Cod fishing — that centuries old and iconic New England vocation — is floundering.
Despite a local board opting to deny a proposal that would have made it almost impossible to fish for cod in waters between the Cape and Portland, Maine, those with connections to the state’s two biggest fishing ports say business is bad and the outlook is grim.
“The industry is at a standstill. They cannot fish,” said Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Associates. “Most of the areas are closed. There’s only a little window where they can fish.”
In recent years, said Sanfilippo, there have been reductions to the amount, or quota, of cod that fishermen have been allowed to catch.
Such quotas took another hit earlier this month, when regulators, concerned with what they deemed to be dwindling fish stocks — something some fishermen dispute — slashed the allowable cod catch by 75 percent through an “emergency action.”
The federal authority that oversees fishing regulations in the country — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — maintain, meanwhile, Gulf of Maine cod has “continued to decline in abundance.”
Now the areas of ocean that are open to cod fishing doesn’t do much for Gloucester because they’re located more than 40 miles from shore, said Sanfilippo. Many cod fishermen use smaller boats that aren’t meant to go out that far, she said.
Additionally, many choose to fish and man their boats alone and going out that far, said Sanfilippo, puts their lives at risk.
“The Gloucester fleet, they’re all tied up at the wharf right now,” she said.
While the New England Fishery Management Council — one of eight regional councils in the country that makes recommendations to NOAA — did not adopt a sweeping measure this week that would have essentially put a stop to Gulf of Maine cod fishing, people like Sanfilippo are adamant that the current rules mark the end of the industry “as we know it.”
In Massachusetts and New Hampshire, said Sanfilippo, the federal cod regulations are doing economic harm, affecting more than 500 people.
The federal regulators, meanwhile, say they are simply trying to end overfishing, protect fish habitat and rebuild depleted fish stocks, said NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus.
She said that despite the quota cuts to cod in recent years, the species “is not recovering as expected” and that fishermen in communities like Gloucester have began to shift their focus to more abundant fish stocks, like lobster, herring and pollock. NOAA, meanwhile, says 207 boats from Massachusetts made at least one ground fish trip — cod is a ground fish species — between the spring of 2012 to spring of 2013.
NOAA, said Mooney-Seus, has tried to ease the hurt on ground fishermen affected by the cod rules by increasing quotas in other species.
Those in the fishing industry, however, are skeptical of the feds’ cod stock assessments. Count Jim Kendall, president of New Bedford Seafood Consulting among those who question whether the cod stocks are truly depleted.
“The fishermen are seeing lots off fish,” he said. “The guys are saying the whole Gulf of Maine is loaded with cod. I’m talking large amounts, tens of thousands of pounds.”
Mooney-Seus responded to that claim by saying “Bottom line, research surveys conducted over the past 40 years indicate that Gulf of Maine cod are not in many of the areas where they used to be.”
Kendall, like Sanfilippo, said the industry is currently financially unsustainable.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of hurt among the industry,” he said. “What they’re (the regulators) are proposing is a way to financial ruin.”