Russell Sherman is a bottom trawl fisherman on the Captain Dutch outside Dogbar, Breakwater in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


Can you tell us why you are getting a bigger boat?

Well, I feel that the inshore fisheries, the way the regulations are working right now are working against us in that this boat is getting near the end of her working life and in order to be able to be more versatile - get more places, get around the closures and things - I shouldn’t say get around, get away from them - I need a bigger boat. And a stronger boat. I’ve got another 10-15 years left, and the Captain Dutch doesn’t, so I’ve got to switch. As much as I hate to put her away, I’ve got to.

Is one reason you’re getting that boat to go out further?

Definitely. I have to be able to access all the areas at the times that I am allowed by the regulations. Around the shore here, oftentimes we have six months of closures around the shore and I either have to accept this business as a part-time business and go elsewhere for the rest of my years pay, or I have to expand my horizons a little bit, my capabilities actually, my physical capabilities and be able to go around some of these closures, go where the fish are. Use the time that I am allowed, which is 111 ground fish days, to the best of my ability and to be able to diversify into another field which is a whiting fishery, which I have to travel out to Georges for and I need a boat that I can do that safely and economically, just to survive.

What are "days at sea" all about?

Days at sea are probably the major reduction tool that the council has been using to reduce the mortality rate - in this area primarily on codfish, but on all the species - to bring the mortality rate in line with the total allowable catch for the year and meet the conservation guidelines that have been mandated by Sustainable Fisheries Act. And there are opportunity days.

There are two categories. One is an individual day at sea category, which is the one I’m in. And if you didn’t choose that, for one reason or another, there’s a fleet day at sea category and that gives you 88 opportunity days to prosecute brown fishing - fishing for pollock, haddock…stuff. The whiting fishery is not regulated by days at sea and so I don’t have to call in to go whiting fishing, and I don’t have to use a day at sea to go whiting fishing. And there are other fisheries as well that are not regulated by days at sea. It’s an effort-to-control tool that the council has come up with.

Has limiting the number of ground fish days at sea hurt you? Has it made it harder for you to make a living?

Originally the measures were put in line and yes it did hurt our ability to make a living. Some, of course, more than others and some sectors were hurt more than others. I feel that these conservation measures that have been put in place, although some of them I don’t like or some of them could have been done more fairly, but I would say overall, these measures have been very beneficial to increasing the stocks. They have helped to bring the fish stocks back and they will promote a viable industry, a vibrant industry, in the next two or three years. I do believe that.

I feel the way the current political situation is and the current conservation situation is, that in order to survive in this industry I need a larger vessel. I have to have more capability. And so I feel that in this case, if you can’t beat ‘em, you have to join ‘em. It’ s too bad; it’s certainly a way of life gone by the by. But if I want to survive in this business, I have to have the ability to get around these closures and to work in a little harder weather and I want to survive this industry. And so I have gone forward and I am actively looking for a larger vessel.

Georges Bank is not doing well. Why are you feeling like stocks in this area are returning?

I beg to differ on Georges. I have participated in some of the stock assessments. I’ve been in the room. I haven’t scientifically participated, but from what I’ve seen the stock in the seas, the stocks are coming back. Apparently codfish is still a problem child on Georges. Certainly it’s a problem child here in the feeling of the federal government. We feel they’re coming back. Our data, the things we see and digest are real time data. The federals are, unfortunately, using data that’s two or three years old

I do feel the stocks are coming back around here. We see more fish. We catch more fish per unit effort in the same places that we’ve been going for the last ten years, or some fellas for a lot more than that. We see more fish in evidence. We see more flounders as well as more codfish; it isn’t just the one species that’s coming back. The drastic cutbacks in effort, in the fleet, the raising of the mesh size, allowing the juvenile escapement that we’ve achieved, have been very good measures and they are working.

The haddock is over 40% rebuilt on Georges according to the federal statistics. Codfish is still a problem but they don’t feel it’s enough of a problem to warrant a heavy daily catch limit. The daily catch limit on Georges now is 2,000 pounds a day. Whereas on the Gulf of Maine codfish, which is judged in worse state, it’s only 400 pounds a day. I do believe that the fish stocks are coming back and that continued good science will prove that.

You mentioned that you might be getting involved with some cooperative research with scientists?

