Paul Parker is a hook fisherman in Chatham Massachusetts. Paul is the Executive Director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman’s Association.


What kind of method do you use to catch ground fish with and why?

I work with hooks and lines primarily. During the winter months we use long lines, which means we set baited tubs of trawl gear, they’re about 1,800 feet long and have 300 hooks on each line. We connect those together and set them for about 2 hours apiece. And when we do that we bring up the lines after two hours and they’re loaded with codfish if we’re lucky. Sometimes after that we’ll supplement that by jigging. That is a pretty simple procedure with rods and reels and limited number of three hooks.

And again, all the fish come up alive and that allows us to really maintain a low level of by-catch. Any of the sub-legal sized fish we throw back are all live. We see that borne out in the fact that actually right now we’re working on marketing live codfish and we’re able to take the fish right off the line and put them into a tank of water on board and they all survive. So we’re very confident that they survive when we release them into the wild.

Why do you fish that way. I thought people caught cod with nets?

Hook and line has a long tradition here in Chatham and on Cape Cod. It’s something that we’re proud of locally, and it’s a real clean way to catch fish, it’s not the most efficient way, but it has tremendous potential to have low by-catch and relatively little, almost no impact on the habitat.

Talk to us about by-catch.

Well there are really two kinds of by-catch that you’d be talking about. We have sub-legal sized codfish. Everything comes up alive, so we unhook those codfish and release them back into the wild. Research has shown that there’s a very high survival rate of those cod.

The other thing that we have by-catch of would be non-target species. When we’re cod fishing there’s very few of those. Occasionally we might have skates or dogfish, but up until now those are things that are marketable.

Why would you say that hook fishing is a more sustainable way to fish than, say, trawl fishing?

Hook and line is the most sustainable way to catch ground fish. We specialize in catching cod and haddock, which is a slight liability. But when we fish there’s absolutely no damage to the habitat and very limited by-catch. It’s a very sustainable way of catching fish that’s been used for hundreds of years.

We have a proven track record here in New England. You can look back to when the Basques started fishing on Georges Bank and ever since then hook and line has been a really sustainable way to catch codfish and haddock.

Could you speak to why hook caught fish is a better quality seafood product than fish caught in a bottom trawl or gill net?

Hooked codfish is the highest quality fish available on the marketplace. The reason for that is the way that we fish. One of the reasons that hooked codfish is such high quality is that we are a day boat operation. That means that from the point when the fish is caught in the water off shore it’s back at the docks within 6 or 7 hours. Whereas with a long trip boat, a dragger boat, it might be out at sea for 7 or 10 days and obviously some of that fish is going to be a week old or 10 days old when it gets to the dock, let alone when it gets to the consumer.

Everything comes up alive and we process that fish immediately and ice it down. It can’t be any fresher than that.

And the gill net fishery is totally different, the fish soaks on the bottom, dead for a while, and it just doesn’t yield the high quality product that we have in hook and line.

Does your product, in conjunction with your marketing strategy, result in a higher price for your hook-caught fish? If so, does it seem to be a viable, more sustainable way to fish?

At this point in time we’re trying to work to get hook fishermen a premium price for their product. It’s a very difficult process. There’s a lot of marketing schemes and eco-marketing concepts out there that we hope are going to bring us a much higher price for our product and make it more economically feasible for us to continue fishing in this way.

Unfortunately at this point in time the price that we receive is only marginally better than either a dragger or a gill net fish. Typically we might run 15 or 20 cents higher than gill net fish and right about on, or a little bit over, dragger fish per pound. And it does make it difficult for us to compete when we have such high overhead and it’s a very expensive, inefficient way of catching fish. But we really hope to develop some marketing schemes and some innovative eco-marketing techniques that will enable us to keep fishing on into the future.

Do you think that any of the restrictions that many of the fishermen have been complaining about have actually helped in rebuilding ground fish stocks?

We’re facing an increasing number of restrictions and that goes for all sectors of the fishery. Although they create a lot of hardship economically in the short-term, I think a lot of us are optimistic that some of these regulations are going to bring back the fish and bring back a healthier, sustainable fishery in the future. In particular, closed areas seem to have been very successful in bringing back the fish. It addresses a critical issue that hook fishermen have recognized, which is protecting habitat, to bring back the juvenile fishes that we’re really lacking right now.

Do you think it’s true to say that the older generation of fishermen who are less likely to adopt sustainable fishing practices are leaving the industry?

