TRANSCRIPT - Paul Cohan
Cohan is President of the Gulf of Maine Fisherman's Alliance,
and is a gill net fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Everyones hearing about the demise of fisheries, and yet all
the fishermen seem to be in agreement that the fish stocks are already
starting to be restored. But in general, apparently there is still
enough of a problem that NMFS and the scientists say you guys still
have to be restricted in numbers you catch.
dealing with is probably 3 or 400 years worth of the mentality that
you can just fish unlimited and unrestricted and the bounty of sea
will continually replenish itself. And over the last 20 to 30 years,
as weve started to see the reductions in some pivotal stocks,
that its perhaps the impacts of fishing are having negative
effects on the populations of fish. If you have to factor that into
an equation with the impacts of coastal development and the elimination
of coastal wetlands and that the whole system has been impacted
also by run-offs and sewage and toxic wastes.
finding that balance in there in between exactly how many
fish can be remove from this resource without impacting its ability
to rebound and repopulate itself. And these are all relatively new
ideas, not that they dont make sense, not that they shouldnt
have been thinking about them all along.
In the gill-net
fishery, which Im engaged in, we fish blind-lines in the winter
and gill nets in the spring and summer. We can vary our retention
as far as the size of the fish goes, by using different mesh sizes.
We basically got a 7-inch mesh here, thats very big mesh there.
We retain probably a 24, 25-inch fish on the bottom end, which according
to the scientific data codfish at 19 inches, between 40 to 50 percent
of them are able to reproduce themselves. And its our belief
that we should be fishing gear that doesnt retain anything
but a fish that 100 percent have had the opportunity to reproduce
There is a very
thin line we walk in between having a sustainable fishery and financial
benefit for the harvesters and a good solid supply in the marketplace
for the consumers and having a problem with a resource on our hands.
You find that a lot more often than ever was before, that the fishermen
are taking this message home to heart and doing everything they
possibly can because theyre not stupid individuals; theyre
small businessmen; theyre very independent; they are very
creative and resourceful, and theyre not foolish enough to
realize that if we do catch "the last fish," its
certainly not going to be in their best interest.
This is their
bread and butter here. So its a very positive trend that things
are taking. We do need a lot more and better science and we do need
to try and repair some of the bridges in between regulatory management
sector and the harvesting sector there is a good level of distrust
there, and its in everybodys best interest to forge
a working relationship and come to the middle of that bridge, instead
of burning it down, because then we can move forward and basically
lessen the burden of a lot of these restrictions on the fishermen
and increase our chances for a truly sustainable fishery.
wondering what will next year bring? Will we be able to fish at
all; will we lose the boat; will we lose the house; will the kids
go to college? You know these are real serious concerns for the
men and women who are involved in this industry. Theyre just
like everybody else theyve got homes and families and
bills and mortgages and everything.
You never know
whether next year theres going to be some regulation coming
down thatll pull the plug on your whole operation. And this
is a serious investment that a lot of people have everybodys
got their houses tied up in their boats because no bank in its right
mind would give you just a straight financing for a boat without
something shore-side to secure it. And so theres a lot at
stake here for a lot of people.
If the government were to relax all the regulations, what would
keep the same thing the way that cod got into trouble in
the first place from happening again? Do you think the fishermen
have a new ethic?
a combination of regulatory action that makes sense, which the fishermen
can believe and support, and re-opening some access so that they
have an opportunity to make a viable living and to keep a viable
business going. It has to be a combination of the two. You couldnt
just say, okay everybody, its a free-for-all again. It would
be like taking down all the speed limit signs and allowing everybody
to drive with a six-pack between their legs; it wouldnt make
sense. Even though wed like to think that this would be great
if we didnt have these regulations and people are more conscious.
Theyre not that much more conscious; theres still a
lot of unconscious people out there, believe me.
What about the cooperation that needs to happen between scientists
and fishermen and the regulatory community?
The best way
for fishermen and scientists to come to mutual understanding and
trust is to really engage the scientists in the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts
approach to fishing that we live so they can they can see exactly
whats going on and then they can move forward.
community, not to discredit them, have been working in a perfect
little mathematical world, supplied with very, very little, teeny
bites of information and then they crunch them down and get a formula.
And they can miss the target very, very badly sometimes through
no fault of their own, simply because theyre not being fed
a good enough volume of quality data to generate the proper
results. And so it only makes the scientists job a heck of
a lot more difficult and it makes the results of some of these regulatory
actions that are based on inaccurate data or data thats just
misconceived and it almost looks like theyre pointing down
a different road than its pointing down.
unfortunate because a lot of times the regulators and the fishery
service are viewed as holding all the cards in the deck and the
fishermen are left with a couple of jokers. And when you have these
different perceptions in whats really going from the people
who are on the ocean every single day and people who make an assessment
crew twice a year, it really adds fuel to the fire.
And so the key
to it is really getting the observers out on the boats, getting
the scientists themselves out from in front of their computers and
get them dirty, you know, get them sea-sick. And thats going
to build a bond of trust between fishermen and regulators because
theyre going to be provided with data that everybody agrees
upon, instead of having 180 degrees in between what one person envisions
and what another ones telling him.
Have some of your friends gone out of business with whats
boats fall by the wayside; theres no doubt about it. It depends
on how tenuous your financial situation is. Somebody that owns his
boat outright has a much better chance of making it through touch
times than somebody whos carrying the "big nut."
