Fishery Failure in the Northeast

Elspeth Hay

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The number of groundfish available to catch in northeastern waters has seen a drastic drop this year. Elspeth Hay, a Cape Cod resident, spent some time with a local fisherman to get a better understanding of what’s potentially causing the decline.

Greg Walinski has been longlining for thirty years. Groundfish, mostly—haddock, cod, Pollock, hake, flounder. The bottom dwellers. He fishes out of Chatham, on a boat called the Alicia Ann, and he is incredibly worried about the future.

It’s no secret that the fishery is in trouble. The Secretary of Commerce declared a commercial fishery failure in the Northeast groundfish fishery for the 2013 season. Starting in May, there will likely be big cuts to the quotas.

But the thing is, these cuts aren’t even really what worry Greg. It’s not like he and the other groundfish fishermen in Chatham are lobbying to open closed areas or raise the quota. They can’t find enough fish to reach the quota as it is. According to preliminary catch data from the New England Fishery Management Council, fishermen have only caught 17% of the quota for cod in the Georges Bank area this year, and 2% of the haddock. The season is almost half over, and that’s it. Last year, the numbers were a little better—28% and 7% respectively—but not exactly fantastic.

What’s more, it isn’t even small longliners like Greg who are catching that small percentage of fish. It’s bigger boats, not dayboats but boats that can take twelve-hour in, twelve-hour-out, overnight trips. Dayboat fishermen who used to bring in Chatham cod are now fishing for skate and dogfish. These days, the cod for sale at your local fish market isn’t usually from here. Some of it is Pacific, some of it is Icelandic. And as Greg says, no one’s talking about this.

He thinks there are a lot of different reasons for the recent decline in groundfish. There are a lot of seals around, and a lot of dogfish. Scientists are unclear on how seal populations affect groundfish—they might help or they might hurt—but both seals and dogfish can and do eat groundfish. Those two seals (image above) hung out the whole time I talked with Greg, hoping for a handout from the boat.

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Photo Credit: Elspeth Hay