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February 06, 2013

New England Fishermen Face Crippling Cuts

by Steve Baragona

After nearly four decades of fishing, this season might be David Goethel's last.

The New England Fisheries Management Council has cut the amount of cod fishermen like Goethel can catch in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent.

Painful cuts

“For us, it basically means we’re all done," Goethel says.

Under the new limits, he says he'd reach his quota of cod in just a few days of fishing.  And other fish are effectively off limits, or out of reach, for his kind of boat and equipment.

While today’s catch, and the number of fishermen chasing it, are a fraction of what they were a half-century ago, the council’s decision is devastating for those like Goethel who have hung on.

“I’m 59 years old. This is all I’ve ever done," he says. "How you’re going to pay for things?  I have no idea.  Basically, if we don’t work, we don’t eat.  Pretty simple.”

Fewer fish 

John Bullard, head of northeast fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says council members knew the quota cuts would be painful. 

“But they felt it’s the only chance we have to bring back these stocks," Bullard says. "We have to do this. If we don’t do this, then there’s no chance.”

But that chance is far from a sure bet. Scientists are finding fewer and fewer cod in the Gulf of Maine, and they don’t know exactly why.

“It used to be that there was really only one thing that caused fish stocks to go up or down, and that is how many fishing boats were out there and how much fish they were catching," Bullard says. "And now, over the past five or six years, there’s more at work.”

Shifting ecosystem

One factor at work: waters in the Gulf of Maine have been unusually warm in recent years; last year was the warmest on record. Scientists say global climate change may be the culprit.

Plus, after years of overfishing, other species may have taken over the place in the ecosystem that cod used to occupy.

And the remaining cod may be too small and unable to produce enough offspring to rebuild the population.

Whatever the cause, the entire ecosystem appears to have shifted.

“The ecosystem now favors more species like [the] American lobster, which is very abundant right now in the Gulf of Maine," says fisheries expert Yong Chen at the University of Maine. "[It is] less favorable to groundfish.”

According to Chen, experts don’t know if groundfish like cod will come back to their previous numbers, even with the quota cuts. 

Cumulative impact

What really bothers fishermen is that they have been following the limits that scientists have set. But now those scientists say those limits have been wrong.

Chen acknowledges their models of the ecosystem have been too optimistic. 

“So that means we probably catch too many. The level is set too high," he says. "I think this problem has been [going on for] quite a long time and the cumulative impact, of course, would be getting worse and worse.”

The latest cuts are meant to make up for that cumulative impact.

Shifting promises

Fishermen are tired of hearing it.

For two decades, says Dan Georgianna at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, experts have promised the limits they set will bring the fish back. But it hasn't happened. 

“When you promise over 20 years that if you catch fewer fish now, you can catch many more fish in a couple of years, and systematically that’s never true," Georgianna says. "That’s going to cause problems.”

He says now many fishermen don’t trust what the scientists tell them.

Meanwhile, fisherman David Goethel believes the cod will be back when the waters cool down again.  But under the current limits, he’s not sure he’ll be there to see them.  Although he can't imagine a different way to live.

“I’ve seen people leave the fishery," Goethel says. "A lot of them come right back. This is a way of life. It’s not a job. And so they don’t tend to do real well on land.”

Some financial assistance may be available for New England’s cod fishermen. Even before the season has officially begun, the federal government has already declared the industry an economic disaster.