ELLSWORTH, Maine — East of Penobscot Bay, there is no groundfish fishery to speak of in the Gulf of Maine, fishermen told the new head of the regional federal fisheries office Thursday.
Of the more than 1,200 groundfish permits issued in the Northeast, only 20 are held by fishermen in eastern Maine, they told John Bullard.
Bullard, the new Northeast Regional Administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, was in Ellsworth on Thursday and in Portland on Tuesday to discuss fisheries issues with Maine fishermen. A former mayor of New Bedford, Mass., Bullard said he had been in his new post for only a few weeks.
Of the 30 people who met with Bullard on Thursday, several said groundfish could return to the coastal waters of eastern Maine one day — maybe not in their lifetimes but perhaps in those of their children. When the fish return, they stressed, there needs to be a way for eastern Maine residents to earn a living by fishing for them.
Consolidation, especially in the groundfish industry and other federal fisheries, has been a significant concern for many fishermen who say that too many permits, and too much of the allowable catch of many species, are in the hands of too few business interests.
In 2010, NOAA introduced a catch shares system that, though it has been accepted by some Maine fishermen and industry officials, has met with strong criticism in southern Maine and further south where fishermen say it has aggravated the consolidation problem.
Dana Rice, a lobster dealer from Gouldsboro, said that what NOAA should consider is some sort of allocation tax on the sales of groundfish permits.
When a large-scale fishing outfit purchases a permit from a small-scale fisherman, a certain percentage of that particular permit’s allocation would be taken from that permit and put in a permit bank system, where then it would be made available to a small-scale fisherman based in Maine. That would help guarantee that Maine fishermen will be allowed to harvest fish that used to be found close to shore along Maine’s coast, he said.
“Things need to change,” Rice said about how NOAA regulates groundfish.
But it will take time to get groundfish to return to Maine’s coast in numbers large enough to support a small-boat fishery. The only boats in eastern Maine that still actively fish for groundfish are a few based in Port Clyde, Bullard was told.
Jason Joyce, a Swan’s Island fisherman who is a partner in the Penobscot East Resource Center’s Sentinel Fishery program based in Stonington, said he sets tens of thousands of hooks miles offshore each summer while participating in the program. In each of the past three summers, he said, he has caught fewer than 30 cod.
Ted Ames, a retired Stonington fisherman and a former MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, put it to Bullard another way.
“We’ve got 200 miles of coastal shelf that doesn’t have squat except for lobster and dogfish,” he said.
Ames and others told Bullard that NOAA should increase the catch limit on dogfish because the species is interfering with the recovery of others that could prove more economically beneficial to Maine coastal communities.
“You’ve got way more of them than you need,” Ames said.
Bullard asked if they thought cod really can return to Maine’s coast.
“I do,” Rice told him. “I think it’s going to take a long, long time.”
Bullard said his job was to protect both fish and fishermen. He said he believes consolidation should be limited because it will help to preserve the economic effect that groundfishing has on coastal communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
“There’s an argument for efficiency, and there’s an argument against efficiency [in the industry],” he said. “I don’t just buy [the concept] of consolidation. That’s what we need every day. We need fish and fishermen.”
Other issues that were brought up to Bullard, and that he said he would try to learn more about and help out with, include technology NOAA uses to keep track of landings and issue permits, rising water temperatures, and protecting working waterfront properties.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.