Despite last week’s announcement of a $14.5 million federal disaster grant to the Massachusetts fishing industry, area fishermen and marine analysts believe that the funds will only serve as a stopgap for an industry that has nearly collapsed because of declining groundfish stocks.
“You have an investment that is worthless,” said Russell Sherman, who has been fishing for cod, haddock, and other groundfish off of Gloucester’s waters since 1971.
As part of the $14.5 million grant, Sherman — along with 52 other Gloucester fishermen and another 13 along the North Shore who hold federal groundfish permits – will each receive $32,463. The stipends are part of a $32.8 million overall grant to the New England states, which have been hard-hit by federal regulations in the last two decades. Since rules were implemented to rebuild stocks of cod, flounder, haddock, and other groundfish, fishermen such as Sherman have seen their work days shrink from nearly year-round to a quota system that reduced their overall Gulf of Maine cod catch by 78 percent last year.
Throughout the state, 194 fishermen will receive a total of $6.3 million in emergency funds. In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game will spend the coming months creating a plan to distribute another $8.2 million in federal funds to the Massachusetts fishing industry. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman Marjorie Mooney-Seus said the state could disburse the $8.2 million to assist recreational fishermen, commercial crew members, or shore-based fishing industries, or even allot more funds to permit-holding boat owners.
Mary Griffin, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game, will oversee a work group that she expects to form this month. She said the recommendations from that group would determine how the $8.2 million is spent. Griffin declined to speculate when the funds might be disbursed. “I don’t want to give an absolute date, but obviously we’re going to be working on it this summer and try to move it along this summer and out the door as quickly as we can,” said Griffin.
At issue along the docks and decks of boats in America’s most storied fishing village is just how quickly checks will be sent to eligible fishermen. NOAA Fisheries Northeast regional administrator John Bullard said that the administrative process would take four to five months, with checks slated to reach fishermen in September or October. “We’ll do everything we can to shorten it, but I don’t want people to have unrealistic expectations,” said Bullard.
Joe Orlando, who has fished out of Gloucester since the early 1970s and is in line to receive $32,463, believes the checks should be sent out immediately. He also said fishermen should receive further compensation, given the drastic federal cuts of the last two decades and the financial burden he said he’s endured. “I can’t wait to get the money,’’ he said. “It’s just a drop in the bucket of what we lost. I think they need to do a lot more.”
Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, also said the federal government should expedite the grants to fishermen. “We strongly urge the direct aid portion of the funds to be released to qualifying vessels as soon as possible,” said Odell, who leads one of the major fishing lobbying organizations in New England.
Odell called the NOAA grant a compromise, although it did incorporate some aspects of an earlier disaster spending plan her group submitted to NOAA. That plan called for granting $11 million to qualified boat owners and $2 million to crew members.
A third part of the approved federal grant calls for $11 million to be spent on vessel buyouts or government purchases of fishing permits owned by boat owners. Mooney-Seus said that grant process would involve government representatives from all six New England states meeting with NOAA and reaching a consensus on how to best spend the money. “The time frame is undetermined on how long that will take,” she said.
Bullard, a former New Bedford mayor who was appointed two years ago to lead NOAA in Gloucester, lauded fishermen for their patience in waiting for the stocks to rebuild. He said fishermen had been hit hard by the quota reductions. “There is an urgency to it because the fishermen in the groundfish fishery are hurting,” he said.
When fishermen first noticed that groundfish stocks were dropping over 20 years ago, federal regulators surmised that stocks could be rebuilt if tough restrictions were put in place. In 2004, the government predicted that stocks of cod, haddock, and other groundfish would rebound by 2014. Now, NOAA’s Bullard said he’s unsure when stocks will rebound. He believes that rising water temperatures and a changing pH scale, which makes the ocean more acidic, have complicated the rebuilding process. That change, said Bullard, has also affected fishermen’s lives.
“With climate change, it’s just a harder situation out there in the marine environment for fish stocks to rebuild,” said Bullard. “We don’t have to think about climate change as something that we wait a generation for. It’s exacting a price today, and fishermen and their families are paying it.”
Meanwhile, Sherman, who has been trying to sell Lady Jane, his 76-foot-boat, for two years, is also attempting to diversify and catch other fish besides cod, flounder, and haddock. As he prepared his boat for a Rhode Island run to catch squid, he admitted to an uncertain future. Recently, he mortgaged his house to pay for fishing bills, and he also cut back on boat insurance. He predicted that in another decade, few fishermen will call Gloucester Harbor their workplace.
“There’s no young people getting into this business,’’ he said, “because there’s no future.”