Rodney Avila is the Outreach Specialist at the Greater New Bedford Fishermen’s Family Emergency Center in New Bedford, Massachusetts.


In terms of the number of boats here in New Bedford, has the off-shore fleet shrunk?

Yes, we were somewhere up around, I would say in excess of 400 vessels here in early 1990’s, ’92, 93, like that. And when they started it was government regulations. Since 1994 I’ve tracked 157 vessels that have left service. Which represents 623 jobs to the industry.

Out of New Bedford, I would say roughly about a third of the boats have left New Bedford one way or another.

Would you say the regulations sorted out those who were less skilled at fishing?

I think a lot of them have left. I think it was a matter of economics. It was a fast buck. People looked at the fast dollar, "I’m going to jump in it because fishermen are making good money, I’m going to get into it and make a buck." When the regulations come about a lot of people didn’t want to deal with regulations and they’d, "say why am I going fishing to make X amount of dollars when I can go back and be a carpenter and make as much money and not deal with regulations?" or, "I could be a bricklayer or whatever their occupation was prior to them coming to fishing." A lot of those people are finding themselves back in their same occupation they started. That’s what I see.

In our research, we’ve learned that several scientists have been presenting information to the council for years and years regarding overfishing and the decline in numbers of fish. Yet the council was slow to move. Do you think it would be a different situation today if the council had put the brakes on sooner?

When the council first started I agreed that they were a little slow. I agree that regulations should have come a lot earlier than they did come, but there were two reasons those regulations didn’t come.

The first reason was the stocks were in pretty good shape. They were dwindling a little bit but they were in pretty good shape. And for years and years and years you’d hear all the old-timers say — and I’ve said it myself — it’s a cycle. You have 7 good, 7 bad, 3 good, 3 bad — it’s a cycle. And wait till we get to our good cycle. Okay, that sounds all well and good but that’s not really protecting the resource. We’re going by what happened centuries and centuries and centuries ago. Years ago there was probably buffalo roaming right where we’re standing here now but they’ll never ever be another buffalo there again no matter what we do. So I think that there needed to be regulations a lot sooner than they were. I myself in fact went to the council way before I was a council member and asked them to shut down a portion of Georges Bank that had juvenile fish for that protection. And I don’t know if it went on deaf ears or at that time the law being in power that was . . there was a lot of associations. Unions and associations and they would send lobbyists to these meetings. They call them representatives, I call them lobbyists, whatever, it’s the same thing. And the power was there. There was the same people going, "oh, you can’t close this down, you’re going to put our people out of business, the work force." And everybody was a little scared. I think whenever they really come down to almost a depletion people said, "hey, we really have to do something here or there will be no fishery."

You made an interesting analogy earlier when you compared the council members to parents and the fishermen to kids. You said the fishermen knew how to work the council. Could you talk about that?

I took it like it’s a child, you know. And no mother likes to spank their own child, no father. But you need it to discipline that child so when he grows up he’s a good adult. What happens is these children know how to work their parents, you know, same like the fishing industry. It knew how to work the council members. They would say, "oh, my fish..."and I can remember, I never took my wife or my kids to a council member. I can remember a lot of times I was at a council meeting and it was going to affect a few people and the next thing you know there would be a roomful of wives and children. And nobody wants to say, "oh, I’m going to put your father out of business, you’re going to be without a home, you’re not going to wear that pair of Nike sneakers you have on now." Who wants to say that? So they knew how to work the council.

What is the solution for the fishery management council?

First of all everybody has to take their role serious as a council member. I know when I went there, I took an oath and that oath to me was everything. Every time I voted on an issue I asked myself am I voting for the resource or am I voting for myself. I would ask that question all the time. And I think if every council member asked themselves that and they really think about it, and if they vote for the resource all the time we’re going to be winners. When you start voting for yourself we’re losers. So that’s what they have to do. And it takes a special person to do that. The first thing you have to keep in mind is the resource out there, because without the resource nobody is going to be there. There’s not going to be any fishermen, there’s going to be no need for The National Marine Fishery Service, and there’s going to be no need for council. So we all gotta get on the same page and we all gotta be preserving our resource.

