Fishermen Worry Cod Limits Could Put Them Out Of Business

Fishery managers in New England have approved big cuts in the commercial catch limit for cod. The regulators say the cuts are needed to save the cod fishery from collapse — but fishermen say they will destroy their industry and many other businesses along with it.

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Making a living in commercial fishing in the Northeast has gotten tougher with each passing year. Now, regulators have announced strict new limits on the amount of cod fishermen can haul in from Massachusetts to Maine. It's part of an effort to rebuild severely depleted fish stocks.

As Maine Public Radio's Jay Field reports, some fishermen worry the new restrictions may finally put them out of business for good.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: In Port Clyde, on Maine's midcoast, boats named Day Star, Sinful, Amazing Grace and Yankee Pride sit in driveways on the road into this small fishing village. A driving wind turns the gray water off the town wharf into a tapestry of white caps that crest and break against the last five fishing trawlers left in the harbor.

GARY LIBBY: We're probably at the lowest level of ground fish boats that's ever been.

FIELD: Gary Libby, whose family owns three of the remaining five boats, sits in his pickup truck, near the wharf.

LIBBY: Back when I first fished, 30-plus years ago, most of the lobster boats put nets on in the spring and went fishing.

FIELD: Cod and other species of ground fish in the Gulf of Maine were plentiful, a seemingly endless bounty. In 1990, around 350 boats in Maine caught over 15 million pounds of cod alone. But as the years passed, overfishing caused stocks to decline. Regulators imposed stricter and stricter catch limits to prop up a fishery in freefall. By 2011, the 40 or so remaining fishing trawlers in Maine hauled in just 750,000 pounds of cod.

John Bullard is the top federal fisheries regulator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

JOHN BULLARD: No young fish are being born and recruiting into the fishery, so the stock is not rebuilding. This is a real problem.

FIELD: And a serious enough one that Bullard says regulators have no choice but to take drastic action.

Yesterday, the New England Fisheries Management Council voted to cut the cod catch in the waters off Maine by 77 percent over the next two years. There was bad news, too, for fishermen in New Hampshire and in the Massachusetts fishing meccas of Gloucester and New Bedford. The catch along the George's Bank will drop by 61 percent. Bullard says the cuts are necessary to save the cod fishery over the long term.

BULLARD: And that's going to have a significant economic impact on fishermen, on their families and on fishing communities.

RANDY CUSHMAN: If I could find a job for 25, $30,000 a year with benefits, I'd walk away from this fishery tomorrow. I really would.

FIELD: I meet Randy Cushman in his basement, where he's fixing up a 100-foot long trawling net. In the winter, Cushman has to travel 75 miles out to sea to catch anything. The last few trips, he says, were money losers.

CUSHMAN: Right now, my wife and I are $1,000 in fuel negative. There's going to come a point that I'm going to need to put fuel in that boat, and the money is not going to be there, in other words.

FIELD: Cushman's boat is the collateral he used to get the mortgage on his house. Melanie Cushman is Randy's wife.

MELANIE CUSHMAN: I've got a lot of physical issues, and we have no insurance. We've worked hard all of our lives, and to be in this situation, it's beyond me.

FIELD: The Cushmans say they'll decide in the coming months whether to keep fishing or close up shop for good.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

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