March 17, 2010

Groundfishing boats abandoning Portland

TOM BELL

— By

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, January 28, 2008...Sam Viola, of Westbrook, is one of the Maine commercial fishermen now fishing out of Gloucester, Massachusetts because of increased regulatory restrictions imposed on Maine fishermen.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, January 28, 2008....Frustrated with increased restrictions on commercial fishing boats fishing out of Maine, Allyson Jordan has moved her family's two fishing boats to Gloucester, Massachusetts.

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Staff Writer

Groundfishing trawlers, which have vanished from their historic home ports of Rockland, Eastport and Boothbay, now appear to be abandoning Portland, Maine's last remaining groundfishing hub.

Portland's fleet of medium and large draggers left the harbor for Massachusetts before Christmas, and most boats have yet to return. On a recent day, at least 13 Portland-based or formerly Portland-based draggers were in Gloucester Harbor. In Portland, there were two.

The migration has cut the supply of local fish for Portland processors and is costing area businesses that serve the fleet millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Cash-strapped boats are landing fish in Gloucester primarily because they can earn extra money selling lobsters they catch in their nets, a practice allowed in every coastal state but Maine. At least five draggers have left Portland permanently for Gloucester and Boston.

Some of the boat owners interviewed in Gloucester say they left last summer after Maine Marine Patrol wardens -- at the urging of the lobster industry -- began enforcing a long-standing but rarely enforced law that bans Maine-licensed groundfish boats from possessing lobsters in state or federal waters.

Meanwhile, other Maine fishermen are simply selling off their boats and licenses because they say it's impossible to make a living during this era of stringent regulatory measures aimed at rebuilding depleted fish stocks.

This winter the Portland Fish Exchange -- now staffed by a skeleton crew -- cut the number of auctions from five a week to just two. It has been selling about 60,000 pounds of fish a week -- just 12 percent of its volume in the early 1990s.

The city-owned auction -- which also sells fish trucked in from Port Clyde and New Hampshire -- is now trying to lease out a portion of its largely empty refrigerated warehouse to help pay the bills.

The exodus of boats also means fewer customers for Vessel Services, Portland Harbor's only remaining company selling ice and fuel to commercial boats, and fewer customers for Gowen Marine, which repairs the boats and gear and sells gear and supplies.

Gowen, which employed as many as 24 people in the early 1990s, now has fewer than 10 workers. It is shifting its focus to serving the recreational-boat market to survive, said owner Joe Schmader.

Cozy Harbor Seafood, one of the four larger processors in the city, now imports more than 95 percent of its groundfish from Canada or Massachusetts, president and code enforcement officer John S. Norton said.

Additional shipping costs and delays make it harder for Maine processors to compete with companies that have access to local fish, said Angelo Ciocca of Nova Seafood in Portland. He said his company and other processors and shore businesses will close after their owners retire.

''We are living the end of the groundfish-harvesting side of the industry in the state of Maine,'' Ciocca said. ''It's done. It's finished.''

SHRINKING INDUSTRY

Just a generation ago, more than 300 boats fished for groundfish in Maine and supplied dozens of processing plants up and down the coast. It's an industry that has been critical to the survival of Maine's coastal communities for more than four centuries.

The migration of boats to Massachusetts today comes at time when the groundfishing industry in New England is contracting overall. The region is in the middle of a 10-year plan that seeks to rebuild some fish stocks, mainly by reducing the number of days fishermen can fish and closing some areas to fishing.

During the past year, 20 percent of the active boats in New England have quit groundfishing, said Stephen Ouellette, a maritime lawyer who specializes in fisheries issues.

Portland has been particularly hard hit. The volume of fish landed in Portland declined by nearly 50 percent from 2004 to 2007, while landings in Gloucester have been stable. Gloucester has benefited from the additional deliveries by Maine draggers.

On a recent blustery morning when heavy seas had driven the fishing fleet back to Gloucester Harbor, fish companies were busy unloading the catch. One pier was lined with boats from Maine.

For Gloucester, the arrival of the Maine boats has been the only good news in an otherwise dismal era, said Peter Prybot, a longtime Gloucester lobsterman who writes the Ebb and Flow commercial fishing column for the Gloucester Times.

''The port of Gloucester, for God's sake, loves to see the Maine boats,'' he said. ''They are top fishermen and top producers. Gloucester not only benefits from the fish landings, they benefit from what is spent on those boats, such as fuel and food.''

Maine boats have always called on Gloucester, particularly in winter, when lobsters migrate to deep water and draggers are more likely to catch them. But the lobster income is more crucial now because money is so tight, fishermen say.

So Maine draggers are going to Massachusetts ports more often and staying longer. They're also developing business relationships with processors, pier owners and suppliers; and many of those relationships are likely to be permanent.

The number or Portland draggers in Gloucester has risen sharply in recent years, just as Gloucester's own fleet has declined. This winter, the majority of the large draggers in the harbor are from Maine, said Scott Memhard, president of Cape Pond Ice.

''It seems that these Maine boats have come along and have taken up that slack,'' he said.

