A fisherman’s doubt, and his love of the sea
He is up before the dawn, and, a creature of steady habits, he heads for the seashore.
It’s dark when Frank Mirarchi jumps into his black pickup truck, and dark still when he reaches Scituate Harbor. He parks on the town pier and stares at the ocean. But his 55-foot stern dragger is no longer moored there.
Actually, the boat is there. But it’s no longer his. It was renamed last June after he sold it — a poignant punctuation point to Mirarchi’s half-century career as a commercial fisherman.
“I’m down here every morning to watch the boats go out,’’ he told me Monday as we sat on a bench overlooking the dazzling harbor and under an unseasonably warm autumn sun. “I did it for 52 years. And I still love it.’’
I first met Mirarchi in early January when the harbor was icy and fat flakes of snow gently fell as if one of those snow globes had been softly shaken.
He is the son of a scientist and is something of a self-taught scientist himself. When I suggested Governor Charlie Baker would do well to pick his brain and appoint him to an ad hoc group looking into the travails of the cod fishery in the Gulf of Maine, the new governor took my advice. And soon Mirarchi was shaking hands with Baker on Beacon Hill.
When the latest news arrived last week about the depths of the cod collapse, the numbers were so alarming that I instantly thought of Frank and those like him who found their livelihood at sea.
Cod stocks are on the brink of collapse, the study noted. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than waters found in 99 percent of the earth’s large bodies of saltwater, it found. The mean surface temperature in waters from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia rose a startling 4 degrees between 2004 and 2013, researchers concluded.
“Cod are the lowest levels we’ve seen,’’ Andrew Pershing, the study’s lead author and the chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, told me.
So when I talked to Frank Mirarchi and other fishermen this week, I expected resignation, and an acknowledgment that it’s all over for cod fishing off Massachusetts. Wrong.
“It’s really not game-over by any stretch,’’ Mirarchi said. “This just reignites the argument. The cod is everywhere. Nobody trusts the science.’’
Vito Giacalone, the policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said scientists are relying on computer models while fishermen are relying on their eyeballs. “The study is so egregiously wrong that I don’t even know where to start,’’ he said. “It’s not off by a little, it’s off by a lot.’’
It’s as if the scientists and the fishermen gaze into the same stretch of sky, and one sees a blazing sun and the other sees a raging storm. How can this be?
Scientists say the little cod left in the Gulf of Maine tend to aggregate, and so, yes, in small pockets the fish are plentiful. “The argument is over whether it’s as bad as the scientists say or just bad,’’ said Tom Nies, executive director of the New England Fishery Management Council.
Baloney, the fishermen say. Actually they use a stronger word.
Governor Baker believes the science remains thin. He wants more of it. Money has been appropriated for additional surveys. “There’s no doubt that our climate is changing,’’ said Matthew Beaton, Baker’s environmental affairs secretary. “But there are still questions about the methodologies.’’
What’s not in dispute is the economic ruin. The fishing fleet is a small fraction of what it once was.
Mirarchi, 71, has seen that up close.
He’s at home these days watching his 4-year-old grandson. The child loves the boats the same way Frank Mirarchi did when he first came to Scituate Harbor as a 7-year-old and peered out at a sea that would become his professional home.
Soon, he hopes to have a new boat in the water. It’ll be smaller. His livelihood will no longer hang in the balance.
But it will carry him back to where he’s always wanted to be.