Some small-boat fishermen believe the current stringent regulations are not just designed to save the fish, but to get rid of the fishermen.
Unless the federal judge who imposed the new rules can be convinced to change them or Congressional pleas to the federal government succeed in softening the restrictions, a new groundfishing plan that went into effect May 1 could put hundreds of New England boats out of business.
“A lot of fishermen believe it’s just to stop small boats in order to give everything to the large boats,” said Luis Ribas, a fisherman from Provincetown, MA. “Eventually they’ll end up with quotas for a few freezer trawlers with a monopoly on the fishery.”
If these suspicions prove correct, Ribas – a veteran of several years of fishing on German freezer trawlers on and near the Grand Banks – predicts the fishery could only last two or three years.
“Six factory trawlers on Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine would have it all cleaned up like a vacuum in two or three years,” said Ribas. “There would be no fish at all. I fished the Nose and Tail of the Banks on freezer trawlers. I know what they do. That’s what’s scaring me.”
Ribas is a farsighted fisherman who’s in the business “for the long term,” who has worked with DMF (the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries) for several years trying to develop selective nets to solve the bycatch problem, according to Mike Pol, marine biologist with the department. “If Luis can’t make it, no one can. I share his concern about freezer trawlers.”
Unlike federal regulators, “DMF serves primarily the smaller fleet,” said Pol. “We have a sense the state is healthier if we have lots of small ports instead of two big ones.”
Provincetown depends on tourism and fishing. If small fishermen go out of business, many small New England communities like Provincetown will suffer. “It’s not just the boat owners who’ll be out of a job, it’s also the crews and the guys who work on land,” Ribas said.
The new rules require fishermen to cut their fishing days by 20 percent. The cut is to be taken from an average of the number of days they actually fished over the past five years. Ribas does not know how many days he will end up with, but he said it will be too few. He has spent one month each summer for three of the five years doing research with DMF.
Even though he was working to help improve fishing gear to save the same fish the rules aim to protect, those days won’t count. He also bought a new boat and spent a couple of months working to fix it up.
“A lot of guys haven’t figured out their days yet,” said Ribas. “We all started with 88, but I could end up with 40 or 50. Is that fair?”