GLOUCESTER, Mass. — Hundreds of fishermen from the Northeast rallied in front of the headquarters of federal fishery managers Friday, demanding changes in the “dysfunctional” management that they say is destroying their industry.
Some fishermen held signs reading “Let Fishermen Fish”; other signs pictured Adolf Hitler with the word “Nazi” replacing the first word in National Marine Fisheries Service.
One group marched toward the New England regional headquarters entrance chanting, “Down with NMFS! Down with NMFS!” while a man roamed the crowd dressed as the grim reaper, with NMFS printed on his scythe.
Speakers addressed the crowd in front of a display of two fishermen at the gallows being hanged by a figure of Jane Lubchenco, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has charge over the fisheries service.
“The job you have done is not good enough!” fisherman Jay Driscoll, bullhorn in hand, shouted toward the building.
“The fishermen around me have found the courage to come together to stand up for our rights,” said Driscoll, 39, of Rye, N.H. “Perhaps it’s time for NOAA to find the courage to sit down and listen.”
Rally organizers said fishermen from Maine to Maryland made the trip to Gloucester, the setting for the book and movie “The Perfect Storm.”
The rally comes as fishermen prepare for a switch to a “sector” management system by the May 1 start of the next fishing year. The current system, broadly considered a failure, has tried to stop overfishing by curbing fishing efforts, including steady cuts to fishing days at sea. Some fishermen have as few as 24 a year.
Under the new system, fishermen working together in sectors will divide and manage an allotted catch of individual species. The idea is to increase the autonomy of fishermen, allowing them to increase profits but holding them to strict catch limits that will help stocks recover.
But some fishermen say the new system is paving the way for smaller boats — the backbone of fishing communities like Gloucester — to be wiped out by turning fish stocks into a tradable commodity that bigger boats will scarf up. They say managers are wrongly giving sectors paltry catch allocations that many fishermen won’t survive.
“If we continue on the path we’re on, we won’t have this many people to gather here next year because you simply won’t be in business,” said state Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican.
Fishermen also attacked the science behind the changes, saying it gives an inaccurately bleak picture of the fishery.
“Every year they keep adding more and more regulations to us, taking our days at sea away, restricting our access to different parts of the ocean, all on faulty science,” said Chris Kairns, 40, who fishes out of Point Judith, R.I.
Gloucester fisherman Joe Sava, 74, called fishery management a “joke,” gesturing toward the new building where regulators work as fishermen ride out what he says are deliberate attempts to put them under.
“It’s a slow death,” he said.
Pat Kurkul, the Northeast regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the agency’s fishery science is among the world’s best and isn’t what’s causing the industry’s pain.
“I think the real issue is that we’ve just been unable to eliminate overfishing,” she said.
The current system has not been effective enough but has survived for years anyway, she said.
“Part of it is that we’ve got a different situation in New England than we do, really, in the rest of the country, where the fishing industry is such a strong part of the culture and there’s been such reluctance to change,” Kurkul said.
“What we need to do is take a different approach, take an approach that allows us to have a higher likelihood of success,” she said.
As fishermen protested her agency’s work below, some bitterly calling for her to show her face, Kurkul said the relationship between regulators and fishermen was at “a difficult point” but not broken. The government isn’t trying to ruin fishing businesses, she said, it’s trying to save them after decades of overfishing.
“We’re working for healthy stocks so you can have healthy fishing industry,” Kurkul said. “But you can’t have one without the other.”