IT HAS BEEN MORE THAN 30 YEARS since Russell Sherman nearly died in the ocean off the coast of Maine, but the Gloucester fisherman remembers as if it were yesterday. He spent 14 hours adrift in 20-foot seas that November night in 1978 after the boat he was working on sank and two of the five people on board drowned.
He remembers standing in the engine room, knee-deep in water, before the boat went down; when the fear hit him, he started vomiting. He remembers the rescue helicopter that buzzed overhead that night as he flailed below, invisible in the black water, and he remembers looking up in the dawn light to see Cadillac Mountain. Weak and half frozen, clinging to an aluminum skiff, he started paddling toward it.
Sherman relishes telling the story, and he paces it slowly, deliberately, every well-burnished detail building the suspense. It seems safe to guess that part of his pleasure comes from knowing how it will end: with his unlikely survival, every time.
But this is not the story he has come to tell this stormy Sunday afternoon. Today’s story has no ending yet and concerns a different kind of danger, one that has been bearing down for decades on the 65-year-old captain of the Lady Jane and his fellow fishermen. When he starts to speak of that calamity — the collapse of New England groundfishing — Sherman’s manner changes, fear and anger roiling close to the surface. It is clear he feels himself flailing again in deep water.
This time, though, his rescue is uncertain. After years of watching the government cut the amount of fish they can catch and watching their incomes shrink, Sherman and his peers find themselves on the brink of extinction. On May 1, fishery managers enacted the most drastic catch limits ever seen in the history of New England fishing, slashing the amount of cod that may be caught in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent and sharply cutting other groundfish catches like haddock and flounder.
Sherman, who is just back from some 40 miles offshore, gazes out the rain-streaked window of a Gloucester coffee shop, his worried eyes the palest blue against his windburned face.
“Scared to death,” he says, his eyes averted. “I’m scared to death.”
IT SEEMS AS IF the picture has always been with us: the fisherman, hardy and courageous, battling the elements alone. He is a symbol of rugged endurance, a beloved touchstone of our coastal culture — the rower striving to outrun the advancing storm in Winslow Homer’s Fog Warning.
But fishermen were not always a colorful, romantic symbol of New England life, part of the region’s draw for tourists and artists alike. They first took on that significance in the late 1800s, maritime historian Matthew McKenzie says, as middle-class Americans, concerned about urbanization, came to see them as a vital link to the country’s hard-working origins.
Homer helped bring about the shift with his paintings of heroic fishermen. The writer Rudyard Kipling cemented it, in 1897, with his popular story Captains Courageous, about a ne’er-do-well teenager transformed by his work on a Gloucester fishing schooner. The iconic image of the New England fisherman, with his salty beard and sou’wester hat, has persisted ever since. And in some ways, the icon has stood in the way of the industry’s progress, says McKenzie, an assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut.
“The problem is, when the public sees fishermen through that lens, they can’t see the fishing industry as modern, flexible, creative, and adaptive,” he says. “These guys are plugged into a sophisticated international fish market; they adapt to new structures and technologies. So why do we resist that?”
Resistance makes it harder to look forward, toward a viable new model for the industry, says McKenzie, who was raised in Falmouth and sits on the New England Fishery Management Council. And it has added another burden for fishermen, who must worry not only about their own personal survival but also about the potential loss of 400 years of culture and tradition.
“People want to see the ocean as a timeless thing that links us to the past,” says McKenzie. “But the ocean is not timeless. It is changing.” He adds, “Maybe it’s time to unshackle ourselves from the past.”
In the faraway past, cod were storybook plentiful. Their abundance in New England made men wealthy, and the fish itself became a symbol of prosperity, a wooden carving of a cod hanging in the State House. In time, though, the cod became more elusive, its decline driving decades of ratcheting regulations and tensions.
Predictions of groundfishing’s demise go back at least a century. “In 10 years from now, I do not believe there will be a fish there,” steam trawler captain Francis Carroll testified before Congress in 1912, part of a failed attempt by fishermen to limit the use of aggressive new trawling equipment on Georges Bank.
Beginning in the 1970s, fishermen would become the victims of their own success. Fish stocks, already depleted by fleets of factory trawlers, shrank further because of an influx of new boats and better technology. The government stepped in with an ever-evolving net of restrictions: on their days at sea, the gear they could use, and the species they could catch. Captains who had long roamed freely saw the ocean divided into sectors, the assignment of quotas, and the introduction of monitors, onboard supervisors sent to scrutinize their methods. Many railed against the changes, but with few other choices, most came to accept the trade-off the government offered: Follow our rules, regulators told them, and the days of plenty will return.
