Paul Cohan is President of the Gulf of Maine Fisherman's Alliance, and is a gill net fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


Everyone’s 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.

What we’re 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 we’ve started to see the reductions in some pivotal stocks, that it’s 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.

But it’s 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 don’t make sense, not that they shouldn’t have been thinking about them all along.

In the gill-net fishery, which I’m 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, that’s 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 it’s our belief that we should be fishing gear that doesn’t retain anything but a fish that 100 percent have had the opportunity to reproduce themselves.

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 they’re not stupid individuals; they’re small businessmen; they’re very independent; they are very creative and resourceful, and they’re not foolish enough to realize that if we do catch "the last fish," it’s certainly not going to be in their best interest.

This is their bread and butter here. So it’s 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 it’s in everybody’s 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.

We’re constantly 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. They’re just like everybody else — they’ve got homes and families and bills and mortgages and everything.

You never know whether next year there’s going to be some regulation coming down that’ll pull the plug on your whole operation. And this is a serious investment that a lot of people have — everybody’s 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 there’s 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?

No, it’s 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 couldn’t just say, okay everybody, it’s 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 wouldn’t make sense. Even though we’d like to think that this would be great if we didn’t have these regulations and people are more conscious. They’re not that much more conscious; there’s 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 what’s going on and then they can move forward.

The scientific 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 they’re 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 that’s just misconceived and it almost looks like they’re pointing down a different road than it’s pointing down.

It’s really 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 what’s 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 that’s going to build a bond of trust between fishermen and regulators because they’re going to be provided with data that everybody agrees upon, instead of having 180 degrees in between what one person envisions and what another one’s telling him.

Have some of your friends gone out of business with what’s been happening?

I’ve seen boats fall by the wayside; there’s 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 who’s carrying the "big nut." And that’s unfortunately that’s kind of the nature of the beast at this point, you know. But it is in any business, I guess, so there’s no free rides, no free lunch.

The nature of science is continual evolution because you’re 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.

We’re starting to hear from some people that they think ultimately if fishermen own the resource, they’re more inclined to want to take care it. What do you think?

IFQ’s and ITQ’s are kind of a dangerous road to head down because first of all, it’s 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. It’s 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 "day’s pay" not to become a millionaire, but to support a family and a wife and kids.

And we’ve seen it sort of head down that road and a couple of other fisheries that the ITQ has entered and you’ve 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 I’m concerned that was all medieval times and everybody realized that it’s 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, everybody’s gonna want a bigger one, and it’s just human nature to figure out a way to get a bigger piece of pie yourself.

And that’s 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 that’s 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 you’re 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 what’s going on in your neighborhood, that there is no more open land — it’s all filled with houses, too many cars in the streets, there’s just too many people to begin with, so why pick on fishing?

Anything more you’d like to say?

I’d like to just make the point that the fishermen are not eco-terrorists. They’re regular guys and women, just like you and me, and they’re 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 there’s 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 fish.

And their appetites should not be compromised by anyone’s greed or anyone’s 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 what’s right there in their backyards and work on that first.

Considering all the hassles, how come you love to fish?

Fishing gives 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 o’clock and shut them back off at nine o’clock the next morning and use that 8 hours in between to generate their financial support and it doesn’t bother them; that makes them feel good. Then there are other people who, their life’s 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.

It’s a way of life, as opposed to just a job — everything just kind of revolves around it and blends into it. I don’t know, it eats you up, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s something that you find most of them have to do and it’s kind of a catch-22 situation there. A lot of them are really miserable when they’re doing it but they’re more miserable when they’re not. So it kinda sucks you in, but it’s very rewarding way of life because you’re basically self-reliant and what you want to do with it depends upon your own creativity and levels of energy, and it’s 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 there’s one in the ocean — well, we scooped them this time, beautiful! It’s 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 don’t encounter. These people are a real national treasure, and it’s really important to our culture to make certain that they don’t 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?

Oh absolutely. Fishing also brings oneness with nature that’s lost in so many people’s lives. As the urban sprawl consumes the ecosystem and consumes people and they get enslaved into gridlocks and traffic jam, it’s kind of a kick to be steaming out on some beautiful morning and the sun’s just coming up and it’s just a real nice day, it’s 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 we’re gonna work a lot physically harder and put in a 14 or 15 hour day today but I’ll trade that 14 or 15 hours for sitting for an hour and a half in a traffic jam sucking down exhaust fumes.