Sea Change

New England groundfishermen face new management plan

by by Katie Okamoto

Tom Osmers is a Martha’s Vineyard fisherman—wiry, with close grey hair under a baseball cap, a good beard, a narrow nose in a highcheekboned face, and crinkle-cornered, intense eyes that seem a bit sad, a bit angry, somehow still gentle.

To be a Vineyard fisherman is something special, where fishing goes way back, and where corporatized fishing hasn’t penetrated. To be Tom though is even specialler. Despite illness and remote location, to say nothing of the remarkable energy, time and money that must be devoted to commercial fishing, Tom has made the trek to the mainland repeatedly for New England Fisheries Management Council meetings. There, he insisted during public commenting periods that Vineyard fishermen won’t be forgotten. Though Tom says he isn’t sure about the future of small-scale fishermen on the island, his work securing them a spot in the controversial new catch share plan has given them, he says, a fighting chance.

We talk for a good two hours in the Menemsha Deli while he assembles his bagel, which he hardly eats, before walking down the street for softserve dipped in chocolate sauce, his treat. He shows me the dock and his little boat with outboard motor and the shack the town rents to fishermen. This is a far cry from the draggers in ports like Gloucester, New Bedford, and Point Judith, which tow for iconic New England fish like cod, haddock, fluke, flounder, and pollock.

Tom has a show on Martha’s Vineyard Community Radio WVVY every Friday afternoon at 4:20. It’s called “The Fish & Farm Report with Tom Osmers,” paced for island folk, and I listen to an episode one day. Tom is an environmentalist as well as a fisherman. “We have not figured out what the Romans themselves figured out with the aqueducts so many years ago,” I hear him say, “when they sent waste, always following the water, out the Tigris, which ran the trout out of downtown Rome. All roads lead to Rome; all rivers lead to the sea.” 

It’s impossible to manage fish, the climate, the tides, and gods. To manage fisheries means to manage fishermen, but the goal (set in the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act, reauthorized in 2006) is to “rebuild fish stocks”—fish populations, in layman terms. The regional fisheries management councils under the oversight of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, pronounced “nymphs”) have existed since 1976 for that purpose, and in New England, the New England Fisheries Management Council bears the uncoveted task of making policy for a range of fisheries whose diverse stakeholders feel threatened by the changing regulatory climate.

Members of the fishing industry will tell you that they are an endangered species, and they’re “not talking about the fish.” They point to improved fish stocks inaccessible because of tightening regulations and compounding economic hardships. While conservation remains important, recent reports from the National Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole paint a less grim picture of New England’s groundfish than an overfishing-happy media may be portraying.

Meanwhile, a new set of groundfish regulations under Amendment 16 to the Groundfish Fisheries Management Plan is reconfiguring the commercial fishing community’s social landscape in exciting but worrisome ways. The amendment is endorsed by Jane Lubchenco, head of Obama’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the umbrella to NMFS. The New England Council passed Amendment 16 after a grueling threeday meeting in Portland, Maine, in June; it goes into effect in early 2010 after approval by the federal agency.

The amendment is considered a sea change for the region’s fisheries management. Under the current plan, groundfishermen are given a certain number of Days At Sea. In contrast, the new plan instates catch shares for “voluntary sectors”—self-organized groups of fishing vessels that are allotted a total allowable catch limit to divvy up amongst themselves. There are currently 19 approved sectors and more than 700 fishing vessels signed up, representing almost 90 percent of the total allocation of the annual groundfish harvest, according to a report by NMFS Regional Administrator Pat Kurkul presented at the September Council meeting in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fishermen currently in sectors can later drop out until the fishing season starts in May. If they do, all fishing vessels not in a sector (the “common pool”) will be regulated under a revised Days At Sea program. Given widespread apprehension about the catch share system, it is not yet clear how many will ultimately fish in sectors.