That promise was made explicit — tantalizingly so — in 2004. A revision of regulations that year known as Amendment 13, one of a series of updates to the regional fishery management plan, laid out a blueprint for ending overfishing and rebuilding depleted groundfish stocks. The timetable was specific and ambitious. By 2014, it said, the stocks would be rebuilt.
Cod fishermen say they followed the plan to the letter, accepting the cost as an investment in their futures. And it looked like their efforts were paying off. In 2008, an assessment of the plan’s progress found results that were even better than expected. Catch restrictions were eased, and fishermen, their view long fixed on doomsday predictions, dared to hope that better days might lie ahead.
“People got excited,” says Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, a lobbying group that has provided job retraining and health insurance for struggling fishermen. “Some people went out and bought boats.”
But their hopes would soon be dashed. Scientists reversed their optimistic outlook in 2011, when another assessment found that cod stocks were not rebounding at anywhere near the rapid rate seen three years earlier. The scientists said a better mathematical model allowed them to account for, and downplay the importance of, spikes in some fish counts that distorted earlier results. But the explanation mattered little to stunned fishermen.
For many of them, it was the end of hope, the final shattering of an always-fragile pact. More turmoil followed — in September 2012, the US Department of Commerce declared the Northeastern groundfish industry a disaster, a step that allows Congress to appropriate financial relief, and the New England Fishery Management Council approved the unprecedented cutbacks in January — but fishermen were already wrestling with life-altering decisions.
The science of fishery management, in the view of many fishermen, has never been precise or accurate enough to do the job the law requires of it. And the picture has become more complicated, fishermen and fishery managers agree, as climate change and warming oceans affect fisheries.
“The humans have been brought under control, but it’s still haywire,” Scituate fisherman Frank Mirarchi says. “I can’t get to a point of stability, because the system delivers endless chaos.”
IT IS UNCLEAR whether the fish can make a comeback, and the prospects for fishermen look even worse. From 2001 to 2011, the number of federally licensed groundfishing boats working in the Northeast plummeted from 1,019 to 344, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In Massachusetts, where 312 groundfishing boats were active in 2009, about 200 remain today. In Gloucester, an estimated 70 boats are still active. Fisherman Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Gloucester-based advocacy group the Northeast Seafood Coalition, says he expects fewer than half to survive the new restrictions.
“I doubt there will be 35 left if nothing changes,” he says. “I’d be shocked if 50 percent survive.”
It is difficult to imagine Gloucester without fishing; the city has long been defined by its working harbor and Sicilian fishing families. For generations, paintings of fishing boats hung in the vestibule of the stone-faced Holy Family church, a tribute to the captains who were leading benefactors. Every June, thousands still flock to the St. Peter’s Fiesta on the waterfront to celebrate the blessing of its fishing fleet.
The paintings are gone now, and the fleet seems anything but blessed. The high school football team is still called the Fishermen, but the mayor of Gloucester, Carolyn Kirk, envisions a future where fishing is only one feature of the working waterfront. She is looking to diversify the local economy, to use existing port infrastructure to attract new industries like marine technology.
Local fishermen long ago devised their own methods for shaping the future. To steer his children away from fishing, Gloucester fisherman Al Cottone says he decided to deny them any taste of its addictive freedom. Cottone, 47, says his son went fishing with him twice. After that, the father rebuffed his requests.
“I didn’t want him to get the same fever I did,” he says. “I didn’t tell him the reason why. I just said, ‘It can’t happen.’ ”
The fisherman’s son is now 19 and has finished his freshman year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is studying marketing. “I just hope I can afford to keep him there,” says Cottone, captain of the 45-foot Sabrina Maria, named for his daughter, who is in high school.
Five years ago, Cottone was able to catch 100,000 pounds of cod. Then his quota was put at 35,000 pounds. Now it is 5,000 pounds. He describes the rapid collapse as being like “an out-of-body experience.” He says he is looking for another job, though he doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Cottone’s father, now 78, started fishing when he was 9 years old in Italy. He is heartbroken, Cottone says, that the legacy he handed down with pride has delivered his son to this anxious crossroads.
“His great-grandfather fished, his grandfather, his father, him, and me,” says Cottone.
“And that’s it. That’s the end of it.”
Months after the federal disaster declaration, there has been no aid approved by Congress for the industry, no talk of a boat buyback program like the one the federal government offered in the 1990s. Among their other problems, fishermen say, is the bad timing of their day of reckoning: Their powerful legislative champions of the past — Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry; congressman Barney Frank — are gone.
Senator Elizabeth Warren has been supportive in her first months in office, meeting with industry leaders and introducing an amendment that would allow the next federal budget to provide them disaster relief, but she lacks the clout of a longtime legislator. Attorney General Martha Coakley launched a more aggressive effort when she filed a lawsuit in May against the NOAA, alleging the agency used flawed science and ignored the economic consequences when it crafted the new cutbacks. She asked the courts to suspend the reductions, which she called “a death penalty” for fishing. A similar lawsuit in 2006 led to some relief for fishermen.
