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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Out to Sea

Air Date: Week of

The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act is up for renewal and there are several proposals on the table. U.S. fish stocks have been steadily recovering since they crashed in the early nineties, and that's leading some fishermen to ask for reduced fishing regulations. But others believe that staying the conservation course will ensure robust fisheries in the future. Living on Earth's Ashley Ahearn reports.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Back in 1976 when the Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed, it laid the groundwork for managing the nation’s fishing industry. Over the years, the law has been revamped and renewed several times. Still, the stock of fish off our shores continues to collapse. Now, members of Congress, including California Republican Richard Pombo, say it's time to update the law that has fish and fisherman on the hook.

POMBO: Fisheries management requires balance. Having fisheries with no fishermen left to harvest this wonderful protein source is unacceptable. Having fishermen with no fish to catch is equally unacceptable.

GELLERMAN: There are a number of bills pending before Congress that would regulate what fisherman can take out of the sea, and how long they can set their nets and lines. To learn how the government’s plans might affect those who make their livelihood from the ocean, Living on Earth's Ashley Ahearn went to some New England docks.


AHEARN: The fishing vessel Sea Hound docks at the Chatham Fish Pier on Cape Cod, Massachusetts to unload her catch as a huge steel bucket swings down on to her deck.


AHEARN: First Mate Jeremiah Perry fills the metal container with glassy-eyed haddock and codfish. Perry and Captain Peter Taylor are just back from three days at sea. Way out at sea. A thousand dollars in gas round trip, out at sea.

TAYLOR: We were fishing 100 miles offshore. We go out there because that’s kind of the end of the line now. Really the only place to find fish.

AHEARN: But Captain Taylor says Cape Cod fishermen didn't always have to go that far to cast their nets.

TAYLOR: When I started you could fish five miles offshore or you could go up the beach, we call it up off the highlands, and be within three miles off land up there and catch all the fish you wanted. Times have definitely changed in that regard.

AHEARN: Fishstocks in the Northeast dropped drastically in the late 1980's. And as the science caught up with the crisis, restrictions on catches soon followed, forcing many fishermen out of business and creating a lot of animosity between the fish-counters and the fish-catchers. But Captain Taylor knows that if the Northeast’s fish stocks are to rebound, it's time to change fishing regulations.

TAYLOR: New England has been great at stalling, delaying, and that's how it's worked. And this is so short-sighted, the management now. You know, they say they're looking out for the fishermen. Well, how do you look out for fishermen if you put them out of business because there aren't any fish left?

AHEARN: When it comes to regulating commercial fishing, New England does things a little differently. The rest of the nation uses what's called a Hard TAC or Total Allowable Catch system. It sets a scientifically determined quota for the amount of fish that can be caught. When fishermen exceed that quota, they have to catch less of that kind of fish the following year.

In New England, fishermen are regulated by the number of days they're allowed to go out to sea. If they catch too many fish this year, then next year their days at sea are cut. But regulating fisherman by days at sea, says Andy Rosenberg, isn't enough to stop over-fishing.

ROSENBERG: If you overfish while rebuilding, what will happen is that you’ll dig a bigger hole and it will take longer to get out, or you’ll have this slow death by a thousand cuts.

AHEARN: Rosenberg was the regional administrator for New England Fisheries when the government first started addressing the over-fishing crisis in the mid-90's. He says that when fast, strict recovery plans were put in place, fish stocks like haddock were able to bounce back. But with slower, more gradual recovery plans, like the one for cod fish, the results were lacking.

ROSENBERG: For cod we phased it in really slowly. There were big arguments from the industry, ‘oh you can’t make the adjustments so quickly.’ Cod has just never recovered.

KANE: What was Cape Cod named for? Cape cod. Now we call it the cape without the cod. You can’t call it Cape Cod anymore.

AHEARN: Raymond Kane's been fishing out of Chatham, on the Cape for 34 years. And although fishermen have historically been wary of fishery scientists, Kane is starting to put a little faith in the research.

KANE: Andy Rosenberg told us back in ‘88 and ’89 that there was something wrong with the stock. And, of course, back then I didn’t want to believe him, but, in retrospect, along with myself and other men my own age, we started talking amongst each other saying ‘there is something wrong here.’


AHEARN: In Gloucester Massachusetts, one of the oldest fishing ports in the nation, there’s a different view about just how many fish are in the sea.

CROSSEN: The fish are out there, we're just not allowed to catch them.

AHEARN: Captain Billy Crossen is aboard his ship, the Odessa, tied up at Fisherman's Wharf. He's been fishing out of Gloucester for 29 years and is frustrated by mounting regulations.

CROSSEN: If I was free to go fishing now the way I fished twenty, thirty or even 15 years ago, I would make myself very, very wealthy in a very short time.

AHEARN: Crossen and other Gloucester fishermen don't want to abandon the days at sea system for quota regulations because they think the science that sets the quotas isn't completely in touch with the actual numbers of fish to be caught on a year-to-year basis.

Vito Giacalone, who works with the Northeast Seafood Coalition representing fishermen, agrees.

GIACALONE: We have very good science here for giving us trends, something to look at. We do not have the kind of science that’s ready to deliver this kind of precision to allocate the fish. It’s gonna be unsafe for the fish stocks and it’s gonna be unsafe for the fishing communities.

AHEARN: Ten years ago, 14 of the 19 commercial stocks in New England were over-fished. Now it's down to eight. So while some fish stocks may be recovering, scientists say more regulation and protective measures are crucial.

There are varying opinions among New England fisherman about how best to manage the Northeast fishery. But one thing they all have in common is a certain degree of stubbornness and determination. The kind that keeps fishermen like Captain Taylor of Cape Cod hanging on to his boat in the hopes of smoother, more fish-filled waters ahead.

TAYLOR: I don't want to switch now. It's one of those things. Midlife crisis and what do you do? I bought a motorcycle instead. (LAUGHS)

AHEARN: For Living on Earth, I’m Ashley Ahearn in Chatham, Massachusetts.



The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman's Association

The Northeast Seafood Coalition

U.S. Ocean Fish Recovery: Staying the Course


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