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January 13, 2010

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Veteran fishers hold on to offset slow death of skills and tradition

JOE Sava's legs have absorbed the ocean's pitch and roll from the deck of a fishing boat for four decades. At age 75, the Gloucester fisherman says just trying to stay upright at sea can wear him down.

"It takes a toll," Sava says. "The younger guys can do it."

Trouble is, he and other fishing boat captains say, not many younger guys are working New England waters these days.

Fishermen say that because of years of onerous regulations and the rising, six-figure cost of permits, fewer and fewer young people are becoming boat captains. That's left lots of old salts like Sava doing the grueling job out of both love and necessity.

And they worry about their own safety and the future of an industry that has been vital to New England's economy and its very character since colonial days.

"The door is slamming shut," Sava says.

The US National Marine Fisheries Service does not keep statistics on fishermen's ages, but state figures back up the sea captains' observations. Since 2000, the median age of Massachusetts holders of commercial fishing permits - that is, boat owners and owner-captains - has climbed from 46 to nearly 51, according to the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

Pat Kurkul, the Northeast regional administrator for the fisheries service, says she believes that the industry is still a draw to young people and that the current rebuilding plan will ensure the industry is attractive to newcomers for years to come.

"We anticipate that rebuilt fish stocks will be able to generate three times the current catch, providing plenty of economic incentive for new fishermen to get into the fishery," she says.

Over the past decade, regulators trying to stop overfishing have imposed ever-tighter rules that have left as few as 24 fishing days this year for fishermen who catch cod, haddock, flounder and other so-called groundfish. The fishing fleet in the Northeast has shrunk as a result, falling to just under 600 working groundfish boats in 2007 from about 1,100 in 2001.

Meanwhile, Northeast groundfish revenue dropped from about US$71 million in 2004 to about US$62 million in 2008, and the catch fell from about 35 million kilograms to 30 million kilograms.

As the chance to fish has become more scarce, it has also become exponentially more expensive. Government-issued fishing permits that were bought and sold among fishermen for a few thousand dollars in the mid-1990s go for at least US$200,000 nowadays.

Lee Schatvet, a 21-year-old fisherman from Rye Harbor, New Hampshire, would like to run his own boat but figures he would need US$400,000 to US$500,000 for a decent vessel, gear and a permit. And a young man with a limited credit history has little chance of securing that kind of money.

"It's basically impossible to get into the industry nowadays," Schatvet says.

Jonathan Bunce, 32, says it was a bad time to invest, even if he had the money, because of strict new catch limits that go into effect this spring. "You know, 'Am I going to be able to make this back? Am I going to lose the boat'?" he says.

New Hampshire fisherman Jay Driscoll, 39, has been one of the youngest boat owners around since he bought his permit for US$3,000 in 1996. He said he worries that only large corporate trawlers will remain once the older generation retires.

That could further hurt New England's struggling fishing communities, whose economies have long relied on a healthy small-boat fleet.

Russell Sherman, a 61-year-old fisherman out of Gloucester, the storied fishing port depicted in the movie "The Perfect Storm," went to sea after graduating from Harvard in 1971. "Gloucester was booming," he said. "Now it's like a poor, crippled, old sister."

Sherman's three-man crew ranges in age from 50 to 69 - and the 50-year-old is known as the "young guy." Joints stay sore longer, cold seems colder now, and the crew takes more safety precautions, staying in port when the seas are too rough, Sherman says.

He is struggling to break even, but his advanced years aren't to blame - it's the fishing restrictions, and until things change, young people are right to stay away: "Anybody who isn't bitten by the bug already shouldn't even get close to it."


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