The New England fishing industry has been struggling for many years. Environmentalists and regulators have restricted fishermen’s ability to work as fish populations such as cod reach dangerously low levels. Gloucester, Massachusetts, a 400 hundred year-old seaport is struggling. Fishermen are backing out of the industry and a once impressive fleet has been reduced to no more than a handful of boats. Will the Gloucester of tomorrow resemble its blue-collar fishing heritage?
Each morning David Linquata, 27, heads down to the Seven Seas Wharf in Gloucester, Mass. He operates an “in the rough” lobster company, Blue Collar Lobster Co, with his sister Lily, on the wharf on which their family restaurant, the Gloucester House, is built. They are some of the few young people still engaged with the fishing industry in this historic coastal city but unlike many who are struggling to hold on to their traditional livelihood of fishing, for the Linquatas, working for the Gloucester House and Seas Wharf comes down to something closer to home.
“It really boils down to loyalty with my family,” he explained, “I’m not going to let my mother and father sit down here and work seventy, eighty, ninety hour weeks, especially during the summer time, and me work some desk job. I mean I’ve thought about it but at the end of the day, ‘do anything for your blood’, is what it boils down to.”
The Wharf and the businesses it supports have been in Linquata’s family since 1957. Leo Linquata, David’s great-grandfather first bought the property to use as an oil supply dock. It wasn’t until his son, Michael, proposed building a restaurant there that he opened the Gloucester House.
David and Lily’s father Leonard, Michael’s eldest son, became the manager in the early nineties, and when his children were born, they quickly found work at the restaurant.
“I started when I was seven, weeding the garden and selling slush to the people that came off the whale watch,” David Linquata said, “then I just continued on to different roles in parts of the restaurant whether that be cooking or starting a new venture outside which is what I did this year.”
The new venture, the Blue Collar Lobster Co. was part of a $400,000 revitalization plan for the property back in the summer of 2015, Leonard Linquata told the Eagle Tribune during the business’s debut. The revitalization included an outdoor cooking station and eating area, as well as a new bar.
Blue Collar Lobster Co.’s success and growth appears to be an exception, as the New England fishing industry continues to fall apart due to a steady increase in regulations. Since the early eighties regulations on what kind and how much fish fishermen can catch has become more stringent, starting with limits on the minimum size for fish that can be caught and sold.
Linquata, who once worked as a bartender at the family restaurant, remembers having four or five fishing boats full of workers come in on Tuesdays and Fridays.
“We’d just have fish fries at the bar,” Linquata said, “They’d come in with all their catch, sell whatever they could sell, hold on to the rest and come down to the bar and we’d cook it up for them. I use to fill up a bar just with fishermen at least once or twice a week. You just don’t see that anymore.
The decline has been a long-time coming. According to a 2009 Mt. Auburn Associates study, the fishing industry in Gloucester “declined substantially” in the 1980s and has experienced little upward momentum since then. In 1994, President Bill Clinton declared New England fisheries a resource disaster for the first time, providing $30 million in emergency funding. Thirteen years later, the situation was only worsening. The Boston Globe reported the industry had lost $22 million in revenue over the 2006 season due to state regulations, also quoting Frank Rose, co-owner of Rose’s Marine Service in Gloucester who told the reporter of the Globe story that over the past fifteen years the percentage of his business coming from fishing has fallen by 95 percent.
Local politicians started advocating for less strict regulations for the fishermen as well. In 2010 Governor Deval Patrick asked the Department of Commerce for a disaster declaration and did so every year after before finally receiving one in 2012. And during a congressional hearing on the state of industry on Oct 3, 2011, US Representative Barney Frank stood up for fishermen as well. Following National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) administrator Jane Lubchenco’s presentation on how the industry was recovering, he accused her of ‘cherry-picking’ data to make her organization’s recent cuts appear less damaging, the Boston Globe reported. US Senator John Kerry expressed concern for the consolidation of 80 percent of revenue into only 20 percent of active vessels during the same hearing.
As for what caused this crisis in New England fisheries, scientists aren’t certain. Jonathan Labaree, the Chief Community Officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute believes the problem has multiple sources, most critically, climate change and pressure on fish populations from fishermen.
Labaree explained that from a climate change perspective, warming waters are a difficult environment for cod. And according to a study published in Science in November of last year, New England water temperatures are, in fact, rising faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, an alarming rate. Animal physiologist Hans Pörtner told the Scientific American that the evidence supports there being an adverse impact on the cod population.
