Amid Declining Fish Catch, Growing Debate Over Disaster Money

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It's 6 a.m. at the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange in Gloucester, where auctioneer Butch Maniscalco is selling bins of cod, haddock and other groundfish, much of which came in off the boat overnight. Three buyers in the room watch their open laptops. Other buyers are bidding remotely.

Maniscalco's been auctioning off fish for 40 years, just like his father did. Before this online bidding, he did it by voice.

"There was a lot more interaction, a lot more fun," Maniscalco remembers. "A little testy at times, but it was good. It was good."

The Cape Ann Seafood Exchange’s morning catch (Katie Broida for WBUR)
The Cape Ann Seafood Exchange’s morning catch (Katie Broida for WBUR)

It's not just the technology that has changed. So has the amount of product coming in off the boat.

"We'd sell fish," Maniscalco says, raising his voice. "It could be a million pounds in a week. More! It's just, things have changed."

Nowadays, this auction house sells around 30,000 pounds daily. And the volume should be dramatically lower next year, too. Federal regulators say groundfish stocks are low. To rebuild them, they're going to have to drop the amount fishermen can catch.

The Obama administration has declared the New England groundfish fishery a disaster. That federal declaration paves the way for Congress to fund emergency relief.

The money could amount to tens of millions of dollars for Massachusetts fishing ports, including Gloucester, where about 1,000 people owe their jobs to the commercial fishing industry. Congress has yet to appropriate any money. But that hasn't stopped disagreements over how to spend it.

Upstairs at the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, manager Chris Duffey works the phone with buyers up and down the coast, trying to finagle a better price. He didn't used to have to do this. Commercial fishermen, at least, might get higher prices for their catch when there's a limited supply. But Duffey can't afford to staff as many workers when he's only auctioning a fifth of what he used to.

"We're not selling yo-yos and Slinkys here, we're selling fish," he says, almost disgustedly. "And if there's no fish, what do you do?"

Chris Duffey at the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange makes calls to sell fish after the auction has ended. (Katie Broida for WBUR)
Chris Duffey at the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange makes calls to sell fish after the auction has ended. (Katie Broida for WBUR)

Duffey says he's glad the federal government has declared this Northeast fishery a disaster, because it validates the pain his industry is suffering. And he says any disaster money should also bail out businesses like his.

"The fishermen, they need some relief, because the catches are down," Duffey acknowledges.

"But what about the processors? And what about the auction houses? And what about the fish workers, that don't have the hours. That used to get 55, 60, 70 hours a week that are now working 18 and 20 hours a week trying to get their insurance. What about those guys?"

Out on the docks, fishermen see it differently.

"It'll end up being divvied up to the point I'd be very surprised if it helps any fishermen," says commercial fisherman Ed Smith.

Smith runs three boats out of Gloucester Harbor, boats that cost of a lot of money to maintain. Smith says most commercial fishermen in Gloucester are barely hanging on, and they need some help to weather the storm.

"Any of us fishing now are not looking for a handout," Smith says. "It's the last thing any of us want. But we do need some direct resources sent our way if in fact they expect anybody to hold on for a year or two."

Smith disagrees with one plan to use federal disaster money: boat buyouts. Under that plan, disaster dollars would pay some commercial fishermen to get out of the industry, so that fewer remaining boats have less competition for the remaining fish.

Fisherman Ed Smith says he doesn’t know how much longer he can stay in business. (Katie Broida for WBUR)
Fisherman Ed Smith says he doesn’t know how much longer he can stay in business. (Katie Broida for WBUR)

Smith says that's just a shortcut to killing the industry. He thinks some of the money should pay for better research, since he and other fishermen disagree with federal assessments of groundfish stocks. But despite his hopes for the money, Smith is afraid it won't really make a difference.

"A lot of people come to Gloucester, and they think, 'Oh, it's a vibrant town. The fishing community's vibrant.' It's not," Smith says.

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk doesn't agree. She says the pending federal assistance is an opportunity that her city can't afford to squander.

"You know, we've been fishing for over 400 years," Kirk says. "So, you lose Gloucester, it's really a symbol that you're giving up on being in that business."

Kirk is a former management consultant, and she thinks some of the money should go to shoreside businesses.

"[Saying] it shouldn't all go to fishermen is very controversial," Kirk says emphatically. "I'm the mayor of Gloucester! I'm saying: It shouldn't all go to fishermen. It should also go to X, Y, Z. If we don't have a city that can handle the fishing industry, we won't have any fishermen, now or in the future."

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk in her office (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)
Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

Kirk hopes that by using disaster relief money to maintain the port and the businesses around it, Gloucester might be able to attract different kinds of working boats, such as research vessels. She's been meeting with marine business owners and entrepreneurs.

Kirk says Gloucester needs to diversify its oceanside economy if the city wants to keep people working on the shoreline for the next 100 years, rather than just living there for the view.

"You know, the easy way would be to go for the condos, right?" Kirk asks rhetorically.

"The harder way is to lay in place a different type of economy for the city," she says. "Of course, Gloucester, being who we are, we're taking that harder path that preserves what we value. Which is a working waterfront with good infrastructure to support the future of the ocean economy. That's our opportunity."

Back at the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, manager Duffey says it's going to be interesting to see how much federal disaster money comes to Gloucester after all, and who gets how much.

"No matter what happens, there are gonna be guys with their boo-boo lip out, there's gonna be sour grapes," Duffey says as he reaches for his phone to call another seafood buyer. "Yeah, it's gonna be a hot topic, for sure."

This program aired on November 13, 2012.

Headshot of Curt Nickisch

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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