You talked earlier about pulse-fishing and the way that it hurts the resource, especially, for example, during the month of May when cod are spawning. Could you elaborate on that?

That’s the most vulnerable time for the fish and actually I don’t have my boats fish. We tie them up. Because first of all the fishes are in spawning, they’re congregating so it makes it easy to catch ‘em and they’re worth less. They’re spawned out, they’re weak, they’re worth less. So I look at it this way. I fish for dollars. Everything I pay is in dollars not in fish. So I would rather catch less fish and get more money for them than a lot of fish and get less money.

Actually I do know some fishermen who save their days for the month of May because they come in with these big slammer trips, 50, 60, 70,000 pounds of fish, and actually get nothing for ‘em. Very little. They make a trip but it’s very little, it’s a lot of work. So I think by us fishing at that time of the year we’re really hurting ourself in three ways. We’re brining in a product that’s not good, we’re hurting the resource, we’re hurting our future, and we’re killing off our future. And we’re burning up our days doing that in that time. I think that you should spread ‘em out. You shouldn’t be pulse-fishing. At that time people will burn up their days, they’ll catch their trip, and they’ll go right back out again. Stay home one day or one night and go right back out again. So that’s no good for the resource either.

Earlier when you spoke about a time when you were planning to partner up with someone who would haul a lot of juvenile fish. It was then that you realized that process was destroying the resources. Could you tell us about that experience?

Actually I was 19 years old. I was fishing for that man. We were catching trash fish or industrial fish. We would catch fish, bring it in, they would grind it in and make cat food or dog food, whatever it was. We were catching hake and whiting — stuff no one wanted. There was very little value. We used to get three quarters of a cent a pound but we worked on volume. We used to fill the boat up maybe twice a day or once a day anyway. We were out there one time, we couldn’t find any, I don’t know what had happened, it was just the wrong time or something was wrong. So, the captain moved over to an area where there was a lot of juvenile flounders which was a fishery at that time, it still is, a viable fishery. And we were working on juveniles and I kind of told him, I says, "what are we doing here?" He says, "I want to get a trip, I want to fill the boat up." And at that point we had the boat half-full. And I says, "why are we killing off all these fish?" He says, "because I want a trip, I want a week’s pay, I want to go home." So I says, "but you realize what we just did? I says, "what it took us to fill half of that boat up today in two years from now would probably be 50 boat-loads of fish."

We killed them off before they could reproduce or get larger. So I says, "I can’t fish like that." I left after that.

You said your grandfather taught you early on to only take what you need and to leave some for tomorrow.

I was lucky when I learned how to fish. I was a very young person. I started with my dad. I was 7 or 9 years old, something like that. He was a day fisherman. He would go out every day so days I didn’t have school I would go out with him and I always enjoyed fishing. I’m the fourth generation, my son is the fifth generation in our family to be fisherman, and my grandfather always taught us and my father he would always say the same thing because he was taught by his father, was you only take what you need. You take enough to survive, support your family, and you always leave something for tomorrow. He says because if you don’t do that there will be no tomorrows. I was taught that way very early and I think it’s paid off for me anyway.

Could you tell us why there is a need for the FFEC?

Since there’s been a lot of boats that have left the industry and the crews have nothing to do. These places are essential because we’re retraining a lot of these people to find other employment and transit out of the industry saving face, and supporting their families.

Since the regulations were introduced, the stock has been rebuilt and things have improved. You credit the regulations for that. Could you elaborate on that?

