BOSTON — Mike Russo grew up on Cape Cod, where the sea was always in the air or just around the bend, and knew by middle school he wanted to work a fishing boat.
Now 45, Russo owns a boat, hunts cod off Provincetown and is baffled that fishermen like him are being branded industry sell-outs by critics of a group that represents him, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association.
“It’s based on misperceptions,” Russo said.
The Hook, as it’s known, represents fishermen who use hooks or stationary nets and was an early backer of the cooperatives, called sectors, which are the foundation of current New England fishery management. The Hook helped Russo and other fishermen create one of the first sectors in 2004.
Others in the fishing industry consider the sector system a disaster that’s ruining fishing businesses. But the Hook defends the change as the best way to keep fishermen solvent while species rebound. Environmental groups who agree have given it praise and money. To some fishermen, that’s like allying with anti-fishing enemies.
“The hook fishermen don’t mean anything to me personally, and I have nothing personally against them, except that they’re all sell-outs,” said Dick Grachek, who owns a boat that fishes out of Point Judith, R.I.
A lawsuit led by New England’s two biggest fishing ports, Gloucester and New Bedford, seeks to overturn the new rules, and also takes on the sector the Hook helped create, charging it received “preferential treatment” with catch allotments.
Steve Ouellette, an attorney for the ports, says the hook association has outsized influence because of the environmentalists’ money and the fact their chief executive, John Pappalardo, chairs a regional body that devises fishery rules, the New England Fishery Management Council.
Ouellette considers the Hook is an anti-industry environmental group in disguise, mainly representing fishermen who barely fish or rarely even practice the more benign hook fishing that attracts environmentalists.
“If [a Hook official] was drowning in front of me, I’d pull him out of the water, but I have no use for those people, none whatsoever,” Ouellette said. “Their endgame is to put everyone else out of business.”
The Hook called the accusations are baseless. It says the sector it helped create, for instance, is so active it has taken more than 1,800 trips so far this year — second-most of New England’s 17 sectors.
Pappalardo said it’s absurd to believe he can manipulate an 18-member council made up of diverse interests, including industry representatives.
There nothing wrong with disagreement, he said, but the “hatred” is preventing the industry from achieving a common goal of a healthy fishery.
“I’ve sat back and been wondering, ‘When is the steam going to come out of the hatred?”’ he said.
Peter Baker, a former Hook staff member now with the Pew Environment Group, which supports the hook association, says the rift highlights the ongoing argument over how fish should be managed.
“The crux of the issue is whether we’re going to manage with catch limits and stop fishing once those limits are hit,” Baker said.
The Hook was founded in 1991 by Chatham hook fishermen working to preserve their businesses amid shrinking cod stocks. It has never shied from bucking fellow fishermen.
In a 1996 lawsuit, it argued its fishing method was far better for the environment than dragging a net over the ocean floor — the predominant fishing method in New England. In 2006, it received a National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration “Hero Award” for being a leader in responsible fishing “even when taking public positions that diverge for those of their peers.”
By then, the Hook had been pushing for “hard” catch limits, despite heavy resistance in the industry. Under the rules passed in May, if fishermen exceed a given catch limit on one species, they must stop fishing on all species.
The sectors system aims to give fishermen flexibility to survive the tough limits by allowing fishermen to pool individual catch allotments and trade them between sectors.
Critics say the allotments were unfairly decided. There’s resentment because the sector the Hook helped create got to keep a higher cod allocation given before the other sectors were created.
“They got cod that they couldn’t possibly catch, and then they sold [most] of that allocation,” said Brian Rothschild, a fisheries scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
Pappalardo said suddenly changing the allocation would have set a disruptive precedent, causing uncertainty for fishermen who rely on knowing how much they’ll be able to catch.
Eric Brazer, manager of Russo’s sector, said the group has landed 51 percent of its catch with hooks this year. More are now using stationary nets mainly because their hooks are often stripped clean by an overpopulation of dogfish or skate before they can catch cod. If they can’t catch the cod allocation, trading it to sectors that can use it makes sense, he said.
The Hook has received substantial support from various environmental groups, including $2.6 million from the Pew Environment Group since 1999 and $538,000 from The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation last year to support the implementation of sectors.
Pappalardo said such groups don’t set the Hook’s agenda, they agree with it.
“Where’s the betrayal?” he asked. “Is the betrayal that we agree fishing needs to be controlled?”
Pappalardo added, “We really believe in what we’ve been up to, and what we’re doing.”