NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — Some fishermen and advocates for the industry voiced concern at a regional summit Monday about upcoming federal regulations they warn could put them out of business, while others suggested the changes were a necessary way to curb overfishing.
Fishermen and elected leaders gathered at the New Bedford Whaling Museum ahead of a scheduled May 1 switch to a "sector" system of fishing. Fishermen in that management system would be allotted a certain amount of species and would then pool their total catches with a group, or sector, and manage the shares among themselves.
Though the system is intended to give fishermen more autonomy, some are concerned the new system could leas to massive consolidation, that the individual allotments would be too paltry for them to survive and that smaller fishing communities would be wiped out by large fishing companies.
"Fifty percent of you will be out of business by August. That's not what you want to hear, but that's what you're going to get," warned Carlos Rafael, a fishing boat owner in the Port of New Bedford who participated in a panel discussion about the new system. Rafael said the new management system was "being stuffed down our throats."
The new sector system, a type of catch share, represents a fresh attempt to deal with the problems of overfishing.
Fishermen under the current system can face sharp restrictions on the number of fishing days at sea — some have as few as 24 annually — and tough limits on the daily catch they can bring in, which can force them to throw away catches over the permitted amount. The tough measures have nearly halved the Northeast fishing fleet, which fell to just under 600 working groundfish boats in 2007 from about 1,100 in 2001.
Others on Monday were more hopeful about the changes. Julie Wormser, the New England regional director of the Oceans Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the sector system had its advantages and urged less hostility in the debate.
"We've got to get past the level of distrust and polarization among stakeholders," said Wormser, another panelist.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, attended the summit and told fishermen that the government needs to give their expertise more respect and deference.
"Fishermen know the sea, and they know the fish, and they don't want to see it end," Frank said. "I don't know a single fisherman who hopes to be the last person who ever fished."
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick echoed those sentiments, saying, "For fishermen, it's simple: No fish, no job. At the end of the day, their interest is pretty closely aligned with environmentalists."
Brian Rothschild, a scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and co-director of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute, said he feared there hadn't been enough transition time to implement the new regulations and that a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the sector system was necessary.
He said there needed to be a better, more accurate system to gauge the health of fishing stocks.
"There's no question that the transition will affect livelihoods, economies and welfare costs in coastal communities," Rothschild said.
Tina Jackson, 43, a fisherman from Point Judith, R.I., called the new management system preposterous.
"You're looking to put a lot of hardworking, taxpaying people out of work," she said, later adding in an interview that the federal government was attempting to privatize the fishing industry.
"Fishing is a privilege in this country," she said. It is America's public resource."