Gloucester fisherman Cottone says he is glad Coakley has taken a stand. But like many others in the industry, he has little faith the courts can act in time to change anything. “Any time you’re talking about a lawsuit, you’re talking years, and we need help immediately,” he says. “If we win it, it’s a victory. But I don’t know how many guys can hang on until that happens.”
Fishermen everywhere survive by riding highs, chasing squid or flounder when the cod are scarce. But in Chatham, tucked into the elbow of Cape Cod, the men who make their living on the sea have engaged in a deeper kind of adaptation, trying to switch mind-sets as they switch their fishing gear. There, in the Cape’s most active fishing port, fishermen began aggressively diversifying their catches a decade ago. They turned instead to fish with less familiar names, fish not yet enshrined in the halls of the State House. Monkfish. Dogfish. Skate.
“Here, people have moved on,” says John Pappalardo, the head of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association and the former chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council. “Nobody here makes a living on cod anymore.”
There are some advantages to their new targets. Dogfish are generally found within 10 miles of shore, which helps rein in fuel costs. But as the Chatham fishermen try to enlarge the market for the fish they catch, they face enormous obstacles. Most consumers are partial to fish they have heard of and eaten since childhood. Skate and monkfish are popping up on more restaurant menus, but the bulk of the skate and dogfish caught here is still shipped to Europe and Asia.
Gathered around a conference-room table in the fading late-afternoon light at their spacious headquarters, the Chatham fishermen take quiet pride in their survival. They are living with a new reality and, for the most part, they accept it. But just below the surface run deep currents of nostalgia, for the halcyon days of the early 1980s when supply was back up and a boat could score 10,000 pounds of cod a day.
THE MAN WHO IS THE FACE of the 77 percent cut isn’t making any promises; John Bullard, the regional NOAA administrator, knows better. A former mayor of New Bedford, the state’s largest fishing port, Bullard likes to talk about the scalloping revival of the 1990s, when once-depleted scallop stocks surged back to health in part because vast swaths of scallop beds were closed to fishing. But practically in the same breath, he raises the specter of Newfoundland and eastern Canada, where cod fishing was banned in the early 1990s. Twenty years later, the cod have not come back.
“There are no guarantees,” Bullard says.
He acknowledges the latest cuts are devastating and unfair to fishermen, because forces far beyond them may be driving the decline: rapidly changing ocean chemistry, a shifting mix of predators and prey, warming waters that are likely driving cod away. Still, he says, even without fully comprehending the factors at play, the move to halt most Gulf of Maine cod fishing on May 1 offered the best chance to save the fishery.
“If we didn’t do this, it would be slow strangulation, by always agreeing to the requests of the industry to let them catch a little more fish,” says Bullard. “Now the question is — and it is a momentous question — whether we can bring the fish back and still have fishermen to catch them.”
The region’s remaining groundfishing boats are “400 right whales, which we consider an endangered species,” he says. “If I lose one boat, it’s 399. That’s what I think about every night.”
It is what Frank Mirarchi was thinking about, too, as he sat onboard his boat, the Barbara L. Peters, tied up to the pier in Scituate in March. He had caught his cod quota — his own allocation of 25,000 pounds, plus another 15,000 pounds he had leased from other fishermen — and now he had to wait to fish again until May 1, the start of the new fishing year.
The 69-year-old was hoarse with laryngitis that had lingered. He attributed his slow recovery to stress — the stress of not being able to fish, and of contemplating the looming 77 percent hit to his livelihood. Already, he was just eking by. He had not taken a paycheck in three years and at that point was living off his Social Security checks.
“I’ve never sat around like this in my life,” he said. “I feel so good when I’m fishing — I don’t feel 69. But I feel like I’m 99 right now.”
Seven commercial fishing boats remain in Scituate, and they have worked hard to strengthen their position. They are part of a “traceable fish” movement that tags fish sold in supermarkets with the names of the local boats and captains who caught them. Just last year, Mirarchi says, they began supplying a community-supported fishery, similar to a co-op, with 75 South Shore subscribers who pay to have fresh fish delivered weekly. It is a tiny venture — a few hundred pounds of fish a week, when the fishermen need to sell thousands of pounds to survive — but it buys a little bit of time and counters yet another ominous trend in the industry: 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported. By promoting local catches, the fishermen hope to build demand for their product. But the uncertain supply stands in their way.
“We’re trying to develop local branding,” he said, “but you have to have fish to do that. People eat 365 days a year — they don’t eat for a month and take a month off.”
