Depleted Waters

by by Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Update 5/18/11: 2010 preliminary results on catch-share program in New England.

Over the past decade, Rhode Island's fishing industry has experienced a tragedy of commons: too many people fishing too few fish. The ocean--the state's only profitable natural resource--is depleted.<!-- @font-face { font-family: "Arial"; }@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } --> With the state's unemployment around 12 percent, there's little work elsewhere for out of work fishermen, many of whom have already sold their boats and licenses. But most fishermen argue the job-killing culprit is not them, but the government. This May, the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association (NOAA) instituted radical conservation measures for New England fisheries, including draconian catch limits on fifteen species of groundfish. In the dilapidated fishing hub of Galilee--across the channel from cheerful, residential Jerusalem--the fishermen have divided into bitter factions over the new measures.

The new regulations signal two changes. One, all fishermen are subject to annual catch limits (ACLs) on how many pounds of fish they can catch. In the past, they were limited by the number of days per year they could fish. Second, fishermen are encouraged to join sectors, or cooperatives, in which they pool their catches. If they do, they're guaranteed a percentage of the total catch, called a "catch-share." If they don't, they're on their own, with no safety net if they come up empty, and harsh fines if they come up with too much. Thus far, the program has favored some and left others struggling to pay their bills. Both, however, must adjust to a market that's no longer free and an open ocean that's been quartered off.


The leader of the pro-regulation faction is Chris Brown, scion of the famous Rhode Island family and president of the nascent Galilee sector. Brown pre-empted NOAA two years ago, and formed a prototypical sector that fished exclusively for fluke, or summer flounder. In response, a group of change-averse fishermen burned down one of his boats and sent death threats to his family. Because it allows for communication and trading between boats, Brown's fluke sector has dramatically reduced overfishing.

"Four or five years ago we were… killing four million pounds for every two [million pounds] we brought in, Brown says. "Last year, in the fluke sector we brought in 194,000 pounds of fluke. We discarded 850 pounds." The sector's conservation is paying dividends--the New England Fisheries Management Center (NEFMC), which oversees the implementation of the new measures, increased the its overall quota last year.

Despite this, the whole sector is pooling considerably less yearly what some boats alone used to bring in. While groundfish stocks build up, according to the levels nationally mandated by the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Act, low quotas will become the norm. Going forward, fishermen will be faced with two choices: join sectors or defy them.

Standing opposite Brown is the fierce populist Brian Loftes, who has bumper-stickered his vessel, the Daramiscotta, with anti-government slogans. In 2009, Loftes co-produced a contentious documentary Truth, on the injustices of fishery regulation. Loftes argues the regulations are the brainchild of a environmentalist-led conspiracy to exaggerate overfishing and put fishermen out of business.

"The US has the most stringent regulation laws in the world, yet they're forcing American consumers to get [84 percent] of their fish from other countries. Where is the conservation in that?"

Loftes, who says he'd rather quit the business than join a sector, says the problem is corruption, that the government has been bought by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which has purposely skewed data to make fish stocks appear unusually low.

"(NOAA is) screwing the independent guy. They're jeopardized the food supply in this country," Loftes says. "What they're doing to us, it's unconstitutional in so many ways."

Other opponents, like small boat fishermen Bob Cherinzia, say the new measures are an admission that fishermen can no longer support themselves, that "the industry is done." As a resigned Cherinzia spoke, he swept hundreds of dead fish off his docked boat into the water near the pier. Conservationists hope that for the sake of fishermen and their catch, the new measures will make such sights things of the past.

Staying Grounded

Rhode Island fishermen have long fished for bottom-dwelling groundfish in George’s Bank, an especially shallow area 60 miles east of Cape Cod. Groundfish like cod and Yellowtail flounder have been a staple of New England fisheries since the seventeenth century. During a fishing boom in 1984 Rhode Island fishermen landed 5,800,000 pounds of Cod. In 2008, they landed just 275,000 pounds. Today, the biomass of cod in George’s Bank is ten percent of what it should be, its lowest level ever.

