvent themselves every day,” Fuka states. Recently, however, the racial demographics of Rhode Island fishermen have also been changing. The “new fishing family” is, to Fuka, made up of immigrants from places like Guatemala and Costa Rica, who begin by working in processing plants, doing manual labor, and acting as mechanics and carpenters. Sooner or later, Fuka states, “they are working on the boats.” The influx of immigrant workers who become fishers helps alleviate the growing need for harvesters in the water, and they pick up the passing-down of fishing jobs within the family. 

“The entire crew depends on each other,” Fuka states, referencing the “life or death” nature of being out in the water for days. Overall, he asserts, the commercial fishing industry in Rhode Island has always focused solely on providing well-paying jobs to those willing to do the difficult work.


Bullard fully believes that environmental, governmental, and commercial interests can work in tandem. He sees this cooperation occurring in the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, a stakeholder-driven advisory council to NOAA, which recently agreed in a joint effort between NGOs and the squid industry, to permanently protect a chain of 15 underwater canyons. Seafreeze, a major Rhode Islander seafood wholesaler, was a major player in the agreement. Bullard cites a similar effort currently going on in New England, that will be voted on in their January meeting. Seafreeze is participating in these discussions as well. Referring to environmental and job sustainability, “I think they go hand in hand,” Bullard says.

Fuka, on the other hand states that “fishermen aren’t destroying any fisheries. They are probably the best stewards of the ocean.” He remains optimistic for the future, saying that “there’s just a ton of fish in the water.” And when asked about the future of commercial fishing in Rhode Island, Fuka states, “I always, always keep the glass half full.” 

“I see more and more politicians of all types paying attention to the problem here,” Fuka says. However, he does not expect major legislative change to happen on the state level in regards to catch limits, citing the complexities of the problem and unglamorous veneer such proposals would have for politicians. “[Governor] Gina Raimondo simply has too many other issues that need to be fixed,” Fuka states, despite Raimondo’s praise of the industry. And in a Democrat-leaning state like Rhode Island, Fuka claims that the environmentalist agenda takes precedent over pushing for fishing jobs.

As president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Association, Fuka’s vision is simple. He wants government officials to see the value in collaborative research so that catch limits can be raised and jobs can be sustained. But what he wants most is to “see fishermen excited and coming in with a boatload of squid, having some consistency in what they land,” Fuka says, “so that they can provide for their household.”


During the conversation with Fuka, one of the few people actively working on the docks is a woman in a grey knit beanie and a bright orange apron. She strings together skate rays in groups of three, which will be used as lobster bait. “You’re stringing together those rays like an expert,” Fuka remarks, “must’ve been doing it forever.” “My entire life,” she responds. Fuka nods in a tacit understanding and continues walking.

KION YOU B’20 notices the old man in the sea.