PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Minutes after New England fishery managers took a vote that cast doubt on the historic industry’s future, the prospects most clear to Gloucester fishermen Paul Vitale were his own.
“I’m bankrupt. That’s it,” said the 40-year-old father of three. “I’m all done. The boat’s going up for sale.”
The New England Fishery Management Council on Wednesday approved a year-to-year cut of 77 percent on the Gulf of Maine cod limit and 61 percent for Georges Bank cod.
The cuts come on top of a slew of other reductions, ranging from 10 to 71 percent, on the catch of other bottom-dwelling groundfish species, such as haddock and flounder.
Fishermen say now they’re staring at industry collapse because they’ve been left with far too few fish for most boats to make a living.
“We are headed down the wrong course here, of exterminating the inshore fleet, for no good reason,” said David Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman and council member.
The cuts, in effect May 1, are expected to be backed by federal managers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s top federal fisheries regulator, John Bullard, acknowledged the reductions will be devastating. But he said the fish stocks are struggling and the industry’s steady, excruciating decline must be reversed.
“The first thing we have to do is put denial behind us,” he said.
The cuts hit an industry that was crucial to the nation’s early economy and remains imbued with the risk and romance of man versus nature — depicted in the famous “Man at the Wheel” statue in Gloucester of a fisherman facing the sea.
The new low limits reduce the cod catch to just a fraction of what it once was and prevent fishermen from landing more plentiful species, such as haddock and pollock. That’s because fishermen can’t pull up the healthier groundfish without catching too much of the cod that swim among them.
An economic analysis by the council projected that the cuts would reduce overall groundfish revenues by 33 percent, from about $90 million in 2011 to about $60 million in 2013. But fishermen said the projection is far too optimistic.
“It’s fantasy. … I mean, I’d rather go to Disney World. I’ve got a better chance of meeting Peter Pan,” said Goethel, who predicted the entire New Hamsphire fleet would be eliminated.
Fishermen have consistently disputed the accuracy of the science that drives regulation and that indicates the stocks are in bad shape. And they noted the industry has generally fished at or below levels recommended by science in recent years, but the advice has proven wrong.
“I’ve done everything they told me to do, and all of the sudden I come up here to a meeting today, and they’re going to send me in a coffin out of this place,” said New Bedford fisherman Carlos Rafael, who said he may have to sideline half of his fleet of 20 groundfish boats.
Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation said the council had no choice but to cut catch limits drastically so struggling stocks can recover.
“A far worse result would be to fail to take the kind of action that would secure a future for this fishery,” he said.
Maggie Raymond of the Associated Fisheries of Maine said some boats in her group would try to hang on by targeting healthy, but less valuable, stocks of redfish and haddock. Others won’t make it, she said.
As the fleet shrinks, related jobs, such as fish processors, will be lost and infrastructure will disappear from the valuable waterfront properties in local ports, she said. That won’t return quickly, if ever, Raymond said.
Gib Brogan of the environmental group Oceana said too many boats have been chasing too few fish for too long. Industry downsizing will is actually “right-sizing,” he said, and when those fish come back in greater numbers, the industry will figure out how to benefit.
“If there are fish to catch, there will be someone out there catching it,” Brogan said.