GLOUCESTER — The clatter reverberated in the refrigerated cold as workers offloaded fish and wheeled full bins into a storage area on Fisherman’s Wharf. The catch was sorted, weighed, labeled, and eventually loaded onto large trucks headed for New York.
It was a big haul, but not a big payday for Tom Testaverde Jr., captain of the Midnight Sun.
Back from a three-day trip, Testaverde estimated that he and his five-member crew had caught about 20,000 pounds of silver hake — also known as whiting, a seasonal fish popular in the New York City — which is typical for Ipswich Bay at this time of year.
“Our season’s been good. We caught a lot of fish, but the prices have been killing us all year,” Testaverde said. He pointed to imports that drive prices down, and regulations that limit what kinds of fish he can catch.
Those federal limits on some species — particularly groundfish such as cod and flounder — are at odds with what commercial fishermen say they are seeing in the ocean.
“I had to run away from codfish all year,” Testaverde said. “I found that in [the Gulf of] Maine, in the deep water, inshore [in Gloucester], down on Cape Cod, on Georges [Bank], everywhere. Everywhere, there’s cod.”
He caught three times his cod quota for the year — which is 850 pounds — by accident, while fishing for haddock. He had to buy another fisherman’s quota, which allowed him to use the limit from another license, but that cut into his profit.
He’s not alone. Another Gloucester fisherman, Al Cottone, said at times there’s been so much cod, it’s gotten in the way of catching flounder, his intended target. “There’s way too many fish out there,” Cottone said. “It’s a vicious cycle we’re stuck in right now.”
Depending on the timing, cod can bring in $3.50 a pound; flounder, as much as $5. Whiting prices vary daily, but the highest is about $1.50, and with packing and shipping costs added, a boat can lose money on the fish.
There hasn’t been a large enough quota for fishermen to intentionally catch cod for four years, said Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, which contends the federal limits on groundfish such as cod and flounder contradict what commercial fishermen are finding. The coalition has launched an effort to have input into the research done by the federal government as it sets the regulations.
“We’ve been seeing it for the past two decades, but more so in the past seven or eight years, especially on the [flounder and cod],” Giacalone said. “What we’ve seen in the last seven or eight years is that you can catch any fish you want at any time. That’s how available it is. So, we’re certain that the government estimates are wrong.”
Giacalone noted that scientists have a huge area to cover, and variables such as fish behavior — sometimes swimming near the top, sometimes the bottom, or abandoning certain geographic areas that are still included in the surveys — can influence the results.
The management plans are written by the New England Fishery Management Council in Newburyport, with input from several sources, including stock assessments from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole. The assessments include surveys and catch and discard numbers from the commercial fishing industry, said Teri Frady, spokeswoman for the center.
The Northeast Seafood Coalition wants to play a bigger role by providing more information from the field. To do so, it is fund-raising to hire independent scientists to develop a method of collecting information that could be shared with government officials to develop more accurate assessments of species numbers.
“What [the regulators] should be doing is using the industry’s data to come up with a relative abundance index,” Giacalone said. “We realize it’s difficult because it has to be standardized, [and] it has to be unbiased. But until they admit that they could be getting it wrong, by a lot, they’re never going to put that work in. What the coalition is trying to do is shine a light on that.”
Frady said the NOAA center in Woods Hole is interested in any input.
“We can always use more information, especially in a time when we know environmental conditions are changing in the ocean,” she said, “and we are interested in people who can help us do that.”
In an e-mail statement, Jon Hare, the center’s science and research director, also indicated a willingness to listen to the coalition’s proposal.
“We are very interested in working with Northeast Seafood Coalition and others to improve data and to discuss new data sources,” Hare said.