Much of the controversy surrounding Amendment 16 concerns how much fish each sector is allowed to catch (“total allowable catch,” or TAC). A sector’s TAC is based on the combined amount of fish its members brought to shore between 1996 and 2006. But many fishermen point out that using catch history excludes new vessel owners, owners who leased their fishing permits because they could not afford to fish during that period, and fishermen who chose to switch to another fishery during that period. 

Tom Osmers disagrees with using catch history to determine the TAC. “We got a long history of cod fishing out on the Vineyard, since before we were even part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” he says. “When we were under the control of the Duke of York, our duty we paid to the Duke of York was in cod fish. We got a 350-or-more-year history of export of cod from the Vineyard, and they’re saying that because some of us didn’t fish for cod in those 11 years, that history doesn’t matter.”

In fact, for a period in the 1990s when groundfish stocks were severely depleted, fishermen were encouraged to move to other species. As Tom puts it, “Those who stepped off and were conservation-minded are punished.”

Still, he and a group of fishermen on the Vineyard have organized into a sector to make sure they have a stake in the fishery’s future. “It’s the only train leaving the station.”

Fishermen without catch history are undesirable in sectors. As a result, some say that the sector system will favor bigger boats at the expense of smaller, family-owned operations and lead to a consolidation of the industry. 

This is Tom’s concern. It is also Tove Bendiksen’s. Tove is the daughter of an old New Bedford, Massachusetts fishing family and an organizer of the Working Waterfront Festival, which took place last weekend in that famed Melvillian port town. On the Steamship Pier, flanked by scallop boats and draggers, Tove was busy introducing the link-squeezing and survival suit contests, but found a minute to explain the festival’s theme, which this year is “Surf and Turf: Fishermen and Farmers Finding Common Ground.”

“What’s happened to farming, with the corporatization into agroindustry, is happening to fishermen now,” she said. “This festival is a chance to show off their occupational skills, skills that are learned on the job, that you learn from the elders. This is a generational business. [If] you lose that family, you lose knowledge of the weather, the land, the sea.” She said fishermen are “very worried about the future” and about being forced into sectors. “Small businesses won’t make it.”

Another fisherman is mending a net at the Bendiksen family business booth. His too is a family business; he co-captains his uncle’s dragger The Seel. Lees (“Seel” backwards) is 32 and has been fishing for 21 years. With low fish prices and high fuel prices, the boat hasn’t been making enough money and his uncle can’t retire. This is a common story among fishermen, even in New Bedford, the top-grossing fishing port in the country.

Angela Sanfilippo, founder of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association and organizer of the new Gloucester community supported fishery, stood at her group’s booth on Steamship Pier. She, too, hails from a fishing family and worries that consolidation of the fishing fleet is in the cards. “When fishermen are not free as individuals but are corporations, fishing in Gloucester will be a thing of the past,” she said. She sees community-supported fisheries (like community-supported agriculture) as one way to reclaim the value of food production labor.

Others in the industry, interviewed over the last year as Amendment 16 was solidifying, are explicit about their sense of unfairness, even victimhood: “It’s like they want to put a nail in everyone’s coffin in this industry.” The owner of a bait company in Point Judith, Rhode Island, spoke bitterly about the loss of community: “It just looks like they’re trying to kick everyone to the curb. And I think that’s disgraceful….The fishing industry poured a lot of revenue into our economy. Just because we don’t have a big lobbying group supporting us doesn’t mean we don’t support a lot of people.”

Not everyone is as skeptical or as pessimistic. Some say that while Amendment 16 is less than ideal, “you have to be willing to try something new.” Certainly, fisheries politics has always been contentious. Still, there is an inescapable sense of worry if not fear up and down New England’s coast, as well as disillusionment with the Council process. When Amendment 16 was first put on the table, two other management schemes had also been proposed, neither of which was adopted, despite significant support for both by environmental and industry groups. A group of fishermen in Downeast Maine had suggested an area management plan that emphasized place-based fish ecology and small fishing communities. The Northeast Seafood Coalition, another industry advocacy group, proposed a declining point system that would have assigned fish different scarcity-based point values. But the catch share system ultimately won.

