Advocates for the fishing industry voiced concern at a regional summit Monday about upcoming federal regulations they warn could put them out of business, while others suggested the changes were a necessary way to curb overfishing.
Fishermen and elected leaders gathered at the New Bedford Whaling Museum ahead of a scheduled May 1 switch to a "sector" system of fishing, in which Northeast fishermen would be broken into groups and forced to combine their catch allotments.
Though the system is intended to give fishermen more autonomy by allowing them to manage their allotments among themselves, some are concerned their individual shares would be taken by large companies and that the given shares would not be enough to allow them to survive.
"Fifty percent of you will be out of business by August. That's not what you want to hear, but that's what you're going to get," warned Carlos Rafael, a fishing boat owner in the Port of New Bedford who participated in a panel discussion about the new system. Rafael said the new management system was "being stuffed down our throats."
Rep. Barney Frank, who attended the summit, told WBUR that he too worries about the fate of smaller fishing operations.
"The fear is without some kind of safeguards about how this is implemented, this ability to sell permits, you'll wind up with a very small number of very large entities and the independent fishing boat owners will not be able to survive," Frank said.
The new sector system, a type of catch share, represents a new attempt to deal with the problems of overfishing. Fishermen under the current system face restrictions on the number of fishing days at sea — some have as few as 24 annually - - and tough limits on the daily catch they can bring in.
Rep. Frank said he hopes a balance can be found between economic viability for fishermen and environmental protection, and a set of recommendations to accompany new regulations can be created. He told fishermen that the government needs to give their expertise more respect and deference.
"Fishermen know the sea, and they know the fish, and they don't want to see it end," Frank said. "I don't know a single fisherman who hopes to be the last person who ever fished."
Gov. Deval Patrick echoed those sentiments, saying, "For fishermen, it's simple: No fish, no job. At the end of the day, their interest is pretty closely aligned with environmentalists."
Brian Rothschild, a marine science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and co-director of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute, said he feared there hadn't been enough transition time to implement the new regulations and that a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the sector system was necessary.
He said there needed to be a better, more accurate system to gauge the health of fishing stocks.
"There's no question that the transition will affect livelihoods, economies and welfare costs in coastal communities," Rothschild said.
Tina Jackson, 43, a fisherman from Point Judith, R.I., called the "sector" rules preposterous.
"You're looking to put a lot of hardworking, taxpaying people out of work," she said, later adding in an interview that the federal government was attempting to privatize the fishing industry.
"Fishing is a privilege in this country," she said. "It is America's public resource."
WBUR's Jess Bidgood contributed to this report.
This program aired on March 8, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.