One was knocked overboard on a winter trip in the middle of the night, while another was handed a noose and told to hang himself. Their computers have been tossed into the sea, their bunks set up over a boat’s toilet, their water bottles tainted with tobacco spit.
The men and women who monitor the catch of New England’s once-mighty groundfishing industry, a job required by federal law to curb overfishing, have long had strained relationships with the fishermen who take them to sea.
Now, with federal funding for the controversial program set to run out this fall, the region’s long-beleaguered fishermen are being told they have to pay for the observers themselves — or they can’t fish.
“This could be the final hit that pushes us into bankruptcy, causing the collapse of the whole fleet,” said Phil Lynch, 45, a Scituate fisherman who has persisted while the number of groundfishing boats in the region has plummeted by more than 70 percent over the past decade. “The guys still left will be gone.”
The threat to the estimated 200 boats remaining, more than half of which are based in Massachusetts, became more palpable last week when the National Marine Fisheries Service denied an emergency request from the council that oversees New England’s fishing industry to suspend the observer program. The agency said fishermen who catch cod, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling fish will have to find a way to pay for the region’s approximately 100 observers, who accompany them on about a quarter of their trips.
Fishermen insist they can’t afford to pay for the observers, especially after major cuts to their quotas. At a government-estimated cost of $710 every time an observer accompanies fishermen to sea, the program would cause most boats to operate at a loss, they say.
“They’ve set up fishermen to fail, and now they want to monitor the failure,” said Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an advocacy group for commercial fishermen. “I believe they’re out to put us out of business.”
The financial burden comes after the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees the region’s industry, imposed a temporary moratorium last fall on commercial fishing for cod and then cut this season’s quota by 75 percent.
Environmental advocates say they empathize with fishermen’s hardships, but without observers, they say, it would be difficult to curb overfishing, conduct accurate assessments of the abundance of certain species, and prevent fishermen from discarding the fish they catch that exceed their quotas. Fishermen are legally bound to bring in everything they catch, even if that exposes them to costs for overfishing that could negate their profits.
“It would be as if there were an announcement that there would no longer be any state trooper doing random radar checks on the Mass. Pike,” said Peter Shelley, interim president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “Everyone would likely speed.”
Some environmental advocates say the observer program doesn’t do enough to monitor the catch. Oceana, a Washington-based advocacy group whose lawsuits against the federal government spurred many of the current rules, estimates that groundfishermen in the Northeast have been illicitly discarding an average of about $25 million a year in fish they shouldn’t be catching.
Oceana last week filed another lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing that the observer program still has too many loopholes.
“The fishery service is doing the bare minimum, and it’s just not getting the job done,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst for Oceana.
The standoff on how to pay for the observer program, which the government estimates would cost the region’s fishermen about $2.6 million a year, exacerbates the already tense relationship between fishermen and the observers. Fishermen consider much of the monitoring excessive and unnecessary, and many have bridled at having observers — private contractors trained and certified by the government — looking over their shoulders.
The observers often find themselves trapped on cramped boats, facing intimidation and harassment.
“It feels like it’s been getting worse,” said Amy Martins, who oversees the region’s observer program for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “Many are afraid of mistreatment.”
She described a range of abuse, from observers being called losers and hookers, to one being escorted to a corner of the boat and told to stare at a wall. Some crews refuse to answer questions and have cast off without their assigned observers.
In rough conditions, when fishermen — whom the observers are sometimes meeting for the first time when they come aboard — seem especially resentful or cantankerous, Martins advises the observers to keep quiet.
“We prepare them for a lot of cursing and yelling at them for getting in the way,” she said.
Over the past five years, observers have filed 377 complaints about intimidation, harassment, interference, tampering of their gear, and captains refusing to allow them aboard. Since October, as discontent has grown, 32 of 109 observers have quit, an attrition rate higher than previous years.
“This is just making a difficult job that much more difficult,” Martins said.
By law, fishermen were supposed to start paying for the program three years ago, but the National Marine Fisheries Service has defrayed the costs because of the industry’s financial turmoil, said John Bullard, the agency’s regional administrator. In February, the agency told them they would have to start paying later this year.
“We don’t have the money,” Bullard said.
In a letter to the New England Fishery Management Council last week, Bullard rejected the request to suspend the program as a move that could “seriously jeopardize the management of the groundfish fishery.”
Acknowledging that the observers added a “significant financial burden,” Bullard suggested that fishermen pool the costs to make the program affordable.
He also suggested that states pay for the observers with their portion of last year’s federal disaster aid for the region’s groundfishermen.
Some fishermen oppose using the aid that way and would prefer to receive the money directly, or to have it go toward long-term solutions, such as equipping boats with cameras and sensors to replace observers.
State officials would also prefer to let fishermen spend the aid as they see fit, said David E. Pierce, acting director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
He cited a recent federal report that found that 59 percent of the region’s groundfishing fleet would lose money if they had to pay for the observers.
“There’s no doubt that this will be crippling to what’s left of the industry if they have to pay for this now,” Pierce said.
As his 55-foot trawler, the Mary Elizabeth, puttered off Scituate on a recent morning, Phil Lynch wondered whether the voyage would be among his last.
“There’s only so much we can take,” he said.
Also aboard his old boat were several observers and their trainees, who were learning how to measure and weigh spiny dogfish, skate, and flounder.
Wes Rand, 28, a trainer, described their work as a check against cheating and vital to helping scientists track the health of fish populations, making it worth enduring huge swells, frostbite, and the odd slap to the face by a wriggling fish — all for a wage that starts at $15 an hour.
That mission, he said, also makes it easier to abide the fishermen who don’t want them aboard.
“No one likes someone looking over their shoulders,” Rand said. “But observers are the best way we know of to collect unbiased data at sea. That’s why we do it.”