Fishermen and politicians: A lost alliance
The collaboration that emptied the New England ocean over decades may now be the only way to bring fish back.
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On fishermen’s trucks in coastal New England, a popular bumper sticker tells a grim story: “National Marine Fisheries Service: Destroying Commercial Fishermen and their Families Since 1976.”
It’s a great sound bite. And for men from New Bedford, Chatham, or Boothbay who have had to tie up their boats because of federal regulations, or withdraw from the fishery altogether to make ends meet, it rings painfully true. 1976 marked the moment when the National Marine Fisheries Service actively took over the regulation of fishing, and today’s fishermen have spent most or all of their careers chafing under catch limits, fishing ground closures, and rules about days at sea. As environmentalists and fishermen argue year after year about which population is suffering more—working fishermen or the fish they rely on—it is easy to assume that conflict is inevitable, and that fishermen and regulators have always been at each other’s throats.
Yet their relationship was once just the opposite. In fact, when the government first began to intervene in the key business of New England fisheries right after the Civil War, it was at the request of fishermen, who insisted that the government help them contend with declining fish stocks. The solutions they found to shore up fishermen’s livelihoods—sometimes passing regulations to restrict overfishing, but more often helping fishermen develop new technologies to fish harder—were effective in the short term, enabling the industry to survive to the present day. But through nearly all these years, the health and productivity of marine ecosystems continued their decline.
What rings loudly in today’s complaints, and in the tale told by those bumper stickers, is the notion that fishing has only recently been regulated, and shouldn’t be. But regulators and fishermen have a far longer and more complex relationship than that. The tragic drama over depleted stocks, and about overfishing and its consequences, has been playing out for more than 150 years. Regulators, scientists, and fishermen have taken different roles over the decades, sometimes playing the alarmists, other times resisting them. The consequences—fewer fish—have been the same. Today, making progress on the severely depleted fishery depends on looking much deeper into the history of this industry so key to the region’s past, and finding a way to collaborate once more.
The fishermen who ply New England’s waters today are descendants of the longest continually operated enterprise in the New World. Commercial fishing in North America began in 1502, the year that transient English fishermen first took home cod from Newfoundland. By 1602, English fishermen had made their first forays into the Gulf of Maine, long before the Pilgrims; in fact, one of the first things the Pilgrims encountered after the Mayflower dropped anchor at Cape Cod was the grave of a European fisherman. By the American Revolution, Massachusetts-based fisheries had become the engine of economic growth driving the region’s prosperity.
The dominant technology was the same as it had always been—hand lines. Collectively, fishermen using hand lines caught an average of about 250,000 metric tons of cod every year from North American waters for centuries. But starting in the 1850s or ’60s, fishermen noticed signs of trouble. The same number of men, using the same gear, in the same place, for the same amount of time, were bringing home less. Fishermen complained of having to sail farther, a sign that stocks were declining.
In response, fishermen turned to more efficient technologies. Hand lining gave way to a new technology called long lining around midcentury. A hand liner tended only one to four hooks; that same man could set 400 hooks on a long line, multiplying his catching power exponentially. Seine nets, which had been small handmade devices since Colonial days, became much larger and started to be employed more frequently. The large, new, machine-made nets could encircle whole schools of mackerel, menhaden, or herring.
But catches continued to slide. In the face of declining stocks and increasing fishing pressure, fishermen in Maine and Massachusetts began to feel that they were going to need government help to save the industry. As early as 1839, fishermen from Martha’s Vineyard had told their state legislators “that the increasing scarcity of fish of every kind” required “legislative interference.” In 1857 and again in 1858, concerned fishermen from Swampscott requested that the Legislature ban the new long lines because they feared that otherwise “haddock would be as scarce as salmon.” Confronting new seine technology that swept up mackerel and menhaden with abandon, Jotham Johnson of Freeport asked the Maine Legislature to intervene in 1864. “If their is not sumthing don to put a stopt to this Slatter [slaughter], fare will to the fisheries in Mane.”Continued...