When I first started fishing there was no regulations. The fishermen could go out of this harbor and do whatever he wanted to. There was nobody to oversee them, nobody to watch them, nothing. Once you got away from the sight of land you could basically do whatever you wanted to. And it was fine for the fisherman. And I don’t want to portray fishermen as being bad people, the fishermen that knew or realized that you have to protect the resource for the future livelihood. But as the other fishermen come along that same value was not there, so they would do whatever they wanted to and between that and the over-capitalization of boats, we started seeing our stocks go down and nobody likes to see that happen. It’s like a sinking ship. Nobody wants to see a sinking ship and when you see your stocks going down that’s what it is. So I believe in regulations. Like I say, it’s the controlling factor. In a home we set down rules for our kids, ground rules and for ourselves. And it’s what controls.

If you notice most of the homes that the kids grow up good and in good shape are homes that have regulations: you have to be in by 10:00, you have to do your homework before you go out, all that sort of thing. So that’s all regulations. So I’m a believer in that. And I think we’re finally seeing the outcome of regulations here in New England. We’re starting to see a rebound. I’m not saying and I don’t want people to misinterpret me that everything is hunky-dory, let’s open everything up, but I do think we’re on the road to recovery. I believe that.

Is there a future in fishing?

I believe there will always be a future in fishing. There will always be fishermen. My son just bought half of my boat this January. If I believed this was a dying industry I would not sell him half of that boat. So I believe if it’s maintained and regulated there will always be a fishery.

I also believe that there will be a good future, the fishermen will make a good honest living again. It’ll be a good profession, people can look up and say yes I’m a fisherman, I’m doing it the right way, I’m following the regulations, I’m earning a living, supporting my family, I’m putting my kids through college. I really believe that’ll happen. I just think the fishing industry needed some tweaking. We were the outlaws of everybody. Everybody else got tightened down. We were the wild, wild west out in the ocean; now they put some rules to us.

You seem to have a deep love for the ocean. Could you talk to us about that and tell us how you got into fishing?

First of all I come from a fishing family. My background is fishing. I was brought up with fish talk in the house. You know, my grandfather, my father, my uncles, everything. And most people don’t realize what it is. It’s such a challenge to go out. I sit in the office right. As soon as it says 8:30 I’m making money. I’m getting so much an hour for every hour that goes by. But when you go fishing, it’s a challenge. You got to dig yourself out of a hole. You leave here owing 5 to 6 or 8 thousand dollars in expenses between fuel, lights, groceries before you even leave. And it’s the challenge of going out and you did it yourself. Nobody gave it to you. You know it’s not like going in an office, punching a clock. You earned it yourself, you worked for it. And every trip is a different trip. It’s like dating a girl. Every one you date is a little bit different than the last one. That’s the same thing with fishing, every trip. There’s no two trips the same, they’re all a little bit different and I think that’s what keeps fishermen fishing is that. The suspense.

Do you agree with the regulations that limit the days at sea?

I really believe a lot of it. I don’t agree with all the regulations but I think everything as a whole, that’s what helped. If we were to continue on the road before the regulations became in place, there is no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t have a fishery today. And so I think back then we needed to do something. And I think we did it. We all tightened up our belts and we hurt. Some guys went through come hard times and things weren’t like we were accustomed to. But it’s like being sick. You have a healing process before you’re better. That’s what I see out here.

Some of the deckhands are having a hard time finding work and transitioning out of their livelihood? Can you talk a little about that?

I think there’s a definite need for a center for fishermen. I don’t believe all the regulations are over with. I just got through telling you I see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t think it’s business as usual, to the way it was. I think there’s still going to be a process where some of the fleece still gets trimmed away. Either by those who can’t afford to operate or by maybe another buy-back they’ve been talking about. There’re still limited days at sea. They’re talking about limiting days, more days, and further closures and openers, and the thing is, I think right now it’s a balancing act — they don’t know which regulation to implement. It’s whatever probably the industry will feel better with or something like that. But I definitely see more of the boats getting out of the industry. I see effort going away. And then the fishery of the future I don’t believe is going to be anything like we knew it years ago. It’s going to be a different kind of fisherman out there, a smarter fisherman, a more conscientious and a more conservative fisherman, I believe. That’s the new fisherman that’s going to be out there.