NOAA's regulations apply for 15 species of groundfish like flounder, haddock and cod, making Rhode Island even more vulnerable than Massachusetts, whose enormous Gloucester port isn't as reliant upon Georges' Bank.

The framework for the current regulations, designed by the NEFMC, is supposed to ensure that New England won't end up like Newfoundland in 1992, when the cod population was badly overfished, causing more than 20,000 fishermen to lose their jobs. NEFMC Vice-Chair Mark Gibson was disheartened by the hardship the new management system would cause some fishermen, but said the organization had no choice but to act. “The [old] management system was not delivering the rebuilding of stocks” as mandated by the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Conservation lawyer Peter Shelley says the catch-share system is an efficient method for rebuilding groundfish stock while guaranteeing certain fishermen annual returns. “It’s a social, economic, and ecological breakthrough,” says Shelley, Vice President of the Conservation Law Foundation. “Even though without question it has caused a lot a lot of pain, it’s long-term structural shift that gets at issues that has plagued this fishery for decades.”

The old system, "days-at-sea" was in place since 1976, and granted fishermen a certain numbers of days per year during which they could fish. The days-at-sea system "was death by a thousand cuts," says Chris Brown, meaning it favored short-term gains over long-term sustainability. The race to catch a maximum of fish per day left fishermen with inevitable surplus, which if they brought all back to shore, could devalue the catch. Often, Brown says, they would pick out the best of the bunch and throw the rest overboard. Not only were thousands of fish killed for nothing, but fishermen wouldn't report the overfishing to avoid penalization. And because the NEFMC was kept in the dark, each fishery's annual quota remained the same, and the cycle persisted to the point at which there were barely any fish left. That point came about four years ago.

'Days' Running Out

Whether fishermen choose to participate in the sectors or not, all of them, for the first time ever, are subject to annual limits on how many pounds of groundfish they can catch each year. Accordingly, fishing permits, which can be worth over $1,000,000, now grant their proprietors a certain amount of fish each year, or Total Allowable Catch (TAC). Before May, permits used to be valued based on how many days at sea they granted fishermen. The more days at sea, the more valuable the permit. The more fish caught each year, the more days a fisherman's permit accrued for the next year. The problem with the system, Brown says, is it encouraged a reckless, competitive atmosphere.

<!-- @font-face { font-family: "Times"; }@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }p { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 10pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } -->

<!-- @font-face { font-family: "Times"; }@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }p { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 10pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } -->"Some of these guys they want to be Olympic fishermen," Brown says. "The toughest bastard gets the most days, gets the most fish, makes the most money." Bob Ballou, acting Chair of Rhode Island's Division of Fish and Wildlife says fishermen consider fairness "blowing the whistle and letting everyone bang heads. Historically that's how things have happened…but there was overcapitalization."

The race to fish led to endemic overfishing. Naturally, fishermen tried to make the most of their days, especially if they didn't have many to work with. It was a case of "Get 'em today cause you might not be able to get them tomorrow," Ballou said. "The markets would get flooded and the price would drop out. Fisheries would meet or exceed their quotas for the year and shut down."

Even Rich Fuka, the anti-sector president of the Rhode Island Fisherman's Union, admitted days-at-sea posed a danger to the fishermen, if not the fish themselves. Days at sea, Fuka said, <!-- @font-face { font-family: "Arial"; }@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } --> "created a safety issue where fishermen had 'x' number of days to fish inside a timeline--meaning they're forced to be fishing, potentially in harms way, in [dangerous] weather."

Notwithstanding, Fuka won't endorse the catch-share sectors. The small fishermen in his union have been brutally shut out of the sector system altogether. In the catch-share system, a fisherman's percentage of the total catch is determined by how well he did from the period of 2001-2006. In this period of extreme overfishing, smaller boats were bringing home next to nothing. For them, participation in a sector makes no economic sense.

