A former commissioner of marine resources in the state of Maine recently told a gathering of Island fishermen that there is plenty they can do to regain control of the troubled fisheries in Massachusetts.
Robin Alden spoke at the Chilmark Public Library earlier this month about how fishermen need to come together on the local level and step forward as a concerned group.
“Even in a small community like this, I think it can work,” she said, though she added: “You are not going to win overnight.”
Ms. Alden, who is well respected in the New England commercial fishing community, spoke about her own community’s grassroots effort. She is the founder and former publisher of Commercial Fisheries News, a monthly newspaper published in Stonington, Me.
Today Ms. Alden works as the executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center, an organization committed to helping commercial fishermen protect and nurture their lobster and other fisheries.
She told the gathering of 30 people in the library meeting room that the political system for managing stocks, whether cod or lobster, is flawed.
The system, she said, tends to turn over power and management of fish stocks to a small group, locking out small community fishermen. She said the culture of commercial fishing today, designed by professional managers, encourages a fisherman to get all that he can get to survive.
Local communities, she said, have a better understanding about how stocks survive, grow and prosper. Local fishermen have a far more personal understanding about the role habitat plays in the success of the stocks.
“There is so much pressure in New England right now to privatize the resource, consolidate the interests,” Ms. Alden said. “I think we can probably carve out a little of this.”
She said that the Penobscot East Resource Center formed four years ago as a local initiative to take charge of the lobster fishery in her region. They have since gone on to address concerns about other fish stocks in the region.
The Gulf of Maine used to be far more productive with a variety of fisheries, she said, but in recent years all that is left is a productive lobster fishery.
Lobstering is the only fishery that is healthy in Maine, she said. That makes her fishermen nervous by placing too much importance in one basket when there could be others.
Her organization created and runs the only fully functioning lobster hatchery in Maine. Through significant steps in research and pooling information, she said, her group has found what they believe to be a highly productive technique for raising and promoting the survival of young juvenile lobsters. Last year the hatchery released close to 100,000 lobsters.
Earlier in the day, Ms. Alden toured the now-closed Massachusetts state lobster hatchery in Oak Bluffs. The state lobster hatchery was shut down years ago because of concerns that the work didn’t create enough of a positive result.
After touring the facility, she advocated that the Vineyard fishermen push to get the hatchery running again. She said adding new technology will make it more effective.
A past criticism of the Oak Bluffs hatchery was the low survival rates of the animals once released in the wild. Critics of the hatchery argued that the animals were being eaten by predators, and questioned the use of state funds to support the operation.
Since the hatchery closed, the lobster fishery around the Vineyard and south of Cape Cod has never been worse.
Ms. Alden said her hatchery has a very efficient manner of releasing juvenile lobsters through the use of a tube that flushes the lobsters from a tank in a boat all the way down to the bottom. A diver assists the process.
For the Vineyard, Ms. Alden said: “I don’t think it would be difficult to figure out. The value of stock enhancement when the community is involved is significant.
“We argued with the state from the beginning,” she said, of her organization’s commitment to build a hatchery in Maine. “We only wanted to do things that make a difference. We can learn and do it together. I think you should actively ask questions and go through the process.”
In her part of Maine, she said, the lobsters fortunately are already doing well. Their goal is to enhance the fishery.
Speaking of fish stocks, she said that her husband, Ted Ames, has done extensive research on the seasonal migration of cod in the Gulf Maine.
She said his work brought forward new information on the value of coastal waters in the health of the fish stocks. She said it also raised the value of coastal community fishermen, for they are the fishermen that can best husband a resource back to sustainability.
Ms. Alden said her husband identified cod spawning grounds that were close to shore. His research together with the work of others report that even deepwater cod come close to shore to spawn.
Unfortunately, she said, the coastal small time fishermen who know and respect those inshore grounds are being locked out of the fishery.
That’s happening up and down the coast. Today, she said, most of the fishing is being done by bigger offshore boats.
Small family fishermen are getting locked out of access to their historic fishing grounds by a federal management plan that tends to consolidate the fishing interests, she said.
Ms. Alden said her organization has held workshops for the benefit of local fishermen to give them more political prowess. While fishermen typically have been mavericks on the water, not prone to organizing or holding meetings, she said the culture of the coastal fisherman is changing.
Rick Karney, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, attended the talk. He said he was pleasantly surprised by Ms. Alden’s emphasis on empowering fishermen at the grassroots level.
“Anyone can say that a grassroots movement is what is needed. But what struck me was that this is a lady with so much experience should say that,” Mr. Karney said. “I think that carried a lot of weight.”