Well, there is an effort - and I must say it’s spearheaded by the state of Massachusetts and helped along by our congressional delegation -it’s cooperative research. Although none is really in evidence now, there is money in the pipeline. It is the thing of the future. I do believe that our scientists are good.

I’ve been to Woods Hole. I’ve been present at joint presentations between Canadian scientists and American scientists. And the difference I’ve found between the two was the amount of information they had, not their presentations, which were equally as good. But our scientists just don’t have the statistics and the amount of data that they should have. And I feel that we can help with that issue.

And, of course working with people, you get to know them. There are animosities that have developed. And I think it’d go a long way to diffuse some these animosities if people worked together. And we certainly have the space. We have real time data, we can show them where the fish is at certain times and I think perhaps that’s a facet of their investigation that should be looked into. We can provide that service. There are a number of things that we can do that could be very beneficial. And of course we need their guidance to do it in a proper scientific manner.

How about dragging — the art of dragging? It seems like it has become almost a science. For example, you just caught a bunch of dogfish. Why were you tossing them overboard?

The current dogfish plan, although the biomass is at it’s highest level in years, the total allowable catch has been reached this year. And the trip limit has gone from 600 pounds to zero pounds retention. There are no laws in the book, no regulations in the book that say we cannot possess them or catch them. We just cannot land them. We differ in our assessment of the stocks. But that’s neither here nor there. I happened to run into a bunch of dogfish that I couldn’t legally land and so unfortunately I had to jettison them. Otherwise I could have brought them in and sold them for food.

But, due to Mother Nature, we just ran into them. I didn’t want to set out again. I didn’t want to kill needlessly and waste and so instead, we came home. And that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s happened with codfish as well. We look at it as in the seas of abundance, and some of the federals look at it differently. But it’s an unfortunate situation, it really is. You try to avoid what you can’t sell the best you can. At times, you just can’t do it. Just can’t do it.

It seems to me that the art of fishing is becoming more and more of an art on the skipper’s part, to avoid by-catch and to make sure you are not in a closed area and so forth.

That’s true. You have to be much more aware of where you are and what you’re doing and what the regulations are. You almost have to be a Philadelphia lawyer. Literally. Also with the days at sea and the limited opportunity you have to make money, you have to be on top of your game all the time. A matter of 3 or 4 hundred yards could cost you 30 or 40 thousand dollars regulation-wise as far as closed areas go. You have to maximize your effort on the sea.

No longer can you say, "Oh well there’s always tomorrow; today we didn’t do well, but tomorrow we’ll do better." You have to have that attitude, but you can’t always depend on it. So, you really have to be on top of your game all of the time. Commercial fishing is a very competitive business; it always has been. That’s one of the great rewards - it is so competitive. And you’re gauged by a lot of different things. How much money you make is one of the very important things; how much fish you catch, actually. So it’s very competitive and if you want to stay competitive as the field narrows down, which it is narrowing down, the more competitive it becomes and there again, only the strong will survive. So it behooves you to be on top.

Have there been other skippers that have not been able to bite the bullet while the stocks are rebuilding and who have lost their boats?

Yes there have been other skippers that have been marginal or felt that they did not want to live with the regulation, or they couldn’t live with the regulation. Not that they were going to break them, or whatever, but it became too complicated, it became too much of an issue. And either they felt that they had a good job ashore, or perhaps they were near retirement age. This fleet has been downsized at least by 50% in the last 6 or 7 years. And so, you have a lot of occurrences where the regulations have at times put people out of business and at other times made people just make that choice themselves; ease their way out. It has happened, yes, to a great extent.

This new boat you’re buying is going to involve a mortgage and insurance. What exactly are you taking on? It seems like you are taking on a lot more risk, in a way.

I certainly am. I originally bought the Captain Dutch in 1984. And I was going to have it for five years and then upgrade. That was my original business plan, my game plan. As things turned out, it didn’t work that way.

Now, I have to make a choice at 52 years old whether to assume another mortgage, get a little deeper, and work harder for the next five or six years and take that risk, because it is a risk. I have to put a second mortgage, a second note on my house, a security note. And I have to look at working a lot harder, frankly. I am going to have insurance payments to make, I’m going to have mortgage payments to make that I didn’t have before and it’s going to call for a lot more effort. I am going to get more crew and work longer hours.