As Bob Cherenzia puts it, the program rewards the “haves” over the “have-nots.” Frozen out of the sectors, and handed a minuscule number of days-at-sea, Cherenzia can neither use, nor sell, his permit. Cherenzia, instead of deep-sea fishing in federal waters, will stick to less profitable fishing in state waters, where the new rules don't apply, and which only extend three miles from the coast.  To make ends meet he’s given up “non-necessities” like boat insurance and he dives for steamers (soft-shell clams).

Fuka, who still practices days-at-sea, says the catch-shares program denies fishermen with tiny catch-shares the right to “prove” their worth on the open sea. Fishermen fully capable of catching groundfish, in other words, are not legally permitted to do so.

The sector program, subsidized by NOAA (at least for now), is not unlike a large-scale bank bailout, in which the government keeps the biggest players afloat after they’ve contributed to a collapse within their industry. The smaller boats, like Cherenzia’s, are left to rust, like so many inactive boats docked today in Galilee.

But even many of the bigger boats who would profit from catch-shares refuse to do so. These fishermen, led by Fuka and Loftes, are angry at what they call the “privatization” of the ocean. Loftes, a third-generation Galilee man, says the very idea of determining a boat’s catch before it hits the water messes up a fisherman’s psyche.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, things were good. We had twice as many boats, four or five fish houses [distributors]; it was balls to the wall.” Now, “all kinds of guys are depressed, on anti-depressants,” says Loftes. “[Fishermen are] so disgusted, they’re walking around like mindless sheep down there.” The rush of adrenaline that did so much to validate the brutal lifestyle of the commercial fishermen, has by and large been sapped.

Fuka also questions the motives behind annual catch limits and catch-shares. He says that the NEFMC and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are corrupt and “heavily lobbied by the Environmental Defense Fund.” Says Fuka, “Overfishing is a thing of the past—we have stocks of groundfish that have rebounded over 500 percent…NMFS’s goal is to consolidate more people out of business—they want a much smaller fleet.”

<!-- @font-face { font-family: "Arial"; }@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } --> Bob Ballou dismisses some of the talk as sour grapes. Fishermen "tend to be angry in general," he says, adding that they don't understand just how much damage they've done to the stocks. But beneath the conspiracy-theory vitriol is a legitimate complaint. Haddock, for example, has rebounded to 99 percent of NOAA’s target goal. But when the Galilee sector meets its pre-determined catch-limit, Haddock fishing is halted for the year, and millions of pounds of Haddock will remain legally unavailable. The same goes for the rest of the fifteen species under new regulation.

Current Tidings
Prominent third-generation Rhode Island fisherman, Brian O’Hara, sold all his permits and left the industry, unwilling to cooperate with the May 1 regulations. The worst-case scenario for anyone invested in Rhode Island fishing is that valuable permits like O’Hara’s get snatched up by big, rich, out-of-state vessels. Galilee is currently the twentieth largest port in the country and third largest in New England, behind Gloucester and New Bedford in Massachusetts. Should Rhode Island permits migrate to Massachusetts or Maine, Bob Ballou says Galilee would become a “ghost town.” In order to combat the possibility, NOAA allotted Rhode Island one million dollars in September to establish a state permit bank for fluke, which can buy up available permits and sell them only to local fishermen.

For now, however, New England fishermen are lobbying for fairer treatment by NOAA, and the government is listening. On Monday, September 19th, US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank listened to complaints about over-regulation in a closed-door meeting with fishermen. All three sided publicly with the fishermen. “We need action on the catch-limits and we need it now, “ Patrick said. Appearing alongside him, Locke promised to end unfair penalization practices under his watch. Five months after its big victory, NOAA is now being investigated for administering nineteen “questionable” penalties on New England fishermen over the past decade.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood B’11