We did a long interview with Vaughn Anthony in which he described how year after year he thought he gave really good scientific advice to the Council and yet year after year the quotas weren’t set at low enough rates. Please talk about that from your perspective.

Previous to when I got on the Council, and I can remember that. It was like this: the industry fought him year after year after year. They fought him; they didn’t want any regulations. And it’s like anything else — the longer you take to go to a doctor, the worse your ailment is; the more medicine you have to take to be cured. That’s exactly what happened to the fishery. The first few years everybody ignored it. They said the fishing will come back, it’s a cycle, we have good cycles and bad cycles. We passes that cycle, it didn’t come back. Oh the next cycle will be better. The next time, we’re looking at, well, they’re shootin rockets up into the sky. They put the blame everywhere except where it was needed, where it was — on the industry. It really took a long time before people woke up. You know we’re gonna have to do something or we’re gonna lose a great resource out there. And the pill was a bitter pill that we have to swallow now; it’s a much larger pill than if we’d listened to Vaughn Anthony, back then. It would have been a lot easier to rebuild the stock and a lot faster.

Regardless of regulations, or gear type, what kind of ethic do you think fishermen of the future need to have to sustain their resource?

I think you have to find that balance between recruitment and where you just take out enough and the resource stays stable so it can replenish itself. That’s the balance we need to find. It’s like you see a graph going down; we’re up at one point, then we’re down at another point. No matter what you see in the graph, going down, it’s depletion. Or an increase. So you need to find that middle level ground where everything can work. The effort out there whether it’s days at sea, whether it’s by quotas that you bring in, only so much of that resource comes to shore. Or closed areas that so much of that resource is protected, nobody could go. I think you have to find the right balance, and once you find that you’ll always have a fishery. It went out of balance right after the 200-mile limit went into effect. It went WAY the other way, so we gotta rebuild it to a good healthy resource and then just allow, whether it’s a lot of boats and everybody gets just a few days to fish or there’s a few boats and everybody gets to fish more, whatever works out, we need to keep it at that level.

Is there an inherent weakness in the people in the industry who are represented?

There is a weakness I think it’s up to the regulators. When stocks are rebuilt, it’s not a free-for-all again. Never let it get to that. You know they have management measures that they uphold and they enforce. That’s what happened in the beginning there were all kinds of measurements the first 3 or 4 years that the Council was in effect but they weren’t enforced. There was no enforcement behind them. It’s like having a speed limit and not having a traffic cop to enforce it; it’s a law but who cares? So what? It’s like throwing a coffee cup into the ocean; it’ like, legally it’s a Styrofoam cup, but if nobody sees me there’s no problem with it. But there is a problem with it. And that’s why the industry got to where it is.

I like this industry, I just wish I could keep in it for the rest of my life. But I know, you know, it’s a game, it’s a young man’s game, its not an older man’s game. So I just gotta be happy now on the sidelines, giving my son advice and helping people that want to transition out. And actually it’s been good. I never thought I would love this job the way I do. I do really like this job, as much as I did fishing.

What’s your take on ITQs?

I don’t like them personally because ITQ’s seems to always seem to end up in big-big business and it puts the little family boat owner out of business, the father and son team or whatever. And big business comes in, they offer a lot of money for these permits; and they get them. We’ve seen it in the clam industry where there was, I don’t know how many clam boats, but everything got consolidated to half a dozen clam boats. And then the men had no control over what they were making; they got paid what they told they were going to get paid. They were gonna get so much a bushel or whatever it was. Never on a share-basis the way it is now.

I see another problem. When are they going to set these ITQ’s and where are they going to set them at? What I caught before or what I’m catching now? Right now we’re not allowed to catch a lot of fish because we got days that we’re restricted, or there’s some fish we can’t even bring in because our quotas are so low. Where’s my ITQ gonna be at; where’re they going to be set at? So there’s a lot of problems. I don’t think we should start looking towards ITQ’s until the stock gets rebuilt, and at that point if the people want it then they could get to that point, but not right now.

Do you ever have the sense that in these closed areas, there’s been a spill-over of fish, maybe flatfish? I know the recruitment of cod isn’t that great out here, but what’s your take on the possibility of Marine Protected Areas? Do you think it can help fishermen?

I think a lot of the spill-over is coming from the cod fish. Everybody says the closer we get to the closed area, the more fish we get. No kidding; they’re gonna swim in and out of that area. The only thing I see with that is that everything around it gets beat up because the people have no place else to go.

I was on the Council when we proposed to close areas. I thought that when we actually closed them. But my take back them was that we close them permanently for one or two years, and then they stayed altogether, that we would have a rotate and close every same amount of ground but let’s shift it next year, or in two years, or open half of it, or something like that. You need to rotate a little bit, that’s what I see. Right now there’s been no rotation. There’s been a little opening up with scallops that’s helped the scallop industry but hasn’t done anything for the ground fish. And from what I hear there’s fish in there. The abundance of fish is just like scallops. I think at some point the Council needs to address opening in up, maybe not all of it but a portion, and closing somewhere else. Giving some other place as much protection as they gave that place. Every place needs protection.

See years ago the fleets were smaller…the boats were like some of those wooden boats I showed you. So the weather protected the fish. They didn’t go out, they didn’t fish as much in the winter. When it was hard weather they went into the docks. Now you see these 100-foot trawlers. They can fish just about anything. They just stay out there and fish and fish and fish. Years ago boats used to lay up. I’ll just starve for 8 or 12 hours til it gets better. Now they won’t do that because it’s costing them time so they just keep fishing. They just fish and fish and fish. I remember years ago when it used to get rough the fish would drop in half. I’m not gonna spend my time catching half as much. I’ll just lay up for 10 or 12 hours, and when it gets better tomorrow I’ll go fish and get right back what I normally catch. But today sadly enough they just fish right through it, because they don’t want to lose the time.

Like I told you before; see I believe everything in this world has a minus and a plus. Everything. So, we if can turn the minuses into pluses we’re better off.

If your grandchild came up to you and let you know that he wanted to fish, what would you say to him? What kind of ethics would be most important for him to learn?

There’s two things. I was taught to respect the ocean. My grandfather and my father always taught me to respect the ocean and the weather. You fit your boat out right, make sure your boat is safe. When there’s a storm coming, you batten down the hatch. If you take all those precautions you’ll always get through it. It’s when you don’t do that that you get into trouble.

My grandfather always used to tell me, my whole family always believed in this, every one of my uncles I fished with: You only take what you need out of the ocean; you always leave some for tomorrow. That’s been our philosophy. And I would tell him the same thing. Don’t go out there and destroy the whole resource because you’re able to do it. You just take what you need to make a comfortable living, and you leave some there. And our thing is we always try to fish on the larger fish and let the immature fish grow up to at least spawning size.

What do you miss most about fishing?

The excitement. Every trip I’d sail through this dyke, it was like going out on a first date. You never knew the outcome. There’s always an excitement of going out to the ocean. There’s always been. Every trip is different. I can go to work and I have different work days, but I already know what’s gonna happen. I’m either going to be down at the docks or I have reports to fill out or I have meetings to go to or training to do. I do some computer training. So I already know what’s expected of me when I go in for that day.

But when I go out into the ocean you don’t know what the weather’s gonna be, you don’t know what the catch is gonna be, I’ve sailed out of here and filled my boat in one day; I’ve sailed out of here and been 14 days and not have had enough to pay the fuel bill. It’s that excitement. I think that’s what draws people to the ocean. It’s not like working on shore, in a structured environment. The elements are different; you’re working night or day, winter or summer. And it was always a good feeling, as a captain, to come in and have had a good trip.