Fishing has long been a staple industry in Rhode Island. Over the last century ever more local seafood is shipped across the country and the globe.
Now, fishermen are working to grow the local market in the face of changing regulations and technology.
The Pawtucket indoor farmer’s market is bustling on a recent Saturday morning. Among the rows of vendors selling veggies, eggs, and homemade soaps is the Local Catch – purveyor of locally caught seafood. Laid out over shaved ice are fish like dabs, a type of flounder, John Dory, and Monkfish. It’s all readily available in local waters. Yet Rhode Islanders might be hard-pressed to find them in a neighborhood grocery store.
“Before we started the Local Catch I fished for about 35 years with my own boat,” said Local Catch owner Richard Cook. “We went to a couple fish markets at Stop and Shops and stuff like that and nobody had any local fish it was all from Alaska and China and all over the place.”
So Cook is working to grow local demand for a wider variety of fish. And that could benefit thousands of workers. The state supported some 5,000 commercial fishing jobs as recently as 2012, according the State Department of Environmental Management. That same DEM report found the state did $200 million dollars in commercial sales that year. Cook says that number could be higher, but fishermen are struggling with catch limits. Those are imposed by state and federal officials to protect the health of certain fish species.
One of the more popular local fish, cod has a catch limit of 1,000 pounds per boat, per day. So Cook and others are hoping other fish like scup will catch on. Scup – also known as porgy – can be found in Rhode Island waters, but has a catch limit of 50,000 pounds per boat per day.
Jason McNamee, chief of marine resource management for the DEM said regulating the amount of fish is just the cost of doing business.
“These are not infinite resources, they’re finite and there’s only so much seafood product out there to go out and get.”
McNamee said fish migration and reproduction patterns are changing – in part due to climate change – sometimes faster than regulations can keep up with. He cites summer flounder, as an example.
“We’ve got summer flounder that now, used to be a mid-Atlantic stock, in particular in the winter,” said McNamee “Those fish would be south and east of here. Now they’re here. Right off Rhode Island.”
That means local fishermen could be missing out on a payday. And as fishermen deal with changing fish populations, they still face the expense of maintaining a vessel, said McNamee, even as the state helps subsidize some dockage fees at larger piers.
“So relative to our neighbors our guys aren’t paying as much for that dockage as they would in a private marina, or a pier in another state,” said McNamee. “But beyond that, it is extremely expensive.”
Add to that the cost of equipment found on fishing boats, which Richard Cook says can now resemble airplane controls. What’s more, Jason McNamee says there isn’t a regular pipeline for talent to work in the increasingly complex industry.
“There’s no good apprenticeship programs and things have gotten so complex with regulations and the technology on the vessels themselves, that we find as an area of concern,” said McNamee.
Despite the litany of hurdles, McNamee says there are areas of growth in the fishing industry, including aquaculture – such as the farming of oysters.
“We also have some expanding fisheries in the state,” said McNamee. “Stuff you wouldn’t think of but skates is a big fishery. Those are the flat fish that live on the bottom of the ocean. Jonah crabs is another big industry. And that’s kind of helped supplement our lobster industry. As the lobster stock has gone down, they’ve kind of picked up on Jonah Crabs.”
This means fishermen are already adapting to changes in our local waters, and they’ll continue to do so as long as there are the people to do it.