FISH STOCKS REBOUND

Even as Portland Harbor struggles to survive as a home to groundfishermen, the conservation measures appear to be working. Stocks of haddock, red fish and pollock have rebounded to levels that haven't been seen in years, said William Gerencer, a fish buyer from Bowdoin.

But the loss of Maine boats and permit-holders means that Massachusetts, not Maine, is poised to take advantage of the recovery, he said.

Massachusetts has several advantages over Maine.

It is closer to fishing grounds that are now seeing the best recovery of stocks -- a critical factor, considering higher fuel costs and regulatory measures that limit the amount of time fishing boats can spend at sea.

Massachusetts has two of the busiest fishing ports in the nation, in Gloucester and New Bedford, and there is a widespread belief within the industry in Maine that those communities have been able to wield more influence than Maine over the regulatory process.

Also, the Massachusetts congressional delegation has been more successful getting federal aid for that state's fishermen. In December, Massachusetts netted $13.4 million in disaster assistance money, while Maine didn't get anything.

LOBSTERMEN WIELD POWER

Still, Maine fishermen and others in the industry say the migration to Massachusetts is primarily driven by the ability to sell lobsters there.

The fishermen say the lobsters are now a crucial source of income because regulations have made it so much harder to make money catching only fish. Massachusetts allows draggers to land up to 500 lobsters per trip. That can mean as much as $14,000 in extra revenue. The lobster is caught in federal waters.

Maine draggermen have little political clout in Maine. Indeed, the Portland Fish Exchange's failed effort last year to convince the Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci to amend the Maine law had the unintended effect of accelerating the exodus of groundfishermen.

Lobstermen argue that dragging is a rough and indiscriminate form of harvesting that can damage egg-bearing lobsters. They also say ''high grading'' would occur, with smaller lobsters returned to the sea so that the largest, most valuable ones can be brought to market.

Maine's powerful lobster industry successfully fought the bill and then lobbied the Maine Marine Patrol to enforce a law banning Maine-licensed boats from possessing lobsters that were not harvested with traps.

The ban had been rarely enforced since its passage in the 1960s, but Marine Patrol wardens fined two midcoast draggers to send a message to the rest of the dragger fleet. The fines were $2,000 each, though the infractions potentially could have led to a year in jail.

The Coast Guard and Massachusetts agencies refuse to enforce the law, and Maine groundfishermen say the state doesn't have jurisdiction to fine boats in federal waters.

Allyson Jordan, a third-generation fisherman from Scarborough, was so alarmed by the Marine Patrol actions that she mailed her Maine fishing license back to the state, moved her family's two draggers and shore operations to Gloucester, and found an apartment in nearby Rockport.

''It was our family's way of life, and it kind of stinks we had to leave,'' she said.

Sam Viola, a Portland-based draggerman who has been working out of Gloucester this winter, said many dragger owners are bitter about the outcome of the attempt to amend the lobster bycatch law, which was unanimously rejected by the Legislature's Marine Resource Committee and opposed by the Department of Marine Resources. He said he and other draggermen believe they have exhausted all options and are now justified in moving to the Bay State.

''Portland is done,'' Viola said. ''Portland is out of business right now.''

David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said he has no sympathy for the draggermen. They have ''decimated'' their own fishery, he said, and now they want to do the same to the Maine lobster fishery, using the same methods.

He said Maine's lobstermen will never allow the draggermen to land lobsters.

''There are 7,000 lobstermen in the state of Maine, and what, four groundfishermen left? Who's going to win the battle?''

Norton, whose plant also processes shrimp and lobsters, said the lobster lobby may someday regret its victory. Maine's fishing communities are now dependent on just one species -- lobster, he said. That means any cyclical downturn in the lobster population would be devastating to coastal communities because there would be no alternative source of income.

''We have gotten to the point where it's kind of dangerous from an industry perspective,'' he said. ''But it's also dangerous on a cultural and social level.''

Staff writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369, or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, January 28, 2008....Frustrated with increased restrictions on commercial fishing boats fishing out of Maine, Allyson Jordan has moved her family's two fishing boats to Gloucester, Massachusetts.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, January 28, 2008....Commercial fishing boats from Maine have joined the fleet of boats now fishing out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, because of increased restrictions in this state.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, January 28, 2008....The Maine based commercial fishing boat, Capt'n Mark, unloads it catch at the Gloucester, Massachusetts, fish auction facility. All but a few commercial fishing boats from Maine are now fishing out of Gloucester because of increased restrictions imposed by the state of Maine.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, January 28, 2008....The Maine fishing boat, Capt'n Mark, unloads its catch of fish at the fish auction facility in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Nearly all of Maine's commercial fishing fleet now fishes out of Gloucester because of increased regulation restrictions in Maine.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, January 28, 2008....A crew member on the fishing boat "Capt'n Mark", from Portland, helps unload a catch of monkfish at the fish auction facility in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Almost all of Maine's commercial fishing boats are now fishing out of Gloucester because of increased regulatory restrictions in Maine.

 


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