Gail Isaksen remembers when the commercial fishing industry in New Bedford Harbor collapsed in the mid-1980s: Cash-strapped boat owners scrimped on maintenance, borrowed to buy supplies they couldn’t afford, only to see their livelihoods destroyed.
“I have a list of guys who still owe me money,” said Isaksen, 68, the owner of Fairhaven Shipyard. “I’m not getting paid. They’re not coming back.”
Today, though, Isaksen’s shipyard is busy again with customers who can afford to pay: scallop fishermen.
Unlike other ports around the country, New Bedford is flush with money from the richest fishery in the nation —
In a city with persistent high unemployment, poverty, and attendant drug and crime problems, the small mollusk is producing a stable livelihood for the more than four thousand fishermen and other workers who supply the fleet of draggers crowding this old port. Scallops make up an estimated 80 percent of the $411 million in landings in 2012, and the fishing industry as a whole generates some $1 billion a year in economic activity.
“There is such a trickle-down effect for people who sell fuel, who fix boats, who do welding, painting, cleaning,” said Isaksen. “The fishermen feel like they can spend money. They’re buying better cars now, better trucks. Instead of getting a run-of-the-mill Sierra, they are getting a Denali.”
Scallops are now averaging $12 a pound off the boat in New Bedford Harbor, at least double the prices of a decade ago, according to Jeff Bolton, vice president of sales at Atlantic Capes Fisheries, which has offices in Fall River and owns 17 scallop boats. A decade ago, fishermen got around $6 a pound. At one point a few weeks ago the dock prices briefly hit $15 a pound, the highest in local memory.
The scallop fishery is lucrative even though scallop fishermen are at sea for only about 90 days a year, said Deirdre Boelke, who coordinates the scallop plan for NOAA. Moreover, scallopers are worried about a proposed 1,000-pound reduction in their annual catch limits for next year in some fisheries to 12,000 pounds, a decrease regulators said is necessary to allow the prodigious stocks of juvenile scallops to grow even larger. NOAA is also proposing reducing the number of days fisherman can access other zones where there are no catch limits to 23 days from the current 33.
The work is demanding. Most New Bedford scallopers are fishing beds dozens of miles south or east of Nantucket. They rake the mollusks from the ocean bottoms using long steel mesh-like dredges, and the crew then sifts by hand through the mound of mud, rocks, and other bycatch to cull the round, flat shells. Once gathered the scallops are immediately shucked and put on ice.
The payoff, even with a few days at sea, can be great. On a good day, a boat can haul 4,000 pounds or more. Since the typical trip lasts 10 days, it’s possible for a boat to earn $500,000 on a single outing, said scallop captain Eric Hansen — or $40,000 for each fisherman.
“It’s not unheard of for a crew working a full-time boat to be at six figures” in income, said Hansen. “It goes to the car dealerships, support systems in the city — diesel mechanics, ice plants. It keeps the city alive.”
Hansen himself is proof of that.
Like so many others in this city he grew up poor, and still has vivid memories of the toll the collapse of groundfishing had on his colleagues and neighbors. Hansen, though, was lucky to obtain a scallop fishing license for free when he started hauling 25 years ago from his boat Endeavor. The same license cost $3.5 million today, he estimated.
And now he’s putting his fourth child through college.
“I would never have dreamed that things would be as good as they are,” Hansen said. Ten years ago even I would have never believed we’d be in this condition.”
New Bedford’s catch has become particularly popular among Europeans who prize the region’s wild-caught, oversized scallops, said Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney in Washington who works for the Fisheries Survival Fund, a trade association of scallop fishermen. “The big White Castle-burger-patty-sized scallop is unique to our fishery,” he said.
The health of North Atlantic scallops beds, ironically, stems from the closure of the once-rich fishing grounds on Georges Bank and other areas in the mid-1990s after years of overfishing led fish populations to nosedive. Even today much of Georges Banks is still closed to cod and other fishing, but in those early years the fishing moratoriums allowed the scallop population to explode.
But the scallopers couldn’t convince government regulators to let them drop their nets.
“We knew there was a mother lode of scallops out there, but they didn’t let us at them,” said Isaksen.
In response, the fishing industry created the Fisheries Survival Fund and teamed up with marine biologists at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth to prove its hunch. The scientists used submerged video cameras to record footage of the ocean floor, revealing extensive beds of fully grown, undisturbed scallops.
“Regions that were formerly closed had in fact been these great breeding grounds for scallops,” said Dan Georgianna, an economist at UMass Dartmouth who specializes in the fishing industry.
By the late 1990s, the scientific data had convinced the National Marine Fisheries Service to open previously closed areas to scallopers.
Now the fishery is tightly regulated, with scallop beds closed and opened on a rolling basis much the way farmers rotate crops. Once fishermen dredge a scallop bed, they leave it alone to allow a new crop to mature, which can that can take two to four years.
Meanwhile, some $10 million a year from the harvest is used to pay for ongoing scientific research to keep tabs on scallop populations, said John Bullard, a former New Bedford mayor who is the regional administrator for commercial fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The scallopers were like, ‘My God, look what we’ve done.’ We don’t want to ever get into a position where we were in the past,” said Bullard. “They have become tremendous stewards of this resource.”
However, scallopers and New Bedford officials are objecting to NOAA’s proposal to lower the catch limits for next year, the second straight year lands would decrease under the scallop-bed rotation plan. The New England Fishery Management Council is expected to recommend a new quota next month to the National Marine Fisheries Service, whose officials have final say on the limits.
Boelke, the NOAA scallop coordinator, said the lower catch limit is not driven by overfishing concerns. Rather, the current crop of scallops is too young.
“The scallops are there,” Boelke said. “They just aren’t ready.”
But scallopers fear the small catch will only serve to push prices up to the point where consumers will stop buying, and fishermen will make less money. Hansen, for example, said the catch limit should remain at the current 13,000 pounds, enough to sustain scallopers until new beds of scallops are opened in two years.
“We’re trying to build a bridge from one time of abundance to another time of abundance,” Hansen said.
The next few weeks could become contentious as the industry and regulators discuss the new limits. Meanwhile Isaksen worries about the future. Happy that fishermen and regulators can argue over the scallop bounty, she nonetheless has strong memories of how quickly a prosperous fishing community can lose its livelihood.
“You shouldn’t feel sorry for the fishermen now because they are making a lot of money,” said Isaksen. “How long is it going to last? Forever, I hope. We’re always waiting for the bubble to burst.”