For over 300 years, fishing has been key to the economic vitality of the New England seacoast in the northeastern United States. But over-fishing in the Atlantic and other factors contributed to a severe decline in the number of fish. During the early 1990s, the federal government put limits on the amount and types of fish that can be caught, and the stock has since increased. But some environmentalists and government regulators think more restrictions are needed. That's a controversial prospect among fishermen and others who depend on and profit from the riches of the sea. VOAs Adam Phillips visited the Portland Fish Exchange, Maine's largest fish auction house, and heard a range of views.
The morning sun has just barely cleared the horizon here at the Portland Fish Exchange, but Captain Scott Russell's work is almost done. Only hours ago, he and his crew of three men returned from a 10-day fishing trip off the coast of Cape Cod to the south. Only six barrels of fish remain to be lifted from the hold of his small vessel and dumped onto these dockside tables to be sorted by size and species for today's auction.
Russell: "There is four of us and we catch codfish, haddock, gray sole. Just multi-species stuff. New England fish.
Phillips: Did you have a successful run this time?
Russell: This time was slow, last time was good. Sometimes you do everything right, sometimes you do everything wrong. This time I did everything wrong."
Phillips: "What did you do wrong?"
Russell: "Just in the wrong place in the wrong time."
Phillips: "How big is the catch this time?"
Russell: "About 25,000 [pounds], I'm hoping."
That's about 10,000 kilograms of seafood which would have been a decent haul back in 1995 when current government regulations first set limits on the amounts and size of fish that each vessel could catch. Most agree that those rules have allowed the fish to rebound from their dangerously low levels. Captain Scott says the limits were necessary, but he resists new stiffer rules that have been proposed by government scientists and environmental groups.
"They've always had regulations in place but they never enforced them - is where I'm coming from," he said. "Now all of a sudden, it's a big emergency. There is as many fish as there were before. There's fish everywhere you go. It's just a matter finding where the biggest concentration of them is. The rules that are in place must be working. So if they just shut up and leave us alone, they [the regulations] will continue to work."
Anthony Chatwin is the staff scientist at the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group that has pushed in the federal courts for new regulations. He says new rules are needed because the existing ones were poorly crafted.
"In the fishery management toolbox, there are a number of tools that can be used but haven't been used," he said. "And they haven't been used because every time they've been called for and I mean restricting the number of days that fishermen can fish or increasing the size of the mesh [in the nets], there has been tremendous opposition every step of the way. So what we ended up with year in and year out were regulations that weren't strong enough to meet the objectives recommended by scientists. This puts us into a cycle of having regulations put in place in one year, getting bad news that we haven't met our goals at the end of that year, requiring further restriction. And this is the cycle that's been happening." New restrictions would effect more than fishermen of course. The Portland Fish Exchange also employs over 50 workers, including auctioneers and their staff, marine maintenance workers and sorters. Marine welder Nate Dunford is concerned that tighter restrictions might threaten his job.
"We've been pretty busy in the last few months but have really been hesitant to hire new people, to train new people with upcoming regulations, not knowing what those effects are going to be on us," he said. "We're definitely looking at some amount of downsizing. It's just a matter of how bad it's gonna be is what we don't know"
Scientist Anthony Chatwin of the Conservation Law Foundation recognizes this concern but stresses the interdependence of the human and marine populations.
"We believe that the best situation for the human economy is when the fish populations are at the healthy levels," he said. "We recognize that there are a lot of people and a lot of businesses that are dependent on fishing and fishing needs to continue. What can't happen though is that if we try to prolong these activities, these economic activities, as much as possible at the expense of the fish population. These are renewable [resources] if we treat them as renewable. So if we allow the fish to replenish themselves, we can continue supporting the economic activity. If we don't, then the economic activities won't be able to be sustained."
When European settlers came to New England in the 1600s, fish like the Atlantic cod were so numerous that they could be caught easily with a hand-net. But by the late 1980s, scientists said the species was in danger of extinction. The regulations put in place during the 1990s limited the amount of cod that could be brought into harbor for sale. As a result, fishermen say, millions of kilograms of codfish are discarded dead overboard every year to stay within the law.
Norman MacIntyre, the general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, says that no one in this debate environmentalists, politicians, fishermen, buyers, auctioneers - likes to see fish discarded.
"The problem, of course, is that no one is controlling the fish! Fisheries management doesn't control fish. It controls people. And the intent is to manage the way people impact the fish," he said. "The fish, being unaware of all this [controversy and control] behave in obtuse ways. This is a multi-species fishery. There are, let's say, 15 species of fish, all swimming around in there together. So that when you drag for fish, you don't have a dial that you turn to codfish, haddock, hake and so on. You get what you get."
Other controversial aspects of the proposed new regulations include more days when the Gulf of Maine and Georges Banks fishing grounds are closed to fishermen. Fishermen say this would force them to sail farther in search of fish - a danger in harsh weather for those with smaller craft. Still, boat off-loading supervisor Ed Habin says that as long as there are fish, there will be those who brave the seas to catch them.
"Some guys, it's just a job. Some guys, that's their life. They don't want their life to go away," he said. "My father fished, his father fished, and his father fished. I want my son to fish and I want his son. It's more like an addiction than anything else! Once you get here, been here, it's tough to get away sometimes."
That is a reality that will probably persist long after those who favor or oppose the current rules are gone. The issue is how to conserve the fish so that there will be enough left for future generations.