“As [the ocean] gets warmer, the conditions will favor a particular species over another,” Labaree said, “So I think what we’re seeing quite clearly is a marine environment that does not favor cod. It’s a stressful environment for them which really cuts back on their ability to rebound from declines in population whether due to fishing pressure or environmental changes.
Labaree also agreed that another reason for the current crisis is too much fishing during the second half of the 20th century.
“In 1976 when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was passed that established our 200 mile limit and kicked out all the foreign boats,” Labaree said, “There was an accompanying government subsidy then to help fishing communities build their groundfish fleets back up again which had been really depleted since World War II.” Due to this large increase in fleet size, landings of groundfish soared which Labaree says likely contributed to the decline in fish populations scientists are reporting today.
Although scientists continue to report the damage to groundfish populations, not everyone in the industry agrees on how valid the science is. Even as regulations aim to protect a reportedly dwindling fish population, fishermen still see large amounts of so-called at-risk fish like cod when they go out to work. This calls into question assessment practices and fishermen aren’t the only ones who are concerned. Politicians have accused the government of not doing enough to improve their measurement strategies. In 2013, Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against NOAA, citing flawed assessment science that had created a drastic 78% cut to fishermen quotas that year. In her announcement at a press conference in May of that year, Coakley described the regulations as “Draconian” and a “death penalty” to local fishermen. The case would ultimately be thrown out the following year but conversation on the validity of NOAA’s assessments continued to make waves.
During the gubernatorial race in the fall of 2014, then-candidate Charlie Baker argued fishermen need to be better incorporated into the assessment process. “We have some of the most talented people in the world who could do analytics around what’s really happening out there in the water,” Baker said during the debate, “We should be all over this.”
GMRI Chief Community Officer Jonathan Labaree said that while assessment practices are based on sound methodology, there is always an opportunity to improve. He sees it as a differing of perspective between the scientists and the fishermen. “While NOAA does their assessment and samples the ocean twice a year,’ he said, “the fishing industry is sampling the ocean every single day so their perspective is always going to be different from what NOAA is seeing.”
To Labaree, one contributing factor to the discrepancy between scientists’ and fishermen’s understanding of the decline in cod might simply come down to timing: the assessments will always lag behind the numbers out there in the ocean when the fishermen are working.
“The federal assessment process is always looking at data that’s a year or two old,” Labaree said, “So by the time they do their surveys and collect the data from the surveys and run the analyses and come up with their assessment, it takes awhile.” According to Labaree it can take up to a year or two between when data is collected from the ocean until it shows up in a management framework.
The lag between data and reality is more than just inconvenient, it can damage fish stocks even further, according to fish handler, Vito Giacolone. Terms like “overfishing,” he explained, villainize fishermen in the eyes of environmentalists and the public, despite fishermen following NOAA’s regulations.
“Say that a certain species has a million pounds of fish that can be caught and we catch 500,000 pounds meaning we catch 500,000 under that million pounds. You would think we would be underfishing right? Well the next year they could do a scientific study and say that, ‘Oops, we made a mistake, the levels aren’t where they should be, they should be at 200,000 pounds a year,’ so now we’re ‘overfishing’ and that stock would be called ‘overfished’,” Giacolone said.
“So that looks bad for the whole industry where it looks as though, ‘Oh well those guys must have over-caught those fish, they must not have been paying attention to regulations,’ when in reality they were following the regulations but the measures or the scientific studies came out one or two years later.”
Giacolone is somewhat of an anomaly in his industry. A self-described first generation fish handler, Vito and his brothers Nick and Chris didn’t grow up on Gloucester’s oceans. Each studying business in college, the trio made the decision to leave school and capitalize on an unused property their father owned on the Gloucester waterfront. In April, 2008 they implemented their first iteration of the Fisherman’s Wharf, renting space and trying out their business model, before moving into their father’s facility a few years later.
“We were definitely warned by a lot of people that it would not be an easy task,” Giacolone said, talking about entering the fishing industry during the downturn. “We’re first generation seafood handlers and even though we knew regulations were strict, we’re always optimistic about the actual health of stocks.”