Hopefully I’m looking to the future. I hope it’s a good business plan, I hope it’s a sound plan. But if I want to survive in this business, I have to do it. And I’ve made that decision. My wife and I have talked about it. And we’ve made that decision and now we have to go forth with it. We’re not out of the woods yet. I think if we come down and talk together in another three or four years, then we’ll know who was right and who was wrong.

Right now, there are still going to be some tough times, but you’ll just have to just have to work a little harder. With this business, it’s funny, the people always say, the federals say well, there are going to be so many that’ll be gone - the business will go away, the business will go away. We didn’t go away. People dropped by the wayside, but there’s still a hard core left of people that are fishermen, commercial fishermen, and that’s it. That’s what they’re going to be and that’s what they’re going to do. And I think that’s what you have now and these people who stick it out this interim period the next three or four years, are going to be rewarded at the end. I have to believe that.

Why is it tougher for the small boaters, for the small fishermen?

Well, because of the Gulf of Maine, the codfish issue. The National Marine Fisheries Service determined that the Gulf of Maine is near to extinction and is in very deep trouble. We have the great fortune of having two or three natural subterranean spots out here. We have Jeffrey’s Bank and we have Stellwagen Bank and we have Tiller’s, which are a natural spawning ground for many different types of fish and the Gulf of Maine codfish. Codfish is what built this town, what started this town over 350 - 375 years ago. We’re very fortunate to have these natural underwater things out here.

But yes, NMFS has focused on our fishery. And it has focused the regulatory process on our fishery. And what it has done in the beginning was that several good and needed measures were put into effect. But it seems that the federal juggernaut can’t stop itself. It has no neutral gear, although it was in reverse for many years. But now that it has found forward, it can no longer find the breaks or neutral gear. And so we, being the weak sister, have been kind of stepped on.

We see a resurgence of codfish. This year, with the spring survey, the National Marine Fisheries Service has admitted that there is a larger biomass than they had formerly anticipated or than they had formerly observed and yet we are seeing no break. We were unfortunately being forced to throw fish overboard, in order just to make a living, in order to get by.

When I set this net out here, I can’t say a certain percent of codfish is going to be caught. It just can’t be done. And the same when a fellow sets a gillnet, whatever swims along and hits that is gonna get captured and through responsible fishing practices and the fact that we do only prosecute our fishing during the day time. Bad weather drives us in. We’re small boat fishermen. We don’t have the big fishing power to scour the ocean as it were. But yet there are quite a few of us, and it is a way of life.

Could you just speak about the fact that a small boat has less impact on essential fish habitat?

People have been talking about clear-cutting the bottom, that a bottom trawler clean cuts the bottom. They’ve used vis-à-vis the logging industry, which is totally, totally outlandish. It’s just as different as the dry land to the wet ocean. It’s two different things. They have nothing in common, really. It’s a nice idiom. It's a nice picture to paint, but it’s not a true picture.

A small boat like this, I employ a couple of fellas. We go out daily, small horsepower. Make a couple tows, and we come home. Let the bottom, then we farm the bottom more than anything else. You can only reach certain areas. We’ve worked these areas for years. For generations actually and they produce year after year after year and I’d like to think with my generation and the new generation behind me, fellows in their 20’s and 30’s, that this is becoming a smarter industry, a more ecologically favorable industry because we have a future. We want a future and we realize that the ocean’s resources are finite; they are not infinite.

We don’t have the big power to tow rock-hopper gear and stuff up over mountains and knock boulders loose and rearrange the sub-oceanic terrain. We don’t have that kind of power. Yes, there are ships that do have that power and do prosecute that kind of living. We don’t. And to be grouped in with such people is not right. I think what is going to come down to in the end, is are you going to have many small boats employing 2 or 3, in other words, feeding 2 or 3 families, or are you gonna get down to certain few larger boats with 4 or 5 men crews?

I know the fellas around here said, The federal government will never put us out of business; it’s a way of life; they won’t put us out of business. And I reminded them of the scenes we saw on television in the 1980’s - the small family farm going on the by and by, people standing out in their front yards auctioning off their bureau drawers and their bedroom sets, things that they’d had in their families for years. And it can happen. And unfortunately, to a large extent, it is happening.

To what extent have people begun to sell their boats and get out of the business here in Gloucester?

To a large extent. This city, I came here in 1971 and the fleet right now in 1999, I would say is 1/3 the size that it was in 1971 and maybe I’m being optimistic. The boat buy-out took many of the larger vessels away. The smaller vessels have gone through this regulatory process where their days at sea have been cut in half. The amount of fish that they have been allowed to bring in has been cut in half.

