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New Hampshire man and the sea

US restrictions meant to protect dwindling fish stocks imperil New England coast's centuries-long tradition.
Last modified: 23 Feb 2013 23:15

It was before dawn when we met Dave Goethel on the coast of Hampton, New Hampshire.

Big fluffy snowflakes were falling and had accumulated on the steep plank down to the dock where he keeps a fishing boat named for his wife, Ellen Diane.

As I clutched the rope railing and tried not to slip, I recalled his story of another snowy day when he misjudged the distance between his boat and the pier and went crashing into the icy harbour below.

"I looked up and aimed for where I could see the moon shining through the ice," Goethel recalled.

"Luckily my crew was right there and pulled me out of the water. It was so cold I couldn’t move after a just a few seconds."

Another time, he fell and split his head on the dock. To this day, the muscles in the left half of his face don’t work properly, causing it to droop a bit.

Neither accident were enough to keep Goethel from his chosen profession.

Fishing along the country's New England coast has been a way of life for centuries, allowing men like him to be their own boss and earn a decent living.

But now that way of life is threatened by fishing restrictions, put in place to protect dwindling fish stocks.

'Bad policy'

The New England Fisheries Management Council, on which Goethel holds a seat, recently voted to cut the amount of cod that fishermen can take from the Gulf of Maine, where he fishes, by 77 percent. Georges Bank, another fishing spot north of Cape, Cod, Massachusetts has also been cut by 61 percent.

Goethel voted against the cuts, which he and other fishermen say will put them out of business. He estimates he'll meet his cod quota in just three days at sea.

"If the only way to save the fishery is to completely destroy the fishermen - that's bad policy," Goethel says. "You have to find a way to co-exist."

But those who support the restrictions say such drastic measures are needed to restore fish populations.

"We've been trying to rebuild groundfish stocks since the mid-1990s, particularly cod stocks," says Tom Nies, the executive director of the New England Fisheries Management Council, which is charged under federal law with protecting fish stocks.

"At times we thought we were making progress but we haven’t been. Now things have actually gotten worse."

Experts aren't sure why. Nies says overfishing was a big problem in the 1990s. Another factor is rising water temperatures.

Cod cuts

The Department of Commerce must still approve the restrictions, which Goethel predicts only corporate fishing vessels will survive.

He spent that whole day trawling for shrimp with two crewmen. Like most in-shore fisherman, who work within 32km of the coast, he relies on a variety of fish to earn his paycheck. But the amount of shrimp and haddock that can be taken from these waters has also been reduced. And the recent cod cuts, are just the latest in a series.

"Groundfishing is our primary money maker," Goethel explained, "that’s what really pays the bills."

Canada, to the North, has banned cod fishing all together for the last 20 years and those stocks have yet to rebound.

Goethel put his two sons through college on a fisherman’s salary but they have already come to the conclusion that they can't make a living following in their father's footsteps. The only question for him is if he will survive another year.

"An old wag once said, a boat is a hole in the water into which one pours money, and that's a pretty accurate description," he told me. "They need lots of money whether the engine is running or not."

His loss of income will also affect the cooperative where he sells his fish, and the marina where he fuels his boat.

He predicts the Atlantic cod will survive, and fishermen like him will be driven to extinction.