Giacolone likes working with his brothers and although he had no intention of getting into the fishing industry, saw a need for fishermen to have a better avenue for their catch. Today, the Fisherman’s Wharf processes about 500 million pounds of fish per year, brokering the stocks on an auction system called BASE (Buyers and Sellers Exchange).
Although the Fisherman’s Wharf does well despite the industry woes, Giacolone is far from satisfied with NOAA’s and the fishery councils’ management of New England fishing.
When the business started, Giacolone explained, it was mostly day boat oriented. Day boats are smaller, often family owned vessels that fish for one day, catching a thousand pounds or less. Since the regulations increased that has changed.
“When the regulations started coming down the last few years we said ‘OK now we have to go out and find these bigger fishermen that have the range to go offshore and come in with anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 pound trips.”
Giacolone explained that with more regulations, it’s only cost-effective for the larger boats to keep working. Effectively, the smaller vessels that made Gloucester the working-class harbor that it is known for, are being most strongly affected by the cutbacks. To Giacolone, it opens the doors to corporations.
“The fishermen are just kind of waiting for the science to say, ‘There’s some fish out there’. [The fishermen] don’t need to go every day but they just need a little bit more,” Giacolone said. “The cut was 99% this year on cod - that’s what most of the day boats survived on.”
“What fishermen and lawmakers need to do is to be able to find that common ground and say look we’re getting killed by imported fish, we’re getting killed by these regulations. We all want regulations - fishermen agree we need some restrictions because then there would be terrible prices, there’d be too much supply. But you also can’t underfish.”
With only some fishermen and fish handlers staying afloat in Gloucester, the city’s future, once marked by seagulls, fish markets and wharfs is now less optimistic. Vito Giacolone thinks it’s a clear path forward though, unless the regulations change: more consolidation.
“I think [the next five years] are pretty easy to foresee. I think you’re going to see the same big boats that are doing it and less small boats than there used to be,” Giacolone said. He added that the larger boats can afford to buy the fishing quotas from smaller boats and fish farther offshore. This opens the doors to corporations who can weather the downturn and wait for the fish stocks to replenish, eliminating only small and medium-sized businesses.
“That’s where I see the game: less small day boats and more bigger boats that have range to go offshore,” Giacolone said.
John Bullard, the Northeast Regional Administrator for NOAA, on the other hand, is less pessimistic about the industry. He sees other fish stocks besides cod, such as redfish, pollock and haddock as viable options, as well as lobsters. For Bullard, one solution would be advancement in fishermen gear and technology to make catching those other species easier.
“If you go into a restaurant or a supermarket and eat redfish, pollock or haddock they’re delicious fish. I mean they’re good eating and they’re out there to be caught,” Bullard said on the future of Gloucester’s fishing industry, “So can we find ways to catch these fish? The problem is haddock tend to swim with cod. I’m not saying it’s an easy problem to solve but it’s a regulatory problem, a technological problem, a gear problem.”
“Fishermen are very smart people,” Bullard added, “You give them a problem to solve most fishermen know how to solve it. So this is a problem to be solved. I know there’s a lot of fish to be caught sustainably and the way we’re going to solve that problem is by working together with fishermen.”
Bullard also is optimistic about lobster and sees lobstering as a viable option for young people. “Cod and groundfish are a minority of the money that comes into Gloucester. Lobster is the top [earner],” he said.
For David Linquata, he sees things moving away from fishing. With new hotels being built, he sees the city heading in a different direction.
“A lot of the city is turning to other aspects to try and drive money in whether it be the restaurant industry, the tourism industry, etcetera,” Linquata said. “The fishing community here is more or less dead. It’s sad to say that but a lot of families who once really depended on it are out of it. There’s only a handful of local boats left.”
“But with that being said there’s always a silver lining,” Linquata said, “and the silver lining is that because we have such great heritage and history here the city is not just going to drown or go by the wayside. It has the opportunity to turn into something different.”
Yet as Gloucester reconciles its identity in the years to come, John Bullard still encourages young people to not give up on fishing.
“Fishing is an incredible profession,” he said.
“If you’re interested in hard work, if you’re interested in living by your wits, if you’re interested in being out at sea than this is a great profession.”
“There’s something beguiling about the ocean. It’s a very special place. There are a lot of fishermen who make an awful lot of money but you have to smart, you have to be tough, and you have to be a good businessman,” Bullard added, “I’d encourage young people to explore it, I wouldn’t write it off.”