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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

The codless cape: fishermen in Maine feel the pinch 

From climate change to Donald Trump's trade war with China, catches are taking a hit

Sternman Rob Tetrault II works on the deck of the lobster boat "Wild Irish Rose" while hauling lobster traps in the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Reuters 
Sternman Rob Tetrault II works on the deck of the lobster boat "Wild Irish Rose" while hauling lobster traps in the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Reuters 

From a shortage of cod in Cape Cod to Maine’s lobster industry being battered by Chinese tariffs, life is tough for New England’s fishermen.

With manufacturing and other traditional industries long in decline, the value of those seeking a catch has taken on outsized importance.

According to the latest figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, fishing was worth $1.9 billion to the economies of Maine and Massachusetts in 2016.

But Donald Trump’s tariff war with China is posing the immediate threat, with Beijing imposing a 40 per cent retaliatory penalty on live US lobsters, compared with only seven per cent on those imported from Canada.

Lobsters from Maine are America's most valuable seafood and cod has been synonymous with the state for four centuries.

In Cape Cod, catches plunged to an all-time low in 2016. Fishermen left the industry and fishing permits were worthless.

There has been a mild recovery. But any optimism has to be tempered by the damage done to the industry by a combination of a predatory seal population, warming waters and overfishing.

The ceiling for cod catches has been raised from 280 tonnes in 2017 to 369 tonnes this year and 390 for the next two.

But the recovery is being treated with caution.

“We have had some positive news from the recent assessment. But we have a history that we know about,” said Jamie Cournane, groundfish plan coordinator with the New England Fishery Management Council.

The challenge now is to find experienced people to capitalise on the higher quotas.

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"There is a shortage of good knowledgeable crew. There aren't a lot of people who know how to fish for the species," said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association.

"We had two boats that have gone back to fishing for lobster because they couldn't find crew."

"The other issue is a shortage of working waterfront to bring the fish, lobster, shellfish and other marine resources ashore."

Maine's small fishing towns are picturesque and the land is now more valuable as hotels, apartments and restaurants.

"We understand that tourism is an important part of the economy and these people are showing up to eat our lobster and fish.

"But there is no strategic plan and no plan to protect what we have got. There has to be some sort of balance," Mr Martens added.

The process of gentrification throughout the New England coast has also led to a dearth of places for fisherman to live.

Cod and haddock are unloaded and sorted at the pier of Lydia's Cove in Chatham. Getty Images 
Cod and haddock are unloaded and sorted at the pier of Lydia's Cove in Chatham. Getty Images 

"There are plenty of people who want to work on the water but housing is really expensive and it is hard to get year-round accommodation," said Nancy Civetta, the Shellfish Constable in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Other man made problems add to the worry: climate change is never far from a fisherman's lips in New England.

Warming oceans have seen cod migrate away from the Gulf of Maine. The raised quotas are largely thanks to diligent conservation by the industry in recent years.

It has also brought lobsters north from southern New England to Maine.

However, the rise in sea temperatures which led the lobsters to Maine over the past three decades could eventually drive them away.

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has warned that without careful conservation, the local lobster population could fall by 62 per cent by 2050.

And then there is the Trump administration's tariffs.

Stephanie Nadeau, a lobster trader from Arundel, Maine, is feeling the pinch.

"I shipped my last lobsters to China on July 5, then I lost 100 per cent of my business to mainland China for eight weeks," she said.

She picked up some orders when Canadian supplies ran out, but the long-term prospects are grim, with her business the Lobster Co – set to lose $10 million in sales this year.

"I don't think this was thought out."