April 11, 2010

An industry at sea

New rules taking effect May 1 cast doubt on an already unpredictable line of work.

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Rob Odlin holds down seven different jobs.

click image to enlarge

At the Portland Fish Pier, Rob Odlin talks about new limits on the amount of fish groundfishermen will be allowed to catch. The 75 percent of his income that comes from groundfishing will fall drastically, he predicted. Regulators say fish stocks need protection.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographe

click image to enlarge

Rob Odlin, 40, who goes groundfishing aboard the Maria and Dorothy, left, has decided not to join one of the new cooperative-like sectors, instead opting to fish with the common pool.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographe

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He is a shrimp boat captain, gill net groundfishing boat captain, sea urchin diver, charter boat captain, tuna boat captain, landlord and movie producer.

These days, his movie career is looking the most realistic.

Odlin, 40, says his fishing days may be numbered. He and other groundfishermen are facing major changes in regulations at the end of the month that some estimate will put half of New England's 1,480-vessel groundfishing fleet out of business.

The regulations encourage fishermen to form into cooperative-like groups, called sectors, which are allocated part of the annual quota for each species. At the same time, the government is setting stiff new quotas for haddock, pollock, flounder, halibut and other groundfish species.

The rules are the latest restrictions placed on the New England groundfishing industry, which has been under pressure to stop overfishing for the past three decades. In the past, fishermen have seen limits placed on the number of days they may fish. They have been told how many fish they may catch on each trip and where they may fish. They have lived through federal boat-buying programs. They have operated with the same number of fishing permits since 1996.

But technological improvements to gear and equipment have allowed fishermen to continue to overfish, according to federal regulators.

Odlin, one of the 65 remaining groundfishermen in Maine, says he fully expects to be among the losers under the new system. But he also vows to go down fighting.

"Of course, I am worried," said Odlin, who lives in Scarborough.

Like many other fishermen in New England, Odlin takes a dim view of federal regulators' conclusion that groundfish stocks are still too low and need further protection. Odlin also says the new system has been set up to benefit large, well-financed operations.

"It will make the rich guys richer. How can this be legal?" he asked.

But regulators point out that it was the fishermen who asked for the sector system, though they aren't required to join one.

Tom Nies, analyst for the New England Fisheries Management Council, said the sectors have a range of small and large operators.

In an effort to be fair, the council made fish allocations for the sectors according to who was catching the fish. So the small inshore boats that land most of the Gulf of Maine cod were allocated more than larger boats that fish offshore and catch fewer cod.

Nies said that it is true that no one knows what will happen once the new system is in place, and it is possible that someone with deep pockets might buy all the quota from members of his sector.

"But he is only going to buy it if someone wants to sell it to him," said Nies.

Odlin, the youngest of eight children, grew up in a prominent South Portland fishing family. He started fishing as a boy with his father, Arthur.

Three of his five older brothers also fish in New England.

His oldest brother, James, owns Atlantic Trawlers Fishing Inc., operates five fishing boats, including three out of Portland, and sits on the New England Fisheries Management Council. The agency manages fishery resources within the 200-mile federal limit off the New England coast.

Another brother and his wife, Chris and Amanda Odlin of Scarborough, own two fishing boats now based in Boston.

Rob Odlin's brothers expect to fare well under the new rules.

"We are cautiously optimistic," said James Odlin.

But Rob Odlin said he is probably doomed, and even his family members agree.

Odlin went to work as a commercial fisherman right out of South Portland High School. Like most fishermen today, he is highly diversified.

(Continued on page 2)

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