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Facing restrictions, fishermen welcome possible disaster aid

Fisherman Bob Tice gets in his skiff after mooring his boat in Green Harbor.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

Fisherman Bob Tice gets in his skiff after mooring his boat in Green Harbor.

MARSHFIELD — Paul Krzyzewski of Marshfield makes all of his income from fishing, and next year, he doesn’t know how he is going to survive.

For the fishing year that begins May 1, federal catch limits for major species such as cod and flounder are projected to be significantly reduced — Georges Bank cod by 70 percent.

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So even as South Shore fishermen welcomed the prospect of aid from a preemptive federal disaster declaration announced in September, they criticized fishery management practices.

Not only are the potential cuts daunting, they said, but unprecedented competition from large boats in near-shore waters has hurt the mostly smaller boats that populate harbors in Marshfield, Plymouth, and Scituate, particularly over the past year.

Northeast commercial fishermen — small and large boats alike — could receive a total of up to $100 million in aid as a result of the disaster declaration. The decision allows, but does not require, Congress to appropriate money. The congressional delegations of affected states are seeking the funds.

Aid or not, the lower catch limits will hurt, Krzyzewski said. “That’s going to kill everybody.”

He owns the 27-foot vessel Desperado, docked in Green Harbor in Marshfield, and fishes for striped bass, bluefish, tuna, cod, and lobster, but only in good weather, because his boat is small.

Other South Shore fishermen said large boats are fishing closer to shore, sweeping through Stellwagen Bank, north of Provincetown, and quickly catching fish that smaller operators might have spent a whole season catching.

Marshfield charter fisherman Steven James, president of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association, said that last winter, large boats, which normally fish Georges Bank, farther from shore, “hammered” Stellwagen Bank for the first time.

“They crushed Stellwagen,” he said. “What’s happening is they’re fishing where the fishing is best.”

Regulators point out that several key fish stocks are not rebuilding their numbers as expected, and without healthy populations of fish, there will be nothing left to catch. Fishermen, too, support healthy stocks, but some doubt the accuracy of stock assessments.

Meanwhile, in the case of cod, environmental factors — not overfishing — have been the problem recently, according to Johanna Thomas, New England director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program. A complex array of factors, some of them climate related, have contributed to the decline, including warmer waters and movement of prey away from the area, she said.

“It’s akin to the drought that’s affecting farmers,” she said.

The disaster declaration applies to groundfish species, which live near the ocean floor. It does not include shellfish.

People who make their living from groundfish charter fishing — taking recreational passengers out to fish — could see disaster aid even though the declaration targets mainly commercial fishermen, according to Monica Allen, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

If Congress appropriates money, individual states will work to craft disbursement plans, and those plans could include charters, she said. Charters represent a significant part of the fishing business on the South Shore, according to James.  

Pembroke resident Jeremy Figueiredo, who runs about six charters a year from Marshfield as a sideline to his work in medical device sales, said business is down. “It’s one of the slower years, for sure, between the regulations, the economy, and the price of fuel,” he said.

He fishes with the 35-foot vessel Go Figueire, primarily on Stellwagen Bank, for cod, haddock, pollock, tuna, and shark, depending on the time of year. This year, he expects to make fewer trips.

In Scituate, charter fisherman Tom King said rules limit customers to nine cod each. If that number goes down, they will not want to charter if they can’t get their money’s worth, he said.

With regard to competition on Stellwagen, John Bullard, regional administrator for the northeast office of NOAA Fisheries Service and a former mayor of New Bedford, said he is aware of the South Shore fishermen’s complaint. Named to the post in July, he spent August and September on a listening tour of northeast ports, stopping in Scituate on Aug. 24.  

Behind the complaint, he said, is a situation in which fishermen are having a hard time finding cod. The price for cod is high, so when fishermen have trouble finding it, they move around. Bullard said regulators increased the limit this year to give fishermen some relief, but it appears they won’t reach the quota because they can’t catch enough cod.

NOAA has been working with the New England Fishery Management Council to open offshore areas that were previously closed, Bullard said, in part so that larger boats will go offshore and fish for species that are not overfished, such as haddock. If they do, it could take pressure off inshore waters.

Federal estimates of 2013 catch limits released in July show potential reductions, compared with 2012, of 70 percent for Georges Bank cod, 72 percent for Gulf of Maine cod, and 51 percent for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder.

If sharp reductions come to pass, Bob Pronk expects business to be off 25 percent at his wife’s Marshfield store, Green Harbor Bait and Tackle, which he manages. “Rest assured that every tackle store around here will be really affected by this,” he said.

Maggie Mooney-Seus, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries Service, said the New England Fishery Management Council will continue to work for the next several months to finalize catch limits for next year.

The Northeast Seafood Coalition, which represents about 255 large and small fishing businesses, does not want to pit small boats against large ones on the Stellwagen issue, spokesman Nick Brancaleone said. The larger issue is fish stocks, and why, despite years of compliance from fishermen, some stocks are not rebounding as anticipated, he said.

“Everything needs to be put on the table” for a wide-lens discussion of a complex ecosystem, he said. “Ultimately, our position is the whole system needs to be reviewed, and that includes getting better stock assessments.”

The northeast groundfish fishery operates under a catch-share system that went into effect on May 1, 2010. Groups of vessels organized into “sectors” receive shares of the total allowable commercial catch. Many fishermen have criticized the system for putting small operators out of business, saying the buying and selling of shares favors consolidation by large, multivessel operations.

Thomas, of the Environmental Defense Fund, however, said that given the declining fish populations, fishermen would be having an even harder time if they were still under the old days-at-sea rules.

Her organization calls catch shares “the way forward,” saying on its website that the system gives fishermen a stake in sustainability, because if a fish stock goes up, the amount guaranteed to each fisherman goes up, too.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.
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