By Doreen Leggett
Moments before Captain Ken Baughman walked around Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to talk about the importance of the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, he got a text that he shared at a dozen meetings at various offices.
“Fifteen minutes or so ago my classmate bought a new lobster boat,” he said.
The passage of the federal Act, in 2021, was the result of a seven-year effort by the Fishing Communities Coalition. Baughman and his friend had gone through the inaugural class run by one FCC member, the Fishermen’s Alliance, and pursued careers in the industry. Baughman, a former scientist and software start-up owner, had celebrated a year as a commercial rod-and-reel fisherman and recently expanded his business by purchasing a black sea bass permit.
Baughman was in Washington with small-boat fishermen from across the country to thank sponsors of the federal program, which provides grants to educate, train, and mentor beginning fishermen. They also were lobbying for legislation that will strengthen commercial fisheries in coastal communities.
There was a lot to talk about.
Top priorities for FCC, made up of seven fishing groups from Maine to Alaska, included expanding and protecting working waterfronts, building climate-resilient fisheries, and making sure national fishery management standards reflect evolving needs of fishing communities and local fleets.
Also present was Cape Cod Captain Andrew Spalt, who with his brothers fishes for scallop, lobster, and Jonah crab. He talked about how many towns on the Cape do not have adequate commercial berths or moorings set aside, never mind space for gear storage. The volume of recreational boats is slowly pushing the industry out.
“This is my first time in Washington,” he said, wearing a blue suit jacket with a lobster pin. “One of the pressing problems I see on the Cape is access to commercial space on the water. A lot of it has already turned to pleasure boats.”
Spalt said there should be a way to set aside docks and moorings for commercial fishing and provide unloading space. The protection would benefit the larger economy because local fishing fleets are an enormous draw for tourists.
Time is of the essence, agreed Baughman.
“When they are gone, they don’t come back,” he said.
Aubrey Church, policy manager for the Fishermen’s Alliance, told Congressional staffers that a recent study showed the combined fishing effort in 15 Cape towns is more valuable than the muscular port of Gloucester by $20 million. The study also highlighted significant challenges, including access, parking, infrastructure and gentrification. Dredging has become a top concern given costly delays at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as harbors shoal in.
“If we don’t have access to the water, we don’t go fishing,” Baughman said.
Working Waterfront legislation was filed by a Maine representative and is supported in Alaska. Hahlen Barkhau , a young fisherman member of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said a good example of the need for action is that a haul-out spot for boats in Sitka had recently been turned into docking for cruise ships.
Larger grants could help port authorities raise bulkheads to protect against rising sea levels, for example, but smaller projects like installing a boom at a landing could have huge impacts, the difference between a wharf thriving of shutting down.
The lack of local processing also is becoming increasingly problematic.
“I don’t want to be reliant on New Bedford,” Spalt said, or worse; much of the Jonah crab catch in Massachusetts must be sent to Canada to be processed and then shipped back.
Splat has advocated for a central Cape spot that could be a processing co-operative where small-boat fishermen share space to process and market. One location could strengthen the peninsula’s supply chain, with long-term community benefits. Several Congressional offices have spoken about adding amendments to larger infrastructure bills that would provide funds for cold storage, ice making and seafood processing.
Conversations also took place about making seafood a priority within the United States Department of Agriculture, which has strong programs to buy beef, pork and chicken. Seafood purchases are more sporadic, usually in huge volumes small-boat fishermen can’t fulfill. Having an office within USDA focused on purchasing seafood on a regional basis would be extremely beneficial, said Church.
What commercial fishermen don’t want to see is the establishment of policies or programs at any agency that would encourage large-scale, offshore fish farming at the expense of the wild-caught fishery.
Spalt also gave an example of how infrastructure programs help grow small businesses and expand markets. The Spalts’ business received a Food Infrastructure Grant to purchase saltwater recirculating equipment to keep his Jonah crabs cool in the summer.
“That was something that was extremely helpful,” Spalt said.
Bringing in live crabs in warmer months improves the bottom line, and provides more opportunities to introduce the public to the deliciously sweet Jonah crabs.
Church said fishermen need flexibility and support to deal with changing ecosystems. Management structures are often behind changes in the water. Black sea bass are now being caught by Cape fishermen, but the bulk of quota remains to the south, stifling opportunities.
Church highlighted incorporating climate data into fisheries management plans. Since fishermen are the first to see and adjust to impacts of warming waters, it’s imperative their experiences become the basis of management decisions.
“Fishermen are our eyes and ears on the water,” Church explained.
Similar to what happens on the Pacific Coast, more Atlantic fishermen should be paid to take researchers on commercial boats to collect solid information.
Members of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association agreed. Vincent Balzano, a fisherman in Maine and former member of the New England Fishery Management Council, shared with East Coast Congressional offices that incomplete science can have dire economic consequences: The haddock fishery is a healthy “bright spot,” he said, but quotas have been drastically cut, hurting fishermen who still see lots of the groundfish.