Mirarchi fished for many years with his son, who planned to take over his boat when he retired. When Mirarchi had his third and final vessel built in 2005, his son helped design it. But the 38-year-old, who has a 1-year-old son, has since given up on his dream of a future at the wheel of the Barbara L. Peters. He just took a job with a Boston fish processor.
In his extra time in port, Mirarchi has been helping to spearhead improvements to the town pier, including a new sign that will describe its history. He finds himself wondering what the sign will say: that fishermen tie up their boats there? Or that they once did, back when there were fishermen in Scituate?
“I don’t want to be the last fisherman,” he says.
THE BELLS IN DOWNTOWN GLOUCESTER are tolling 9 o’clock as Russell Sherman unloads his catch on a bitter late-winter morning. Gulls scream overhead as black crates packed full of silvery fish are hoisted high above the deck of the Lady Jane; they swing through the air, into the side of a huge tan warehouse where young men in rubber boots wade through piles of bloody crushed ice to receive them.
“Three thousand [pounds of] cod,” one of the men calls out playfully as Sherman’s catch is weighed. “And they say they’re gone. . . . Damn scientists don’t know no better.”
Sherman is outside hosing down the emptied crates, his winter hat pulled down low over his sunglasses. His 24-hour trip 40 miles offshore, near an area known as Wildcat Knoll, has also netted him 2,500 pounds of pollock and 1,200 pounds of other fish, including haddock, redfish, and gray sole. He won’t know how much it’s worth until the next morning, when graders show up at 4 o’clock to rate the fish and bids come in. But his mood is expansive as the work winds down.
“I remember reading Dostoevsky as a kid,” says the Harvard-educated fisherman, who studied history and planned to be a teacher but fell in love with fishing his first summer out of college. “It was the essence of success to be a bureaucrat in czarist Russia, and it’s the same way now. People who use our own hands and legs and wits to earn a living — we are the counterculture.”
By 10 a.m., Sherman accepts a pink receipt for his catch and backs his royal blue rust-fringed boat away from Fishermen’s Wharf, making way for the aqua-colored Midnight Sun behind him.
Sherman says he made $19,800 last year; he also collected unemployment. His house was paid off for six days, he says, before he had to remortgage it to get another loan. His blood pressure is too high. He is prone to conspiracy theories. Out on the ocean, he obsesses about the past: “I go over and over and over it in my head.”
He is, in short, like many fishermen, whose symptoms, close observers say, resemble PTSD.
“They’re angry,” says the Rev. Ronald Gariboldi, a veteran priest who retired two years ago from Holy Family Parish in Gloucester and now works with the city’s homeless. “It is a death, of an industry, of a family tradition, and they have to go through the stages of anger and grief before they can come to acceptance. There has to be a calming before you can even reach them.”
Two days before the latest cuts took effect, fishermen rallied at Boston Fish Pier, where they made one last, unsuccessful plea for relief. Speakers included Elizabeth Warren, Martha Coakley, and state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the daughter of a Gloucester fisherman, who paid impassioned tribute. “Lesser people would have given up by now,” she told the crowd, her voice rising in the brisk spring breeze. “Lesser people would have been broken, and you haven’t been.”
Those listening included Michael Kennon, a 33-year-old fisherman from New Hampshire, who says he has been forced to find work in Alaska for months at a time to make ends meet as boats in New England have cut back their time at sea. Kennon has two children, ages 1 and 3. His father and brother were fishermen, but both have moved on from the industry.
“This is what I do, what I want to do,” he says, “but I want to be home, for my kids.”
Sherman did not make the trip to the rally. He was at the wharf in Gloucester, unloading his last catch of the fishing year. After decades of fighting, attending endless meetings, he recently apologized to his daughter, now in her 20s, telling her he wishes he had stayed home instead. It is, he says, his only regret about a livelihood that has given him adventure, freedom, and the solace found in nature.
Sherman can catch 3,600 pounds of Gulf of Maine cod this year, down from 22,000 in 2010. He had a $5,500 mortgage payment due on his boat in May; in July, he’ll owe $5,000 for insurance. Repairs this spring cost $13,000. More than $150,000 in debt, he was preparing in May to list the Lady Jane for sale again. First listed two years ago, it enticed no buyers.
Their long fight will end, fishermen say, in consolidation, like countless other stories of American small business. A few big corporations will move in and buy up permits cheap from desperate small-boat owners. And then, if the cod ever thrive again, it will be too late for the men who long pursued them.
“Once [the fishermen] are gone, they’re gone,” Cottone says. “When they leave, they’re not ever coming back.”
Jenna Russell, a Globe reporter, is working on a book about the Boston Marathon bombings. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misquoted NOAA administrator John Bullard. He was referring to right whales.