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Empty oceans, Part 1: Endless no more

Technology has bested seas’ bounty, now fishermen adjust to a sea change.

(Page 3 of 3)

New England has 800 to 900 active federal ground fish permits. (Ground fish swim close to the bottom and include pollock, haddock, and cod.) To achieve economic viability and ecological sustainability, some say the fleet must shrink by as much as two-thirds. The implied dissolution of the few fishing communities that remain weighs heavily on fishermen who, besides showing an almost religious devotion to their profession, can earn six-figure salaries. Many are scrambling to find ways for the same number of fishermen to make a living off fewer fish.

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In Port Clyde, Maine, the two-year-old Midcoast Fishermen’s Co-op has sought to brand its catch as environmentally friendly and charge more for it. By selling fewer fish for more money, the group hopes to maintain the fishing community.

Farther east along the Maine coast, where fish stocks are badly depleted and 90 percent of the fishermen now rely on lobster, the Penobscot East Resource Center’s Downeast Initiative is pushing for “community-based management.” The idea is that because communities closest to fishing areas have the greatest stake in their viability and know them best, they should set management rules.

“All ecology is local. Fish live in, return to, and feed in specific places,” says Robin Alden, the center’s executive director. “It’s only through taking care of specific areas that you can take care of fish populations.”

And CCCHFA hopes to thwart an unintended effect of fishing rights becoming sellable. To keep permits from migrating out of the local community, CCCHFA will buy up permits and then lease them based on certain criteria – living locally, owning a boat, paying deckhands a share of the catch, say – that foster what Paul Parker, executive director of CCCHFA, calls the “triple bottom line” of economic, social, and ecological goals. “We maintain our sense of place,” he says. It’s a good way for us to continue a way of life.”

For his part, Margeson is determined to weather this transition, see the stocks rebound, and keep fishing. “I’m too old for a career change,” he says. And besides, he enjoys it. “I love it for the freedom,” he says.

The fact that fishermen have less freedom today is not lost on Margeson. Since the mid-1990s, gradually tightening regulations have done away with the notion that the ocean is a wild, unregulated frontier. And now, as New England fishermen form associations to weather hard times and overhaul their industry, they must give up more of that independence. Where autonomy was once prized, collaboration is now emphasized.

[Editor's note: The original story omitted Paul Parker's first name and attribution. The story also carried a headline and subhead that did not adequately characterize the story's content. A photo caption in the original was rewritten to clarify the fact that Jan Margeson owns two fishing boats. The video accompanying this story originally misstated the number of days allowed to fish for cod. Additionally, a previous version of this correction misspelled Jan Margeson's name.]

Empty Oceans, a series on the state of the world's fisheries, will be appearing in the Monitor's environment section. For the full series, click here.