Providence, R.I. – Commercial fishermen in the Northeast have been battling for decades with government regulators over the best way to restore fish populations. This year, the government has dramatically changed the fishing rules by placing a hard cap on the amount of fish that can be caught. To get access to a share of the catch, a fisherman can choose to work with an organized group of boats that each receives part of the quota.
Fisherman Tim Barrett is in New Bedford, Massachusetts buying a few things for his fishing boat. As he looks around the waterfront, he sees a lot of vessels tied up and gear on the wharf.
"You never used to see so many nets sitting around in the parking lot," Barrett said. "There might be one or two, but now there's no room in the parking lot for anything else because there's so much unused fishing gear because of the regulations."
In the past, fishermen were limited by the number of days they could fish. Now the government is restricting how many pounds of each species of groundfish they can catch --- including cod, haddock and some flounders. Under the new rules, fishermen can join cooperative groups called "sectors". Each sector is allowed a certain amount of catch based on what each fisherman caught in the past.
Tim's brother, Ed Barrett is one of these fishermen. He owns two boats in Plymouth, just north of New Bedford, and is the President of one of the newly formed sectors. But there's one hard rule --- the boats must stop fishing when they catch their piece of the pie. Barrett says his piece is too small for the amount of fish out there, something he saw after towing his net for the first time this season.
"I have fished two days and both days I've made two 15-minute tows," he said. "I've caught half my cod allocation for the year. Once I catch one species of my quota, it shuts me down for the rest."
Barrett says his quota is so low: he's fishing without a crew because he can't afford to pay anyone. Government scientists say the quotas, also called "allocations", are low because some fish populations are in such bad shape. Thirteen of the twenty stocks of groundfish species are still over fished. And the number of boats fishing for groundfish has dropped from about 1,200 in 2002 to nearly 700 in 2008.
The New England Fishery Management Council regulates ground fishermen from Maine to New York. They say their intention is to continue to rebuild groundfish species by helping fishermen target the healthy stocks. Senior Analyst Tom Nies says in the short term, the economic impact will probably be negative, but hopes in the long term the stocks will rebuild and the landings will increase.
"I would hesitate to conclude that that's going to mean that we are ever going to get back to 1,200 boats landing groundfish," he added. "I think what's going to happen is you're going to have a smaller number of boats landing groundfish but they're going to be more profitable."
According to the rules, fishermen can catch more than their share only by buying someone else's. Christopher Brown, President of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen's Association says sharing the catch is the way to go, but it's hard to make it work with low allocations. Yet, he says, it's better than the old way, limiting the number of days at sea.
"It's a work in progress. It's not a destination," he said. "If we were going into 2010, May 1st, in a days at sea system with the amount of fish that we have available to us with the cumbersome nature and ineffective nature of that management strategy, than more guys would lose their vessels than would keep them."
But some fishermen like Ed Barrett still worry about their own survival.
"Our total allocation in Plymouth wouldn't really even service one boat," he said. "The result is that someone is going to have to go. So, who's it going to be?"
Government fishery managers say as they receive more data on some groundfish species they may adjust how many fish can be caught, but not until then.
Northeast Environmental Coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative.