Bill Amaru is a trawl fisherman in Chatham, Massachusetts and a member of the New England Fisheries Management Council.



Why did you stop fishing for three years?

It was the late 80’s at a time when the industry was rapidly declining. The catch rates were rapidly declining, and there was still some question in the minds of a lot of fishermen certainly, as to what was going on. I think that most people were just in denial — that it was a cycle or the fish would come back; we would just have to wait it out, as we have to wait out other issues that usually take weeks or months, not years, to straighten out.

I wasn’t of that ilk. I felt that we had perpetrated a serious overfishing problem on the fisheries here in New England. And I decided to take an active role in trying to find a solution to that, which led to me to going into the political end of fishery.

I left the fishery before that because of a sense of needing to do something about it; wanting to set an example. And one of the things that I always use for an example is that you can make a living on the water without catching fish and still sort of be a fisherman. Maybe you’re not exactly fishing in the same sense of the word, but I went into the tourist end of marine work and I took people out in the water and I showed them the environment and I talked about fishing and I explained how the fleet had evolved in our beautiful area of Cape Cod that attracts people.

I was harvesting from the sea, but harvesting people. And I did that for a number of years. Actually the business went for five years, but I ran it for three and then had other people involved until I sold it in 1996. And in that way, I felt that I gave something back. And I set an example for a way to continue to make a living and not everyone could do that on the water, I know, but there were other opportunities, and I just wanted other fishermen to understand that there were.

How has fishing been?

When I started fishing, we still had the same kind of fishing that we had in the previous century. There were a lot of fish. We didn’t have the capability of catching the fish that were there — that was the main problem. It’s changed to where we couldn’t catch fish or were catching very few of them. And now, it’s changing back to where we once again have robust schools of fish. But they’re being very carefully guarded this time around to prevent the kind of overfishing that we saw earlier.

Has the number of boats changed?

Yes it has. There are places where the number of boats has gone down and there are places where the number of boats has gone up. And in my particular field, in my fleet in Chatham, not only has the number of boats gone up in the last 20 to 25 years but what I call the fishing power of each individual vessel, has increased dramatically and that’s due to the fact that we have the navigational aides we didn’t once have. And the power of each individual vessel — the actual horsepower of the boats, the size, the seaworthiness of the vessel — all that adds up to allowing a better platform from which to do your work.

The other areas that have seen fewer boats, they tend to be fleets of larger vessels that are now simply gone. There aren’t the fish in the off-shore areas. A lot of those areas are closed. It took a lot more meat to supply the needs of big operations than is currently available at sea. Those boats tended to be the ones that went. The smaller inshore fleets have continued to flourish in most cases, not in all. But certainly here on Cape Cod they have.

I notice that you are trawling without using rollers and rock hoppers and so on. Do you think there are ways of trawling and minimizing the damage done to the sea floor?

It’s a very complex question, and a serious one. I chose, years ago, to stay small in my operation. I have a 50-foot boat. That’s relatively small for a dragger; quite small, in fact. I am prevented from using that bigger, hard bottom, roller rock hopper gear. I am prevented from using it for practical reasons and for safety reasons.

The main thing that one needs to remember when they’re talking about the sea floor and the impact is what exactly are you impacting? There are places on the sea floor where the bottom is literally alive; even at the bottom of the abysmal plain the bottom is alive. There are creatures that live there.

But in the shallower waters on the hard, rocky substrates that we have a lot of in New England and in the Georges Bank ecosystem — there’s a lot of those places. And they are probably very, very important for recruitment and for grow out and protection of young fish.

Those kinds of places are the kinds that need to have more protection than we currently allow under regulation. And this is a very difficult thing to talk about in my field because the people that I work with fish these places and they may not agree. And for good reason, they have different opinions as to what kind of protection is needed.

But my personal choice was to utilize gear that I thought would have minimal impact on the kind of bottom that can withstand the type of impacts that you get when you trawl on it. Now, that’s not to minimize the importance of this smooth, muddy, clay-type bottom that I fish on. I think there are a lot of creatures, and I know scientifically, that this supports numerous tubeworms and other types of flora and fauna that live on that type of bottom.

But on the relatively shallow bottom that we work, there is a lot of energy that is created through storm action and waves and this bottom is not exactly untouched by natural conditions. So it does have the dynamics necessary to heal itself, as does that hard bottom substrate as well. All these bottoms are subject to periodic upheavals. And there’s good reason to think that that’s a natural part of what happens on the sea floor.

The unnatural part is what happens when you have impacts, man-made. That’s only in the last 100 years. There’s no evolutionary process that can catch up with that kind of change. So that’s why if we need to be cautious, that’s why we need to look at those elements of impact.

You’ve been an advocate of fishing in ways that don’t deplete the resources. Have you always had the support of your fellow fishermen?

No, I haven’t always had the support of my fellow fishermen. We’ve been competing, first of all. We have to go back to the beginning of the relationship. We are all competitors with each other. And there’s a natural sort of barrier that gets established when you’re competing with the same people, even though when you do hit the shore, you can more or less put those things aside.

But if you know what I mean, there’s always a slight interference with having those types of relationships that you have with people who you don’t compete with. And then, the more serious part of it is, we were dealing with issues that could have, and in some cases did, really affected individual’s economic well being. And those things are simply impossible to convey the true sense of what you’re trying to gain.

We’re trying to sustain and guarantee that we’ll all have a future. But that doesn’t mean anything to a person who has a mortgage payment and can’t make the payment because of a rule that’s just come down that says he won’t be fishing in the month of May which is his most lucrative month. And we recently had to do just that.

So yes, it’s not always easy to get the support of my individual fishermen, but on the other hand one-on-one I’m told more often by people that wouldn’t have even spoken to me about it that what we’re doing is working and they’re happy that somebody was willing to stand up and do it. There’s some gratification for that.

Do you think the closed areas and the limits on the days at sea and so forth have helped to restore some groundfish stock?

Without a doubt. I personally think that the closed areas that we have on Georges Bank are at the root of the rebuilding that we have. I consider it a three-legged stool, which is not a particularly good balance, but it provides the support that we needed. And closed areas being one of the legs, the days at sea being the other, and then the general improvements that we’ve made in our technology through conservation engineering and reasonable increases in fish size, sort of all the ancillary things.

But the underpinning of all of this is the large areas of Georges Bank, which are off limits to most gear that’s capable of capturing fish. And I say most gear, because these areas are still open to certain kinds of fishing. But not to the fishing techniques that can impact the stocks we’re trying to rebuild — the groundfish stocks.

How has the spill-over effect worked on the gray sole?

The way the closed areas, or the groundfish protection areas, have worked in New England has been this — that we have large, large areas with multiple kinds of sea floor habitats, ecosystems within them, closed. And they’ve been closed for a long period of time now, without any fishing taking place on them. Those areas have become the sanctuaries that we have intended them to become, as well as spawning areas.

And the fish, as they’ve become more robust in population in these closed areas, have sought refuge outside. And their natural migration is to take them outside anyway, but there are more and more of these fish from within these large areas. We’re talking about areas the size of Connecticut — very large areas — that are moving out into areas that are open that we fish.

I happen to be adjacent to one of those areas here and I think that the habitat inside the closed areas has been particularly good for gray sole recruitment and we’re seeing large numbers of gray sole, back on the grounds, that we haven’t seen them for years, in good numbers.

The idea that there could be 8,000 or 10,000 pounds of gray sole in one trip — one short 3- or 4-day trip — is remarkable. It hasn’t been like this in over 20, 25 years. And, we’re seeing a lot of relatively small fish enter the fishery, which indicates to me that these are from a recent action. These are fish that have had an opportunity to be born and grow to this level that we’re now actually able to capture. I have to be able to believe these are fish that are being affected by the closed area management, as well as the day to sea reductions, et cetera.

It sounds like you’ve got the right regulations out there. But you also spoke about enforcement being difficult.

A lot of fishermen came up to me and said, Bill, if they would only enforce the rules that they already have, you wouldn’t have to keep writing new ones. And I think the fishermen are right about that. I really believe if we had the kind of enforcement necessary to make our management plans of fifteen years ago effective, we wouldn’t have had to write seven amendments, we’re up to thirteen now, for the groundfish plan.

But we don’t have that level, even today. So, as a result we’ve had to go from what were relatively easily enforced rules and regulations that were fairly simple, to extremely complex overlaying regulations — closed areas, large mesh — and in fact, reductions in the number of permits that are allowed, a moratorium on new entry into the fishery. And I think that if we had reasonable enforcement, we wouldn’t have to have done all that.

I use the example — a city that grows from 40,000 in population to 400,000 in population but still operates with the same 25-man police force. That’s basically what we have on the East Coast of the United States — the size of the enforcement body of the National Marine Fisheries Service has not grown anywhere close to the level requirements and the expansion of the fishery itself.

How have these catch limits encouraged discards and in fact, detracted from assessment information, as far as landings are concerned?

It’s one of the difficulties of having a quota-based management strategy where you have to have a trip limit as part of your overall rebuilding plan to prevent large amounts of fish being caught, when they are available to be caught. We don’t want to take fishermen off the water; we want to give them the opportunity to fish for other species, while he’s trying to avoid the one we’re trying to protect. This makes good sense economically.

And socially, too. People have to go to work. You don’t want to keep them home. So, you try to strategize in such a way that you won’t have the types of discards that lead to the problem that we’re dealing with. But unfortunately in New England, we just have not been able to succeed at that.

We have, at times, large numbers of cod. And in fact, often times more cod are being destroyed and thrown back in the water than are being brought to shore. And for sure, this messes up any sense of a true assessment of what’s actually out there because the fish that are being discarded at sea are not being reported. And if you have as many fish being discarded as are being landed you have the possibility of looking at a 100% error in the size of the stock, or at least in the mortality of that stock.

So we know we have a problem there, but it has been extremely difficult to find a solution and allow people to fish at the same time.

What do you think about ITQ’s?

It’s fairly straightforward. I believe that ITQ management and individual fishing quota management is simply another strategy that we need to have as part of our tools, as fisheries managers, in our toolbox. I’m not an advocate for the total elimination of other forms of management in favor of individual fishing quotas. I know there are places where they would work, and there are places where they probably would be too complex and cumbersome. But I do think we need to have the opportunity to use them where they could be used.