The Gloucester Crisis: Environmentalists VS Fishermen?
Or: Depletion of Fisheries VS Fishermen Postponing Reality?
When the spectacularly dramatic movie, "The Perfect Storm," became a box office smash a few years ago, it focused a tremendous amount of national and international attention on the hazards fishermen face far out to sea. By riveting so many moviegoers on the colossal waves that can rise up from the sea to smash down a fragile fishing boat, the film - and book - also brought attention to the New England fishing town from which the story was drawn, Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Indeed, much of "The Perfect Storm" was filmed along - and offshore from - Gloucester's windswept coastline, which is the nation's oldest seaport (established in 1623), just an hour's drive from Boston. And the film has attracted wave after wave of camera-toting tourists, who roll into town to visit the places they saw in the movie, and to spend dollars.
What many tourists, moviegoers, and others who just read the book probably don't know, is that a gigantic storm of another kind has engulfed the entire fishing industry itself along the New England coast - and particularly in Gloucester. It's a storm of controversy. And while it has pitted environmental-minded groups against fishermen and commercial fishing interests, it has also united a community of fishermen against rigid new regulations they rage about as unfair and arbitrary. And like a menacing wave hurtling towards a small boat in a hurricane, the preliminary, court-ordered results of the controversy have crushed the wage-earning futures of numerous men who fish the sea for their bread and butter - just as their forefathers did decades and centuries before them.
The most recent manifestation of the "storm" of which we speak came to a head in May 2002. That was when U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered some prime fishing grounds off New England closed, and severely restricted the number of days Gloucester fishermen may go to sea to do their work. That judicial clap of thunder occurred because of a May 2000 lawsuit brought by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), an environmental / conservation organization headquartered in Boston, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The CLF's own research - and data from other sources such as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) - convinced the court that the fisheries offshore of Gloucester had become so severely depleted, so seriously over-harvested, that it was time for drastic measures. Judge Kessler mandated those drastic measures, even though she said at the time, (UPI 2002),"[this is] one of the hardest [decisions] this court has ever undertaken. The livelihood, indeed the way of life, of many thousands of individuals, families, small businesses and maritime communities will be affected."
But, she added, "The future of a natural resource - the once-rich, vibrant and healthy, and now severely depleted New England Northeast fishery - is at stake."
Meantime, it will perhaps be instructive to view the whole story, and understand its genesis. Leading up through the 1960s and into the mid-1970s, huge, technologically well equipped distant-water foreign fleets of fishermen (some with canning facilities on board) gorged on the world's richest fishing grounds offshore of New England and Gloucester. Those "richest fishing grounds" were the Georges Banks, about 75 miles east of Cape Cod. With so many fleets from the Soviet Union and Japan feasting on Georges' haddock, cod, flounder and other species, the annual Commonwealth catch slipped by 50%, from 500 million pounds of fish in 1960, to 250 million pounds in 1972 (Benchmarks 1999). Haddock landings (one of the huge moneymakers for Gloucester-area fishermen) fell off by more than 90%.
With this as a backdrop, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976. The legislation established a 200-mile territorial limit off U.S. shores. Meanwhile, the new law also established the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), to regulate fish stocks; and the law contained millions of dollars to vigorously promote American fishing interests. In a seeming frenzy of industry growth, federal money (loans) rolled in like a downpour in "The Perfect Storm." The healthy flow of cash helped individuals buy more technologically furnished fishing boats, and jobs were suddenly open for myriad welders, electricians, and other marine service-related positions. Also, regulatory authorities abandoned fish quotas, for the most part, and allowed the fleets to grow to enormous size. The number of fishing boats working off New England by the end of the 1970s had swelled to 1,423 from 825 at the outset of the decade (Georgianna, 1999).
All that furious build-up had a cost. By 1991, the commercial catch in the Commonwealth dipped to a point below what it had been before the Magnuson Act and the 200-mile limit. Clearly, fisheries had limits, but there had been no limit to the push for more harvesting. In an attempt to restore fading fish stocks, the NEFMC (in the 1990s) began reducing the number of days fishermen could work the sea ("days at sea," DAS). The actual result of these curtailments is a subject for debate. There is no debate however, that between the years 1992 to 1997, the number of fish processing plants in Massachusetts dipped from 130 to 75.
And with that background, we return to 2003, and present-day realities for Gloucester. A very restrictive new set of fishing restrictions, Amendment 13, that was to go into effect later this year, has been postponed until May, 2004. The postponement was due to errors in methodology that the NMFS utilized in researching fish populations in the Atlantic Ocean off the Gloucester coast.
What follows is a series of interviews conducted with local officials, environmentalists, and business people.
FIRST INTERVIEW: Mayor John Bell, Gloucester. By speakerphone 5/12/03.
Prior to the interview, Mayor Bell asked: "Now, who are you writing this for? What publication is this for?" And after an explanation that it was for a research article, and possibly for publication at a later date, he said, "We receive a number of calls from different individuals, and sometimes they don't represent the organizations that they purport to. We have to be aware, especially with this issue; it's such a volatile issue." And thus, the interview began.)
QUESTION: Is it possible the Magnuson Act is the genesis of today's problem? The government chased the Japanese and Soviets out of our waters, but they removed all quotas from fishing, and poured money into boats and equipment.
ANSWER: The Magnuson Act was supposed to be a partnership between the government and the fishing community. That partnership went split, went awry. It has taken time for the Magnuson Act to be corrected, and a partnership to be worked on. There are miles to go.
QUESTION: The $5.4 million in federal dollars coming in; what will that do to your community?
ANSWER: Very little. Very little. It's a band-aid.
QUESTION: To keep fishermen alive?
ANSWER: That doesn't keep fishermen alive. All that does is - we're grateful to have the money - but that five point five million is disbursed... there were 900 vessels qualified to apply for the money. I don't know how many did, but it's a drop in the bucket, in terms of keeping the infrastructure and the fleet alive. But you know, any port in a storm.
QUESTION: I just spoke with a woman whose husband can fish for 60 days this season, and that's all. Is that what most of the 160 fishing boats are facing?
ANSWER: Most have seen substantial reductions in days that they can fish. Overall the Gloucester fleet has been reduced by 75% since 1975.
QUESTION: Why was that? The reduction in the amount of fish out there?
ANSWER: No, it's just, you know, how much torture does an individual want to take, in trying to earn a living? The reduction in days at sea, the fact that its become so unsafe because when there's a reduction in days at sea, and a reduction in the area that you can fish, and those areas are pushed further out to sea, you then go out with fewer crew members, which means the whole profession becomes even more dangerous. It becomes more dangerous than described, which is already one of the most dangerous professions in the world.
QUESTION: Which "The Perfect Storm" illustrated quite vividly.
ANSWER: Well, the [famous statue of a fisherman] in Gloucester shows 6,000 names of men lost at sea; that tells you how dangerous it is.
QUESTION: Mayor, can you tell me what the economic realities of your town are today?
ANSWER: Well, four or five decades ago, almost 75% of our community earned their living at sea. Or with shore supporting facilities. Today, it's somewhere in the ten to fifteen percent category.
QUESTION: One of your city councilmen mentioned that there are powerful development interests from the New York area, determined to buy up ocean view land and build communities of condos. How do you prevent their intrusion?