And thats unfortunately thats kind of the nature of
the beast at this point, you know. But it is in any business, I
guess, so theres no free rides, no free lunch.
The nature of
science is continual evolution because youre always getting
more components to go into your equation. So hopefully as we can
put together a better working relationship, a better understanding
of our respective positions, and a better understanding of the resources,
science can become more accurate. And the only way to do through
that is a working partnership.
Were starting to hear from some people that they think ultimately
if fishermen own the resource, theyre more inclined to want
to take care it. What do you think?
ITQs are kind of a dangerous road to head down because first
of all, its a public resource, so individual "ownership"
of it is probably not an appropriate way to look at. Second of all,
you do have the danger of consolidation of the resource into the
hands of a relatively small amount of players, which can lead to
just as much abuse of conservation as any other management scenario
would do. Its rather dangerous from the respect that it could
lead to the elimination of the family fishermen; it could reward
operations that have put, ironically the most pressure on a lot
of these resources and are very well funded, at the expense of people
who have been fishing for the proverbial "days pay"
not to become a millionaire, but to support a family and a wife
seen it sort of head down that road and a couple of other fisheries
that the ITQ has entered and youve seen the amount of boats
dwindle down to a handful of players. And then you have boats that
are actually being sharecroppers for the people who hold the permits
and the people who hold the quotas. And as far as Im concerned
that was all medieval times and everybody realized that its
much better to have a relatively free access and have everybody
make their own decisions. Quota-based management is not inherently
bad in itself but once you start doling out pieces of pie, everybodys
gonna want a bigger one, and its just human nature to figure
out a way to get a bigger piece of pie yourself.
the downfall of any individual quota management scheme, especially
if you have the transferability in there, which ultimately you have
to have. So, I think we should be looking more towards making the
harvesting techniques work. Making them all work to the maximum
level of efficiency with a minimum amount of negative aspects to
them accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
And thats where sustainable fishery really lies.
People like Carl Safina and Silvia Earle say that there are too
many boats chasing after too few fish. They are saying the days
of open-access fisheries are over because there are too many boats.
How does this mesh with what youre saying?
Well, to start
off with the notion that there are too many boats chasing too few
fish is basically a reflection of the fact that there are perhaps
too many people period. And how do you take one instance and change
that from whats going on in your neighborhood, that there
is no more open land its all filled with houses, too
many cars in the streets, theres just too many people to begin
with, so why pick on fishing?
Anything more youd like to say?
to just make the point that the fishermen are not eco-terrorists.
Theyre regular guys and women, just like you and me, and theyre
following the beat of the drum that they hear and supporting families
and supporting local communities and economies. And what help we
need is in finding the right judgments and the right management
to make certain that we can continue the very first industry that
really started building the country. We have a long tradition and
theres lots of hungry people out there, and we need to make
sure we maximize the benefit of the resource that we have for the
socio-economic structures of the fishing communities and also for
the benefit of the people who just like to eat a good piece of fresh
And their appetites
should not be compromised by anyones greed or anyones
shortsightedness. And these are the problems that we need to continue
working on as we move forward in view of our new perception in how
fragile the ecosystem really is not only the marine ecosystem
but the terra firma is in trouble, too, and everybody should
start paying attention to whats right there in their backyards
and work on that first.
Considering all the hassles, how come you love to fish?
you a lot of room to move a lot of freedom, a lot of independence.
There are people who can turn on their lives at five oclock
and shut them back off at nine oclock the next morning and
use that 8 hours in between to generate their financial support
and it doesnt bother them; that makes them feel good. Then
there are other people who, their lifes work is a lot closer
to a vocation, and they live their work and their life are just
completely intertwined. And you find that to be the case with fishermen.
way of life, as opposed to just a job everything just kind
of revolves around it and blends into it. I dont know, it
eats you up, theres no doubt about it, but its something
that you find most of them have to do and its kind of a catch-22
situation there. A lot of them are really miserable when theyre
doing it but theyre more miserable when theyre not.
So it kinda sucks you in, but its very rewarding way of life
because youre basically self-reliant and what you want to
do with it depends upon your own creativity and levels of energy,
and its a good way to express yourself. You know, you can
take pride in your accomplishments, you can take pride in your boat,
you can hold your head high when you come in, having the big trip
of fish while everybody else is not thinking theres one in
the ocean well, we scooped them this time, beautiful! Its
a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
And it also
breeds a lot of character because there are times you get the hell
kicked out of you from breakdowns, engines blowing, weather, just
circumstances beyond your control and to rise up to meet that level
of adversity is something that a lot of people really dont
encounter. These people are a real national treasure, and its
really important to our culture to make certain that they dont
slip through the cracks, and that they are appreciated for the individuals
that they are because they really do embody the spirit that expanded
this country and turned it into the wonderful country that it is.
Is part of what you enjoy about it being out in the ocean?
Fishing also brings oneness with nature thats lost in so many
peoples lives. As the urban sprawl consumes the ecosystem
and consumes people and they get enslaved into gridlocks and traffic
jam, its kind of a kick to be steaming out on some beautiful
morning and the suns just coming up and its just a real
nice day, its a very beautiful experience being out on the
ocean and listening to some traffic report that every road within
hundred miles is impassable, and you do have to kind of giggle and
you say, ah, son of a gun, maybe were gonna work a lot physically
harder and put in a 14 or 15 hour day today but Ill trade
that 14 or 15 hours for sitting for an hour and a half in a traffic
jam sucking down exhaust fumes.