The discrepancy lies with the research vessel Bigelow, he said. The primary National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research boat for the region has been unable to complete all scheduled surveys for four years. Models that predict numbers of fish don’t handle zeroes well.
“You can’t manage what you can’t detect in a non-existent survey,” he said. “It’s hard to champion science when there is no science available.”
Church explained that the Bigelow, soon to be sidelined for repairs, can be used to take a broader look at changing ocean conditions, which is part of its mission. Shifting to more holistic ways of conducting fisheries surveys, leading to more resilient management, is vital. John Pappalardo, the chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, is chair of the council’s ecosystem-based fisheries management committee pushing that approach.
Marissa Wilson, executive director of Alaska Marine Conservation Council and a sablefish, salmon and halibut fisherman, shared an example of why an ecosystem perspective matters:
There has been a lot of attention paid to the collapse of a crab population in Alaska, but not much focus on what precipitated it. Crabs, which many small business and Native Alaskan communities depend on, are vulnerable to trawls that drag on the bottom to catch groundfish. Trawling, or dragging, can also can destroy habitat by removing structurally important corals.
Then, she continued, species like pollock come in and fill the vacuum, which large-scale fishermen point to as a victory.
“That doesn’t mean that is a successful ecosystem. You have to get this gear off the bottom. (Lack of ) crab is an indicator of benthic collapse,” she said.
Moments like those emphasized how the visitors could talk about important legislation, and continue to offer a narrative different from those of large corporate fishing interests.
States that share the Gulf of Mexico, represented by the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, often face off against a strong recreational lobby. The recreational catch of red snapper is not sufficiently monitored, especially dead recreational discards, which has led to huge overages in catch. The commercial sector, which is highly regulated, effectively have to subsidize this recreational mismanagement.
Gulf commercial fishermen have been baffled and deeply concerned with this kind of management and voiced that in D.C.
“I’m worried about the resource and the fishermen,” said Captain Mark Tryon, a commercial rod and reel fishermen from Gulf Breeze, Florida.
Again, there is an East Coast comparison:
“Their experiences with red snapper were identical to mine with striped bass; our commercial quota is smaller than the rec bycatch, yet we get blamed for everything wrong in the fishery,” said Baughman.
Sometimes new governmental edicts can have unintended, negative consequences that FCC members monitor and hopefully get changed before they become law.
One example is a mouthful; NOAA’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on National Standard 4, 8, and 9 guidelines. Fishermen met with legislators and NOAA staff, including Kelly Denit, director of NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries.
One of the group’s most pressing worries is that the agency wants to redefine “fishing community” to shift emphasis from “dependence” on resources to “engagement” on management, and to de-emphasize the current guidelines’ “specific location” in which a fishing community is based.
For those in the FCC, the ramifications could change key definitions; large, offshore factory trawlers could be considered “communities.” That would be bolstered by the change from “dependence” to “engagement”: Anyone who puts a hook in the water could be considered engaged, said Theresa Peterson from the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
“Some of the language could be the final blow,” she said.
FCC groups have monthly Zoom calls, but being spread across the country in person meetings are rare. The trip allowed them to catch up and talk national and regional priorities with FCC’s coordinator, Noah Oppenheim of Homarus Strategies.
Personal connections were built on the Hill as well. One Congressional staffer told the story of being a Coast Guardsman, boarding a fishing boat, and being convinced to eat a raw scallop. Another had family in Chatham and attended the Hookers Ball – the biggest fundraiser of the Fishermen’s Alliance. Church was able to convince a lover of curry to try monkfish curry.
The Fishermen’s Alliance team caught up with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and Congressman Bill Keating. Keating was able to clear his schedule before a 5 p.m. vote to talk to fishermen and staff about more scientific research, more local seafood on plates, and strengthening working waterfronts.
Spalt talked about how he was diversifying to add Jonah crab to lobster and scallop and had plans to expand further.
“It’s good to see you getting off the ground and being successful,” Keating said.
The conversation turned to how Massachusetts has the best seafood.
“As I travel around to different places, I realize I am spoiled,” Keating smiled. “There is no comparison.”
FCC held a social event as it has in years past, “Fish Tales,” to bring together Capitol Hill and fishermen. This one was held at Luke’s Lobster and featured fish from all over the country, including black cod from Alaska, lobster from Maine and Haddock Chowder and Provencal Fish Stew from Cape Cod. Dozens of Congressional staff showed up, learning even more about what it took to catch their dinner from some of the people who caught it.
Balzano, a third-generation fisherman, spent time talking to Spalt about becoming involved in committees that advise managers and regulators.
“It’s not just running a business,” said Spalt. “It is all connected. If this is what you are doing you might as well be 100 percent involved.”