I’ve begun to notice that there is an up and coming group of us that are prepared to think in more proactive terms about regulation. I’m not sure that there’s a new generation of fishermen that’s any more willing to accept regulation, but we’ve all begun to realize that we have to deal with federal regulation. To date there has been a lot of reluctance to work with regulation and work with the management and I think that’s because for such a long time there was no regulation at all.

The one thing that we can all really understand is that if we don’t start saving these fish today that we’re not going to have any future at all.

Can you speak a little bit about your observations with regards to fisheries management?

Something I’ve noticed in becoming involved in fisheries management is a real failure of communication between scientists, conservationists, and fishermen. Fishermen have a unique and historical culture that’s very difficult for some other people to understand. Over the years I haven’t seen any effort at all on the part of conservationists or scientists to put these needs and conservation objectives in terms that the fisherman can really understand. And right now there’s just no communication. It’s a complete failure.

How is fishing these days?

I think it’s difficult for an individual fishermen to have a perspective on how many codfish are out in the ocean. My experience has been that there’s a few more fish than there was a couple of years ago when I started and we’re noticing some rebuilding or our codfish stocks. We’re really excited about that. But although we’re really optimistic about the future, it’s not the time to stop developing good conservation regulations that work for the fishermen and work for the fish.

You say that hooks have less impact on the environment. Could you talk a little bit about that? Do other types of fishing have more of an impact?

Right now, in our groundfish stocks in New England, one of the biggest problems in our rebuilding schedule is that many of our stocks are not recruiting very well. That’s largely due to degradation of the bottom habitats. There aren’t enough places for the small fish to hide or to find food. And largely that’s due to certain types of mobile gear. There may be some environmental factors involved, but we’re very concerned with some of the things we know about certain types of mobile gear.

Why is there a need for the Cape Cod Hook Fishermen’s Association?

The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association started out to protect and preserve hook fishing as a way of life here on Cape Cod — a very unique place with a very unique fishery. And over the years, we’ve evolved into an organization that’s very much concerned with environmental factors such as by-catch and recruitment, overfishing and habitat. Along with that, we’ve done a lot of work protecting the small scale fishing communities all around New England. And we’ve started to work with other gear sectors and other fishermen from other ports.

How’s it been for small scale fishermen fishing here in this part of New England? Has the decline of cod stocks affected the economy here?

There’s a large number of factors that have contributed to the pressures on the small scale commercial fishermen. Historically, small scale commercial fishermen have depended on, in shore fishermen have depended on versatility and the ability to move between fisheries. And the way that we are regulating single species by single species has really taken a lot of that away. It makes it very difficult for fishermen to move between fisheries.

Has it been tough for you guys the last few years?

Regulations have certainly removed a lot of individuals from the fishery. It’s made it impossible to participate any longer. But for those of us that are still in it now that the stocks are rebuilding there’s some real signs of hope for the future.

What’s your take on ITQ’s as a potential tool to manage fisheries?

When we took a look around the world at how ITQ fisheries have been implemented and the results from them, the predominant thing that we see is the elimination of a lot of fishermen. and based on who has been eliminated in other fisheries, we’re pretty confident that it’s the small scale independent operators here in New England that would be eliminated from the fishery. It’s basically a give away to the corporations of a public resource. And that’s not something that the Hook Fishermen’s Association really is going to stand for.

Some say that we can learn from how ITQ’s have been implemented and prevent consolidation. These same proponents of ITQ’s would say that ITQ’s increase a fishermen’s sense of stewardship with regards to the resource.

Certainly if we are going to have ITQ programs, there need to be standards. To insure that the economic and the social and the environmental problems that we have seen — witnessed — in other ITQ fisheries presently are addressed.

I don’t think that ITQ programs have generated the type of stewardship that economic theory would predict.

Why is that? From a fishermen’s point of view, do you think there is something to this idea of ITQ’s promoting a sense of stewardship among fishermen who otherwise might not have it?

What I see is most fishermen prefer a bird in the hand to two in the bush. And despite the fact that in a broad scale, we can create regulations that generate stewardship, I don’t think in most fisheries, fishermen are going to behave in a more stewardly manner just because they own a piece of the pie.

What is it that you like best about fishing?

Well, I’m not from a fishing family originally, but I’ve always been in love with the water. I’ve always cherished the time I spend out there on the water. And I’ve just developed a passion for fishing — for going at it as hard as I can with the time that I have.