PLYMOUTH, Mass. – Mike Secondo remembers the days when Plymouth’s docks outshone its rock.
Tourists swarmed the town pier in the 1970s and ’80s, snapping pictures and bantering with commercial fishermen as they unloaded another shimmering haul for Secondo’s company, Reliable Fish, to truck to points south.
Secondo is convinced Plymouth tourists went home remembering the fishermen more than Plymouth Rock, which commemorates the Pilgrims’ landing in 1620.
“You couldn’t move, (the tourists) were in awe of what they were looking at, the fish, the boats, the conversations that we were having,” he said. “I mean, it was something years ago.”
Today, Plymouth’s fishermen are all but gone. Last year, according to federal statistics, Plymouth had zero landings of groundfish — such as cod, haddock and flounder.
Tough new rules enacted in May have fishermen at New England’s major ports, Gloucester and New Bedford, worried their history will fade away as fishermen faced with low catch limits sell out to larger interests. It’s already happened in smaller ports, slowly changing the character of the New England coast.
Groundfishing has historically employed large numbers in good jobs. The romance of the deep-sea pursuit of fin fish is embedded in a region where its most famous cape is named after its most famous fish, the cod. People don’t want that way of life to become just a memory.
“Is it progress to switch to a waterfront that produces food to a waterfront that hosts cocktail parties?” asked Warren Doty, a selectman in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, where fishermen are struggling to preserve a working waterfront on Menemsha Harbor.
A recent analysis indicates how densely the Northeast industry has consolidated around the major remaining ports.
The study by Cap Log Group Inc. and funded in part by the Environmental Defense Fund indicates that 31 million pounds of the 38 million pounds of groundfish caught in 2007 in Massachusetts, or 82 percent, were landed by vessels from either New Bedford, Gloucester or Boston.
Meanwhile, federal statistics show groundfishing has withered or vanished in numerous small and mid-sized ports in the last 30 years.
Rockland, in mid-coast Maine, landed 16 million pounds of groundfish three decades ago, but none last year. Jerry Carvalho said fishing boats once jammed city docks in Newport, R.I., where he’s fished for three decades. Now, Newport is a tourist town that sells its beauty and Gilded Age history — but almost no fish. The city went from 14 million pounds of groundfish in 1980 to a scant 37,000 in 2009.
In 1995, Marblehead, Mass., landed a half-million pounds of groundfish; South Bristol, Maine, landed 870,000; and Harwich Port on Cape Cod had 1.2 million. The total for each port last year was zero. (Federal rules don’t require ports with less than three fishermen or dealers to report their catch.)
Tom Luce used longline hook-and-line gear to fish for cod off Harwich Port in the 1990s, until the fish seemed to go away. He’s switched to fishing for conch, an edible mollusk, but other fishermen have left the harbor.
“It was just more lively (then),” he said. “There was product coming off the dock. And, now, there really isn’t much.”
Karen Alexander, a University of New Hampshire fisheries historian, said the industry was once so embedded in the region in the 19th century that even a tiny island like Islesford, Maine, with just a few dozen residents today, had 82 full-time fishermen.
“Every port was a significant port,” Alexander said. “Fishing was spread like peanut butter on a slice of bread all over the coast of New England.”
Fishermen say the industry’s deterioration was caused by onerous regulation, which they say was pushed by environmentalists and based on flawed science that badly underestimates fish stocks. Environmentalists point to a legacy of overfishing enabled by poorly conceived rules that set too many boats loose on too few fish and devastated stocks.
William Leavenworth, another UNH fisheries historian, said the United States effectively stalled a long decline in the industry in 1976 by claiming coastal waters up to 200 miles from shore, booting out foreign fleets, and subsidizing domestic fishermen. By 1980, the number of Northeast vessels landing groundfish had doubled from about 600 to about 1,200, according to federal statistics, leading to massive — and unsustainable — catch increases.
In Gloucester, for example, the catch more than doubled from about 36 million pounds to 74 million between 1975 and 1980. Portland, Maine, went from 17 million to 27 million.
A decade later, fish stocks crashed, resulting in fishing restrictions in the mid-1990s that have only gotten tighter. Meanwhile, the fleet had dwindled by 2007 to about 820 boats, including 510 that fished enough to be considered full- or part-time, according to the Cap Log report.
Major stocks such as haddock and some species of cod have seen some recovery in recent years. Fishermen say the best thing to do to help is let them catch more fish, but fishing communities in Gloucester and Cape Cod have also set up “permit banks” to buy the expensive fishing permits and lease them to local fishermen at affordable rates.
At the Boston Fish Pier in South Boston, the smells of fish and diesel and the beeps of a forklift in reverse mark a waterfront that’s still working, albeit with fewer workers. Veteran fisherman Mike Walsh remembers gear shops, an ice house and more fishing boats, not just at the pier, but stretching along the waterfront to berths downtown.
Now, he sees types of vessels that weren’t there two and three decades ago, such as the water taxis that putter by and recreational boats like the one docked across the way.
Walsh knows waterfront property is coveted by interests with deeper pockets than his: office buildings surround the pier. But the city and region would sorely miss his fresh catch if Boston’s fishermen disappear, he said.
“Come on, this is all natural, no additives here,” Walsh said. “You cut the meat off the bone and you eat it, that’s it. You ain’t going to get better.”