Meanwhile, Amendment 16’s details must still be hammered out. A recent Gloucester Times editorial criticized the September Council meeting for leaving a key agenda item until the end of the day when most fishermen had left. The item concerned fishing limits for the common pool. Common pool limits decided on in June are now thought to be too lenient, and could create an unintended incentive for people to leave sectors. But The Gloucester Times called changing common pool rules after many fishermen had already decided not to join sectors “unfair” and urged a delay of the new system’s implementation, calling Amendment 16 in its current form “poorly planned, not credible, chaotic and confusing.”

Sector fishermen are also concerned that catch limits for sectors will be “draconian,” especially since last year only about 600 boats were actively groundfishing, as opposed to the 723 currently signed up for sectors for 2010. Steve Cadrin, the head of the Council’s Sciences and Statistical Committee that analyzes biological data, said in August that catch limits for sectors would be significantly lower than the current year’s catch.

Managers and Council staff typically defend the public process, saying that fisheries are in fact much more open to public comment than other natural resource management. One NEFMC member who is also a fisherman said: “What sometimes fishermen don’t understand is I have a responsibility on fisheries science, and I’m only allowed to consider economic impact in a small way. And many of the biological decisions have profound economic consequences, so trying to balance those things at times…is an impossible task.”

I asked him if he thought there was an appropriate balance of input on the Council from industry members, environmentalists and other interests. “I don’t think it can be all fishermen,” he said. “I think you need to make a balance, because to make this thing work you need buy-in from the environmental community, the science community, and the management community, and the fishing communtity. You got those four buy-ins, it’s going to work. But if you don’t, you have them fighting each other, it’s not going to work.”

I asked if he thought it was working now. 


Final approval of the groundfish catch limits for 2010-12 will be approved at the next New England Council meeting in November. Also for that meeting, the Council and NMFS will prepare a letter to fishermen who did not commit to sectors that will describe their future options.
At the Working Waterfront Festival, the future was on everyone’s mind, seeming to clash with a firm sense of history rooted in the cultural importance of a local fishing fleet. Tor Bendiksen, Tove’s brother and a fisherman, spoke on the Narratives Stage on Fishermen’s Wharf. He said many younger people are dropping out of fishing for more dependable paychecks. “You have to really like it if you’re going to stick with it,” he said.

A few tents down by the Coast Guard boats, a couple out-of-towners were looking at a display of cod, pollock, and yellowtail on ice. “So this is what they look like,” said the man, a little awed. His wife was looking elsewhere: “This is a working harbor still.”

What that harbor will look like—to say nothing of Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard—may be significantly different in just a few years. The ultimate goal of all fisheries management, of course, is for fish to school in New England waters for years to come, sustaining the marine ecosystem while satisfying appetites and supporting households. Environmental scholars like Svein Jentoft write that healthy local fish actually need healthy local fishing communities. Fishermen get this; a common mantra is “if there’s no fish, there’s no fishermen.”

The concern about consolidation is not just the loss of family history, of an advantage given to the man with more capital. It is also about potentially creating conditions where a few boat owners can dominate the sea, fishing too efficiently for anyone’s good and depleting the resource. Though this may seem extreme, it is a fear grounded in truth: a similar thing happened on the West Coast with a switch to a quota system.

There are local, community-based efforts to balance the human with the ecological. Among them are Angela Sanfilippo’s community-supported fishery. Other fishery share programs have started in Maine, and there are plans to export the model around the region. Others have hung their hats on sectors, feeling at least that they’ve squeezed through the door.

Tom’s steel eyes assure me that some guys aren’t ready to give up their dawns on the great blue: "We got a 350-or-more-year history of export of cod from the Vineyard, and they’re saying that because some of us didn’t fish for cod in those 11 years, that history doesn’t matter."

Hook me a KATIE OKAMOTO B’09.5.