And so their livelihoods have been cut down and a lot of the fellows who are older, ready to retire, gave up their boats and retired. A lot of the younger fellas went to work inshore, for better benefits, for a more stable wage. And not have to put up with the things we have to put up with every day.

In many ways, we’re treated like petty criminals. Now in this business, they come to the dock, we have federal officials, state officials check everything, overlooking down in the threshold, as if we’re hiding something, as if we’re doing something wrong. If they find 3 or 4 fish that are one inch or a quarter inch under the limit, then we’re written up.

And it’s not the officer’s fault. They’re doing their job. They’re told this is what you have to do and they do it. And in most cases they execute their business as gentlemen and everything, but it becomes wearing after a while. And when you’re always presumed guilty before you start, in this great country of ours, it really wears heavily on people who are hard working people - tax paying people and the people who don’t want anything from anybody - just to be left alone.

We know that’s not possible in this day and age, but really the way we’re looked at is that we’re guilty before we’re proven innocent. What construction worker has a building inspector on his construction site every single day of the week throughout the whole project, looking in everyone’s back pocket. It just doesn’t happen.

Can you say something about the old guys who wish it were still the way it was but have gotten out?

I think that the current generation of fishermen are much more in tune with what’s going on, politically and ecologically. They realize that the old days of boom and bust, get-‘em-while-you-can fishing is over, and well it should be. A lot of the old timers when these heavy regulations came down just couldn’t stand it. They had worked for fifty years with no regulation and all of a sudden some one said that you have to call up Uncle Sam and talk to them before you go fishing. Just a little thing like that, say, "Gee, I’m not going to do that; that’s crazy." And many of them turned their boats over to their sons, sold the boats, and got out of the business. And that actually started happening in the early 90’s and right now, I think you’ll find very few fellows in this business. I’m one of the older fellows in this business and I’m 51 years old. The fellows in their 60’s and 70’s are gone.

Why have you chosen to use gear that doesn’t drag along the bottom?

Let’s face it. Commercial fishing in general and the bottom trawling fishing industry in particular has been under fire by many green groups, by many scientific groups that we’re clear-cutting the bottom, ruining the resource, ruining the industry. We have come back in a lot of ways because we do have knowledge of gear. Fishing is our business. We know where the fish are, we know how to capture them and in this light, we have worked on different types of netting and trawls that are more friendly.

I’ll cite an example in the gill net industry. They’ve come up with pingers which they put on the end of their buoys to keep porpoise from being entangled and it’s worked out very, very well. This example of a raised foot-rope trawl here in Massachusetts is an initiated measure and it has been approved by the state of Massachusetts and it’s almost to the stage of approval by the federal government. But we all know how slow the federal government is to grab a hold of a good idea and run with it.

We’ve worked very hard to target this species which is whiting - white fish - and exclude flounders, which was a by-catch, and also the small flounder was the problem. It’s a small mesh net and you catch a lot of fish with it and by raising this foot-rope up off the bottom and positioning the chain line behind the trawl itself, we’ve eliminated 97% of the small flounder and flounder by-catch

You’ve got a small mesh net and you’ve eliminated by-catch?

This trawl behind me is a whiting trawl. It consists of a two-inch mesh and as you can imagine, a two-inch mesh catches just about everything that it goes by. We used to have a very big problem with this in pursuing whiting and shrimp.

We would also catch a lot of small juvenile flounders that were unmarketable and of course they hadn’t had a chance to spawn in the old days. There were no rules and regulations about this and nobody really thought much about it. Of course, in this new day and age we’ve tried to eliminate this by-catch.

And the way we’ve done this is to raise the foot-rope up off the bottom and position the chains behind the trawl. We need the chain to make it tend to make it come some place close to the bottom but when the chain goes up and tickles the bottom, the fish go up and hit the bottom of the net and go away. The fish that we’re working for, which is whitefish, is captured by the net itself because they’re a little bit off the bottom and so it’s another example of how the industry has tried to change to become more habitat friendly and to eliminate discard.

Discard is the problem. The biggest problem in the commercial fishing industry right now is discard and we’re working on it just as hard as anybody else to stay in business. We want a future and unless we come in to line with the government and the green groups, we are not going to stay in business. A lot of us wish we were paid more attention to by and given more credit by the government and by the green groups, that we are making an attempt and we are trying to cooperate and we do have innovative ways to minimize discard, to minimize by catch.

