A federal judge ruled in lawsuits brought by conservation groups and last week issued a new set of restrictions for the fishing of groundfish in waters off the Cape and Islands. But the tight new regulations regarding cod, yellowtail flounder and haddock have spurred an avalanche of criticism from fishermen up and down the northeast coast.
The intent of the rules, more than has ever been put to print, is to increase protection of fish in the waters of Georges Bank at a time when fish stocks are indeed in recovery. The new measures, however, are being described by some local fishermen as bringing about the end of the family-owned fishing boat.
U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler developed guidelines of her own to bring federal regulators in line with congressional mandates on fish stocks. "The livelihood - indeed, the way of life - of many thousands of individuals, families, small businesses, and maritime communities will be affected," she wrote.
Last December the Washington, D.C. judge sided with key conservation groups in their attempt to implement regulations to restore stocks to past levels. The suit was brought by the Conservation Law Foundation of Boston, the National Audubon Society, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and the National Resources Defense Council.
Beginning this summer, fishermen will be asked to reduce their efforts more than ever before. Certain areas are closing for the first time, and the number of days fishermen may take their boats out to sea will be reduced significantly - by at least 20 per cent of their average fishing effort over the last five years.
Much of the Vineyard's commercial offshore fishing fleet has already been diminished. There are but two Menemsha draggers - boats owned by brothers Gregory and Jonathan Mayhew - that have historically gone out to Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals for fish.
Gregory Mayhew, the owner of the Unicorn, was the Island's delegate to Boston when it had its own state representative. Jonathan Mayhew, who owns Quitsa Strider II, is a former Chilmark selectman. Both men called the new regulations foul using the strongest of language. While they see many flaws in the new restrictions, the one that inflames the Mayhew brothers the most concerns the lack of fairness, they said.
Gregory Mayhew told the Gazette that Judge Kessler's rules - either deliberately or inadvertently - will turn the fishing industry over to larger, more productive fishing boats that ply the seas. While it is premature to even think that the Mayhew brothers would quit fishing, they both see a trend toward making it next to impossible for the family fisherman from a small community to make a living.
Larger fishing boats that spend 138 days a year at sea will not suffer as much from a 20 per cent cut as smaller boats that fish only 88 days but are reduced by the same percentage.
Gregory Mayhew said his objection is that the fisheries managers have changed the rules. More than 10 years ago, fishermen were not required to keep a log of their fishing effort, how many days they fished nor how much they caught. When stricter regulations came down, the fishermen were told if they kept track they would be rewarded for their efforts years later when fish regulations were to be lifted.
Limited to fishing 88 days at sea each year for groundfish, the Mayhew brothers were encouraged to fish for other species - and so they did, fishing for fluke in state waters. A lot of commercial fishermen shifted their effort toward other underutilized species such as dogfish, ling and monk fish. The Mayhew brothers fished for swordfish as their father had done before them.
Add up all the days at sea, however, and the number is considerably less than the 88 days allotted. And they thought they were helping the conservation effort.
Gregory Mayhew said: "I haven't totalled my numbers, but now we are being asked to cut our fishing effort by 20 per cent over the last five years, that is really hard."
Had the Mayhew brothers not diversified - had they continued to pound the groundfish stocks like so many other larger, corporate-owned fishing vessels - they would not be as penalized as they feel now.
"This is a betrayal of what the fishermen were told," said Jonathan Mayhew. "Where is Senator John Kerry? Where is our senator on this?"
Mr. Mayhew said he is most concerned that federal managers will next allow fishermen to buy and sell their "days at sea" in order to make a living. "This is a precursor to ITQs," he said.
Such ITQs, or individual transferable quotas, limit the amount of fish that fishermen can catch, but enable them to sell the right to catch that amount to others. In other parts of the country, when fishermen have been allowed to buy and sell ITQs, large corporations have stepped in and bought the quotas, Jonathan Mayew said.
The Mayhew brothers are concerned that the same will happen to days at sea. It is only a matter of time before fishermen will be able to buy and sell their "days at sea" like they buy quotas elsewhere, or permits locally, Jonathan Mayhew said.
"I see this as a direct hit on the small boat fisherman," he said. "We are all getting screwed - this is morally corrupt."
Dan McKiernan, acting deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, has been watching federal management of fish stocks for years. He said, "The Kessler decision is more severe in some areas than the state bargained for."
Mr. McKiernan said he sees the court decision as a short-term fix while the National Marine Fisheries Service is in the process of writing Amendment 13, a federal management regime that should be completed by the end of August and implemented in May of 2003.
In contrast to many other species fished at sea, Mr. McKiernan said, "there are no hard quotas on groundfish."
New England fisheries managers don't like to use quotas on these species, for it causes too many problems in management. Striped bass, for instance, are regulated by quotas - when the total catch in different states along the eastern seaboard reaches a predetermined level, the fisheries are closed for the rest of the year.
With groundfish there are no closures; fishermen are restricted only by minimum fish sizes, the gear they use and the number of days they are allowed to fish. As a result, cod, for example, is available year round.
"For the last 30 years," Mr. McKiernan said, "there have been significant improvements in the technology that has allowed fishermen to gain a competitive advantage over one another, or over the fish, to the point that many of the species have practically collapsed.
"Under the Sustainable Fisheries Act, we are required to leave anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of the fish stocks in the ocean," he added. "We need to leave in the ocean a lot of the fish the fishermen want to catch now.
"A lot of guys are not prepared to accept that fact because they made their investment to catch those fish now," Mr. McKiernan said.
The good news is that there will be more fish in the ocean than most fishermen have seen in decades. Even better, there will some day be as many fish in the ocean as there were at the beginning of the last century.
The impact on fishermen like the Mayhews is the bad news. They said they see a future of large fishing boats sent from far-away corporate headquarters, from distant ports of call.
They don't want to see the local fisherman locked out of the fishery.