One Fish, Two Fish, No Fish
A new approach tries to save the sea's bounty—and those whose jobs depend on it
Since the new Magnuson Act put a cap on fisheries, cooperatives are becoming a means of defending one's share of the pie. In New England alone, the regional fishery council is now considering proposals for at least 17. "What you're seeing in New England is a complete regime shift," says Eric Brazer Jr., the Cape Cod cooperative's policy coordinator. He says regulations focus on the wrong controls, like limiting days at sea. "There's been very little emphasis on the root of the problem: how many fish you can take out of the ocean."
For New England, that question has yet to be decided. The regional council is waiting for an answer from biologists that will determine the new fishing limits. The number will take months to be decided. But already fishermen are at war over how the pie will be sliced. There will be winners and losers, likely for good, in this generations-old industry. "This will be the battle to end all battles in groundfish," says David Goethel of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.
Future fish. In the argument over how to distribute future fish under new catch limits, many in Gloucester accuse the cape co-op of trying to use the government deal to its advantage by now pushing for one's catch history to determine how much fish one gets in the future. Without trip limits, the Cape Cod group is at something of an advantage. So are the fishermen who've found ways to dodge regulations. The Gloucester coalition wants days at sea to factor into one's future fish allocation. Some fishermen from the cape find that unfair, as it could benefit people who no longer fish but lease their days at sea to people who do. Right now, the council is leaning toward catch history.
Indeed, days at sea seems destined to become a thing of the past. In more bad news for Gloucester, the number of days at sea allocated for next year is likely to drop again, which may force active fishermen to buy up or lease more permits from others. They could try to get around some restrictions, such as trip limits, by joining a cooperative. "People feel like the only way they can survive is if they go into a [cooperative]," says the Northeast Seafood Coalition's Jackie Odell.
No one likes the current system. And even critics concede that cooperatives offer fishermen more operating flexibility. But the regulatory push has generated widespread resentment. The coalition has proposed 12 cooperatives to the council, but reluctantly. "If that's what the feds say we have to do," muses Gloucester fisherman Russell Sherman, "then I have to do it. I want to survive. But I don't think [a cooperative] is all that it's cracked up to be."
He points to the Cape Cod cooperative's relatively modest performance. The group is entitled to up to 20 percent of the total codfish target set annually by regulators. There are no penalties for exceeding that target, a frequent occurrence. The co-op, however, is catching only 3 percent. Part of the reason, says Brazer, is that there are few codfish left—itself a matter of dispute. The other reason speaks directly to the fears of many fishermen like Sherman: The co-op hasn't sustained a lot of livelihoods. Half of its original 50 members are gone. Cape Cod's Brazer points out that consolidation is happening everywhere. But he also argues that New England still suffers from too many boats chasing too few fish. "If consolidation is necessary," he says, "let us figure out how to do it as [a cooperative], as the town of Chatham."