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Fishermen joining forces for survival

Co-ops could increase efficiency

By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / April 26, 2009
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Still reeling from new federal regulations that will cut fishermen's days at sea and cost the region's fishing industry $17.4 million a year, local fishermen are seeking to form cooperatives that they hope would help them catch their annual allotted quota more efficiently.

"Our responsibility is for fishing communities to survive," said Vito Giacalone, president of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund. Giacalone, a longtime fishing advocate and fisherman, said the cooperatives, called sectors by the federal government, could bring stability to the industry, which has struggled in recent years as it faces stiff federal regulations and a government mandate to rebuild overfished stocks of cod, flounder, and haddock.

The concept of sectors is expected to be approved in June by the New England Fishery Management Council - which drafts federal fishing regulations - and also later this year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

If approved, the program would begin in May 2010 and be optional for fishermen who would still have the choice of fishing alone and using their days at sea permit.

Since the early 1600s, mariners have fished the waters off of what is now northern Massachusetts, and today Gloucester still calls itself the country's oldest working seaport. Fishing thrived until two decades ago, when modern boats equipped with sophisticated electronic fish-finding devices helped deplete most of the bottom-dwelling fish.

Over the last decade, fishermen have seen their work days cut to an average of 24 a year. Earlier this month, still citing the need to rebuild the stocks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced another 18 percent cut - with most fishermen now allowed to fish around 20 days a year with their permit.

In order to stay in business, some fishermen have purchased additional federal permits and have leased unused fishing days from permit holders. In 2008, Giacalone and other fishermen formed the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund with $12.6 million in mitigation funds from companies that built liquefied natural gas terminals off the coast of Gloucester.

Over the last two years, the fund purchased dozens of federal fishing permits - freeing up more than 1,000 fishing days, which were leased to local fishermen for $50 to $100 per day - below the lease market rate of $300 a day.

But now, with the 18 percent cut in days at sea, the fund will have at least 180 fewer days to lease during the next year.

As the government was announcing its cut in days at sea, it also unveiled a $16 million program that will help ease the transition for some from days at sea to fishing sectors.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - which oversees federal fishing regulations - $10 million will be used to develop data reporting and fishery monitoring systems for the planned cooperatives, and $6 million will be allocated for research projects that would bring fishermen and government scientists together to assess and survey stocks.

None of the funds will go toward direct subsidies for fishermen.

Giacalone said his organization, along with the Northeast Seafood Coalition - which also lobbies for fishermen and fishing industries - is creating sectors that would accommodate around 150 northern Massachusetts fishing boats. Giacalone said the sectors would focus on catching individual species.

"Each will be able to catch a certain amount of quota for each stock," said Giacalone, who also added that it would reduce the practice of discarding dead fish at sea.

Currently, fishermen can only catch up to 1,000 pounds of cod a day, and often have to throw away hundreds of pounds of dead fish after each catch.

Thomas Nies, a fishing analyst for the New England Fishery Management Council, said total annual catch quotas for fishermen in the northeast would be set by the council in the fall.

Area fishermen, who contend that most fishing stocks have been rebuilt, said the latest cut in work days would inflict further pain on a struggling industry. Several also questioned the wisdom of forming fishing cooperatives.

"Nobody likes the cuts. How are you going to support a family and kids with 20 days, are you kidding me?" said Joe Orlando, who has fished in Gloucester since 1974.

Orlando also said he's in debt after spending $500,000 in recent years to purchase additional fishing permits so he could work extra days. He favors a government bailout for local fishermen.

Orlando wants to learn more about the fishing cooperatives and the formula that they would use to compensate fishermen. He also wants to know how much fish the government would allow them to catch. "We need to know what they're going to give us for a quota," he said.

Dustin Ketchopulos, a Rockport fisherman, said he wanted more details about the planned cooperatives but was skeptical of government oversight. "I'm nervous about it, I don't think it's going to work out.

"You don't pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to go into a business so someone can tell you where you can go to work. I don't trust it," he said.

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.