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Federal regulations killing industry and causing suicide

May 9, 2011
N.H. fishermen plead for changes in regulations
Fishermen plead for changes in regulations
By Angeljean Chiaramida
Staff writer

SEABROOK — The federal government's new "catch share" system has been literally killing off the state's 400-year-old commercial fishing industry, fishermen and state experts told a panel of federal officials yesterday.

The controversial method of allocating who can catch fish has cost the state's only fishing cooperative, located in Seabrook harbor, $750,000 in business, and cut the number of fishermen landing catches by two-thirds. It has killed off fishing jobs and exacted a high price on the lives of the men of the state's fishing fleet — resulting in suicides and divorces.

Several officials from the U.S. Commerce Department heard testimony from fishermen and state experts yesterday as part of an inquiry the federal government is conducting into the catch share system it implemented last year. Seabrook is one of six Northeast landing ports where the meetings are being held.

Second generation Rye fisherman Jay Driscoll lands his fish at Seabrook's Yankee Fisherman's Co-op, and he argued that time is running out to ensure fishing remains viable in the area.

For many, their way of life is on the ropes, he said. Deeply in debt, with federal regulations preventing them from catching enough fish to pay it their loans, crews and support their families, many are desperate, he said.

"In the 22 boats in New Hampshire's fleet, we've had three suicide attempts and six divorces this year," he said. "In this nation of freedoms, we have to fight every day for our right to earn a living. Do you want a fishing industry here? You guys have to take a risk on us. We've been beaten down to a pulp."

"It's not inconceivable that the entire New Hampshire groundfishing industry could be gone, and not in 100 years, but within the next 10," Kellly Cullen, University of New Hampshire assistant professor of fish and wildlife economics, told the Commerce Department's economic assessment team. "The (catch share system) can be seen as economically efficient, but we have to be careful. We don't want to lose 400 years of history and the entire groundfish industry."

For the commercial fishermen in the room, Cullen's words were not breaking news. David Goethel, a marine biologist and 30-plus-year veteran Hampton fisherman doesn't give New Hampshire's fleet of small independent fishing boats much more than two years before it's reduced to next to nothing. New Hampshire's commercial fishermen were hit the hardest by the new regulations, he said.

For George Bald, state commissioner of Development and Economic Resources, New Hampshire without its fishing industry is simply not an option.

"The fishing industry is something we can't lose; it helps all of our economy," Bald said. "It helps out tourism tremendously. The cultural impact of fishermen to the state of New Hampshire, well, I can't overstate that enough. It's a way of life. The state would look different if we lose fishing."

"Catch share"

The Magnuson-Stevens Act first passed in 1976 was a fishery conservation management act that committed America's commercial fishermen to federal regulation in return for the nation enforcing a 200-mile fishing limit within which foreign fishing boats cannot go.

The act has been amended a number of times, limiting catch and the species of fish that can be caught, where and when. The most recent amendment took effect this year, and the catch share system hits small independent boat fishermen hardest.

For example, unlike some geographic fishing areas such as Cape Cod, New Hampshire was given a very small slice of the fish allotment pie when Commerce Department agency National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations carved it up under catch share regulations.

"The fishing currency changed almost overnight for New Hampshire fishermen," said New Hampshire's Fisheries sector manager Josh Wiersma. "It changed from days at sea (fishing permits) to catch history (fishing permits)."

Fishing permits that determine how many pounds of fish can be caught are based on the amount of fish harvested from 1996 to 2006, Wiersma said. In New Hampshire, ecologically minded fishermen were literally caught short by the quick switch, he said.

Many New Hampshire small boat captains limited their catches during those years to replenish the stock, believing it would lead to more abundant fish supplies and better fishing in the future. But some other large fishing concerns in other areas didn't, hauling in whatever they could.

"We didn't rape the ocean, so we didn't have the poundage (when the new pound allocation system became the standard)," said Neal Pike, president of Yankee Fisherman's Cooperative. "But some guys said, 'I'm living for today.' They were rewarded (by the new system)."

Economic reality

Those who wonder how bad the new program could be only had to listen to Seabrook's Yankee Fisherman's Cooperative manager Bob Campbell. Groundfishing is the life blood of the New Hampshire's fleet, Campbell said, although lobstering, shrimping and fishing for whiting, tuna, spiked dogfish and herring is also done by co-op fishermen.

Since catch share began, the co-op is down 47 percent, unloading about 1.4 million pounds of fish less this year than last, he said.

"That's a huge revenue loss." Campbell said. "It's a devastating number. Three-quarters of a million dollars in sales (lost to the Yankee Fisherman's Co-op). It's the first year in the 20 years I've managed the co-op that I had to lay off people. I've had to lay off everyone but one employee this year."

Those numbers increase when Campbell explained what happened to fishing boats and crews.

"The most boats we've had in any one day this year is seven," Campbell said. "Last year, the most we had in any one day was 19, the year before 23. That's two-thirds difference in two years. To have seven boats be the most boats you unload in a day is unheard of."

Since, Feb. 28, when the shrimping season was ended 90 days early by regulators, the co-op has landed no fish, he said. As a result, the cooperative that lands, services and markets fish for fishermen from southern Maine, throughout New Hampshire and to Newburyport is just trying to hold on until June 1, when the groundfish season opens, he said. handle backwards is how I feel about current world affairs...
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