Fishing's decline looms; will fish eaters notice?

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 18, 2013 at 10:01 am •  Published: February 18, 2013
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GLOUCESTER, Mass. (AP) — His city's best fishing days are long past it, but lifelong Gloucester resident Ron Gilson still sees what once was when he drives past what remains.

There's the waterfront lot, littered with discarded fishing nets and lobster pots, where vessels in the famed fishing fleet once docked. The clatter and grit of a top maritime machine shop downtown has been replaced by a banquet hall. On the state fish pier, where Gilson briefly parks, the sounds of year-round work have given way to the quiet whirr of his idling Prius.

To the 79-year-old, the decline of the industry has stolen jobs, community spirit and opportunity. And it's not over, Gilson said.

"This is the lowest point," he declared on a February day. "Tomorrow will be lower."

In May, New England's fishermen will again see a cut to the number of fish they can catch, this time so deeply that the historic industry's existence is threatened from Rhode Island to Maine. But as hard as the cuts are likely to hit fishing communities, local seafood eaters may not notice at all. In the region's markets, grocery stores and restaurants, imported fish dominate, and the cuts make that less likely to change.

The cuts will shrink the catch limit 77 percent for cod in the Gulf of Maine and 61 percent for cod in Georges Bank, off southeastern Massachusetts. That's the worst of a series of reductions to the catch of bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as haddock and flounder, that many fear could be fatal to the industry.

"They're going to wipe it out!" said Gilson. "The only thing that's going to be the same is the ocean you're looking at."

For fish consumers, a sharp drop in the local groundfish catch may jar a select group of diners who seek fish caught that day. But the cut's effects may not ripple further than that.

Just 9 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is domestically caught, the federal government estimates. In New England, locally caught cod was just a slightly larger fraction of all cod eaten, 12 percent, according to fisheries economist Jenny Sun of the Portland, Maine-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute. And she estimates that could drop to 4 percent after the coming cuts.

Much of the imported cod is caught and frozen in Norway and cut in China, and there's plenty of it, Sun said. If the local cod catch dips to near nothing, fish processors "could easily fill in with imports," Sun said.

In fact, the biggest issue for one Maine seafood processing executive has been the perception that the New England industry's troubles mean he won't have fish.

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