Do you have any concerns you’d like to voice about individual transfer quotas, ITQ’s?

I believe that the future of the inshore industry, these inshore grounds, which are very fertile grounds, hinge on a couple different things. I think they hinge on sectional regulations. In other words, I hate to draw lines in the ocean, but draw lines in the ocean.

The people who are going to fish on the inside, on this side of this line are going to be stake holders and they are going to make up the regulations to provide a living ad infinitum and the fellas outside, the big offshore fellows, they’ll have Georges Bank and those places to work, which we cannot get to and we do not want to get to, will set up their own rules and regulations and conservation measures for that industry.

And so their back is up against a wall when somebody comes by and says gee, Russ, you’ve got 100,000 pounds of codfish in your quota this year. I hear you’re up against it. I hear the bank’s going to take your house, yeah. That’s right. I’ll give you 100,000 bucks for that fish. Geez, I could use 100,000 bucks, and I give it to him. We trade and now my quota’s gone forever. I’m out of the business and yet I’m just a piece for that fellow. And he gets a few more pieces and there again we get to talking about the wealth, a large amount of wealth being centered in a few hands. And that’s what always happens. That’s what happens wherever independent transferable quotas have gone into effect.

Independent fishing quotas is a different issue altogether.

What do you mean by that - IFQ’s?

On the other hand, I like independent fishing quotas because that way I know at the beginning of a year - because I'm a businessman I do have a business plan - I know what I’ll be allowed to take and what I won’t be allowed to take and I can plan my year around that. And when I’m done with that quota, I’m done fishing. I’m off the bottom. I’m not bothering the fish or bothering the bottom. I’m done. I’m done for the year.

And yet, I will have a hand in judging what is a reasonable and fair fishing quota for myself and for people who are in the same position as I am and I think that’s very important. As it is now, it’s whoever’s got the best boat, or the most time, or the most political pull, gets the most fish quota. This way here, it can be done equitable and fairly that’s all we ask for, as small boat fishermen. We ask to be regulated fairly and equitable, that’s all.

People say with individual fishing quotas keeps people from rushing such that they are able to change gear as necessary and therefore, conserve the fishery. Do you think that’s true?

I think that has a lot of merit to it, yes. Obviously as a businessman, you are going to take this quota, if you are given this quota, in the most advantageous way to your own operation. And if it means that you can tow smaller gear, use less fuel, because let’s face it. I know, if they give you 100,000 pounds of codfish for the year, I’ll tell you I know right now, where I’m going to work and the months I’m going to work to get that fish. I can tell you right now, just as soon as I’m standing here. So I can say, well instead of going out with 1000-foot net, I know when I catch this fish, they’re actually going to allow me to keep it and sell it. And if I can get it more cheaply, which means using smaller nets and less days to prosecute the fishery, then I’m going to do it that way

It makes good business sense. And in the end, knowing that I’m being more user-friendly, that I’m ensuring a future for myself and everyone else as well, it just makes damn good sense. But I am scared to death of transferable quotas, because it ends up taking all the wealth, and I hate to talk fish and money in the same voice because it makes us sound like the only thing we’re interested in is making money and that’s not the truth. You know, we are interested in the resource, otherwise we would do something else.

You know, fishing is something that gets into your blood. I think Linda Greenlaw speaks very eloquently to that fact. It gets in your blood. It’s something. You talk to a tuna fisherman that’s hooked up a 6 or 8 pound tuna and he doesn’t want to do anything else but that, believe me. So it’s not just about money. But money, of course has to enter into it. We all have to live. And so it’s a wonderful way to make a living.

And so to take that and put that wonderful way to make a living into just a few hands is a sin. You have people on a board, members of a board of directors that, it’s a lot easier for regulators to go and sit down in a room of lawyers and say, no we’re going to hash out the fishery regulations for the year 2000. It’s so much easier for the regulators and it’s so much easier for the board members. It’s an easy process.

But is it the right process? I don’t believe it is because you can have a few large boats with four or five fellows on deck and that’s it. That’s the fishing business. They’re going to deliver the protein. They’re going to deliver the product. There’s no doubt about that. Isn’t it better to have many hands delivering the same product, the same protein and having a way of life, besides - a viable, taxable, livable way of life.