By Doreen Leggett
*One inshore fishing ground produces approximately 300 pounds per acre per year of bay scallops alone, twice as much as the 150 pounds per acre per year estimated for beef cattle on a ranch.
*As little as 10 percent of lobsters harvested in Massachusetts waters are bought in the state, most are imported from Maine and Canada.
Those statements are from a 1961 state report and do not stand the test of the time; bay scallops have crashed while the Commonwealth’s lobster industry has grown.
But much in the 58-year-old report, “Studies of Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Problems,” drafted by the then-Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, holds up.
“I enjoyed going back to that 1961 report because some things haven’t changed,” said Dan McKiernan, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries. “I loved it, that’s great stuff.”
The report was commissioned by then-Governor John Volpe because he wanted the state’s marine resources to be “properly” used.
“The Commonwealth’s extensive and valuable marine resources are of critical importance to the economy and to the social well-being of our citizens,” he wrote.
Then, as today, state waters extended three miles, with 1,800 square miles of manageable surface area. In the early 1960s, more than 5,000 people derived their income directly from those waters – today it’s close to 2,000 on the Cape alone — and thousands more were involved in marketing, packaging, and distributing.
The report created a long list of issues to be fixed, including a lack of enforcement, unregulated skindiving for lobsters (10,000 divers were permitted), problems with pollution, inadequate regulations, and budget limitations.
There was also concern over the “precarious” position of the Gloucester fleet. In the 1940s, 400 vessels operated out of the port, but by 1958 there were only 116.
Other sections resonate today, for example conflict between draggers and lobstermen, weir fishermen and seiners, recreational and commercial fishermen. Members of the commission said arguments over whether and when certain areas should be open often were not a conservation based, but a conflict between fisheries.
“I love the paragraph that says everyone needs to compromise,” McKiernan said.
The commission lamented a dearth of state biologists to provide scientific research, evident in the fin fisheries and town shellfisheries.
Through the 1950s, soft shell clams and oysters significantly declined, the report states, adding that in 1958 the industry was valued at $1.87 million, far short of its potential. The reasons, authors said, included lack of state assistance, but more importantly, town shellfish constables were inadequately paid, poorly trained and short tenured.
“Massachusetts is rapidly losing its position as a leading shellfish producing state for reasons that need not exist,” the report states.
McKiernan said the industry has definitely turned around with an emphasis on quality constables and increased focus on seeding areas. Even shellfish once considered valueless, like razor and surf clams, are now profitable bivalves.
The authors of the report also sounded an alarm about the loss of estuaries, and concerns with the steady construction of marinas. They also recommended that DMF be allowed to close and open areas without going through a State House political process, which aids the industry today.
Another concern sounds familiar: Unlike the finfish and lobster industries, the report says, shellfishermen are “poorly organized,” which means their interests are not always carried into the legislative arena.
“I just found it interesting, that the lack of organization of shellfisher people means they don’t often have a voice,” said McKiernan.
DMF is trying to address that today through the Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative, which will rely on stakeholders to come up with a strategic plan to maximize economic, environmental, and social benefits of Massachusetts’ shellfish resources.
A lasting legacy is how the commission became a standing body to deal with many thorny issues.
“That’s how the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission was born,” McKiernan said.
The Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission represents fishing interests from up and down the coast. Proposed regulatory changes are approved, or not, by a majority vote.
Ray Kane, chair of the commission and outreach coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance, said the commission plays a valuable role.
He remembers a time, before he was on the commission, when seiners, big boats using large nets, caught much of the Bluefin tuna. One Sunday they caught hundreds of thousands of pounds; the thrashing big fish turned the waters red off the Cape’s shore. The public was incensed.
After a public hearing, the commission voted to prohibit that fishery in the bay because seiners precluded smaller boats from catching fish, so it was a gear conflict that harmed the resource.
At a different moment, the commission used scientific evidence, and advice from fishermen, to allow permitted fishermen into a previously closed area to catch groundfish, so they could make a living.
“I think we serve a dutiful purpose,” Kane said of the commission he chairs, that emerged from a long-forgotten report. “It has a thoughtful place. I am a firm believer.”