A livelihood on the water at risk

Industry challenges prompt some independent fishermen to band together in alliances.

The barren clamming flats of the Annisquam River are over 1,600 miles from the warm, shrimp-rich bayous of LaFouche Parish, La. On the surface, the cold New England harbor and steaming Mississippi River delta are worlds apart.

But the two communities, and the fishermen who created them, are in the same boat now, as it were.

Challenges such as foreign competition and increased aquaculture have driven seafood harvesters out of business in both towns. A red tide has gutted the Gloucester clamming season, while in Louisiana, banks refuse to take shrimpers' boats as loan collateral, insisting on the deeds to their houses instead.

For many, it is simply no longer profitable to spend thousands of dollars on a boat, licenses, and equipment, to work 12-hour days for smaller and smaller catches, especially when many Americans would rather pay a lower price for farm-raised fish from the frozen-food section.

When Margaret Curole, the wife of a LaFouche shrimper, went to meetings of the Louisiana Shrimper's Association, she felt she was watching a slow death. "I looked at all those fishermen and I looked at their faces and I saw the despair and the hurt and the frustration," she says.

Their worries are mirrored in official forecasts: The US Labor Department predicts the number of commercial fishermen in America will steadily drop in coming years.

But for Mrs. Curole, the tide of woes has become a goad to action. She is spearheading an effort to pull small fishermen from around the country into a political lobby and marketing organization. The effort is unusual for the often insular business of independent fishing, where Maryland clammers profit from the red tides that drive their New England colleagues out of work. But it is a sign of the determination of those who earn their living from the sea.

Curole's Her recruiting efforts have spread as far north as Gloucester, which claims to be the nation's oldest fishing port.

Outside Fuji Seafood on the Gloucester docks, the back of a loading truck proclaims in bright red letters, "The American Commercial Fisherman: The REAL Endangered Species."

To protect this "species," Gloucester's waterfront has been designated a heritage dock for fishermen, although harbormaster Jim Caulkett says about 1,000 recreational boats moor there, versus 200 commercial ones. Still, Gloucester is known as a refuge for fishermen fleeing other New England docks, where fleets have declined. "There are no more young people getting into this industry," says Angela Sanfillipo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association. "My son started to be a fisherman, and stopped. When you're young, you want stability, and there's no stability here."

In lieu of that and the general shakiness of a fishing income, Ms. Sanfillipo's organization, in conjunction with the state, provides alternative career training. It is eagerly sought by men who increasingly fish as a part-time supplement to income from other jobs.

In Lubek, Maine, the easternmost tip of America, fisherman Kenny Daye says lobstermen and urchin divers rake blueberries or clip pine trees for Christmas wreaths in the off-season.

But additional jobs don't, in themselves, save fishing as a way of life. That's where Margaret Curole steps in. Her activism-based approach is relatively new. Instead of looking for income substitutes, she has spent two years beginning to build a nationwide alliance.

"If you had tried to do this five years ago it would have fallen flat, but everyone is in the same situation now. We've had to ... enter the political arena whether we like it or not," she says.

Pulling together groups from Alaska to Florida into common cause hasn't been an easy task, and it's hard to say if its been successful. Curole says a national group like this has never come together, and even now it has yet to devise a title for itself.

One key goal is to market American seafood as a high-quality product, along the lines of organic meat and produce. The effort may not help every clam digger or cod boat. But it's the best idea she's had yet. "I don't think we ever have a chance of bringing it back to the way it was. But I think the time is right now, with people being more aware of where their food comes from, to create a certain niche market."

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