A few weeks ago, second-generation commercial fisherman B.G. Brown almost gave up. He had learned how much fish he can legally catch in the coming year. The numbers were shockingly low.
“I was ready to throw in the towel,’’ Brown told a crowd of about 40 local business people, political leaders, concerned community members, and fellow fishermen that gathered last week to discuss the uncertain future of Gloucester’s historic industry.
There is consensus in the city that serious trouble is looming. During the past several years, economic and environmental concerns about overfishing have pushed federal regulators to steadily tighten annual catch limits. Last fall, the US Commerce Department declared an economic disaster in the Northeast groundfish fishery area.
In response to these challenges, local activist and former city councilor Valerie Nelson organized last week’s forum to examine the pressures facing the fishing industry and begin to explore both immediate and long-term solutions.
Almost everyone who spoke agreed that regulators should loosen the quota cuts for the coming year. If the current catch limits stand, the industry could be harmed irreparably, several speakers said.
“The only thing that’s going to make me survive May 1 — and it’s just around the corner — is if I get more fish,’’ said Gloucester fisherman Joseph Orlando.
In January, The New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees commercial fishing in the region, cut the quota for Gulf of Maine cod by 77 percent for the next three fishing years, beginning May 1. The limits on other species, including haddock and yellowtail flounder, also will be dropped significantly.
“I don’t know a fisherman in Gloucester who is going to survive this cut coming up,’’ said Vito Giacalone, president of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund and a policy expert with the Northeast Seafood Coalition
, which works with government regulators. “We have a complete emergency right now.’’
At the beginning of the month, 33 state legislators — including Republican Senator Bruce Tarr and Democratic Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, both of Gloucester — sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service
, which sets catch limits, asking for a temporary change that would “reduce, but not end, overfishing’’ of cod and haddock during the coming year.
However, fishermen and their allies have not yet submitted a specific proposal for what these reductions would look like, said Allison McHale, assistant to John Bullard, the regional administrator for NOAA’s Northeast Regional Office.
“If it’s not clear, let’s meet,’’ Tarr told McHale at last week’s conference. “Let’s sit at a table.’’
Questions and comments from the attendees demonstrated the community’s frustrations.
Community member Leslie Sarofeen wondered how the letters and petitions coming out of Gloucester have failed to provoke action.
“It is mind-boggling to me why we cannot break through on this issue,’’ she said.
A repeated theme was whether the science behind fishing regulations is providing reliable estimates of fish stocks, and thus developing sound policy.
Giacalone pointed to yellowtail flounder. The species had been in short supply for several years, but is suddenly abundant this year, he said. Nonetheless, the yellowtail quota for next year has been cut in half.
Most people assume that federal regulations are based on the best available science, but that is simply not the case, Tarr said.
Damon Cummings, a Gloucester resident and former professor of ocean engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that scientists do not have nearly enough data to make accurate generalizations about entire populations of fish. He suggested that a long-term solution could include scientists paying to charter fishing boats for expeditions, allowing fishermen to boost their income and scientists to gather information.
Other forum speakers proposed additional ideas for strengthening the industry. The suggestions included building a fish hatchery, investing in more fuel-efficient ships, and developing new markets for less popular species of fish.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk was unable to attend the forum, but sent word that she is offering her support to a working group designed to create a detailed, long-term strategy for dealing with the challenges presented by the decline of the fishing industry.
“We need to manage those impacts going forward,’’ Kirk said in a phone call last week.
The working group, which is expected to convene in late April, and last week’s forum are just the first steps in trying to coordinate a lasting solution to Gloucester’s fishing industry problems.