Joe Sinagra is a bottom trawl fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


In general, what is happening with the fish stocks around here?

The fish stocks are charging back right now. We’re seeing more fish than we have in the past ten years. They are growing stronger and stronger.

Ten years ago, I was skipping a rather large boat out of Maine. I could see what was happening. There were hardly any fish. Stocks were kind of depleted. I quit fishing for awhile. I came back after two years and I could see that things were starting to change a little bit. And now, that I am back and heavy into fishing again, I see cod fish place I have never caught them before. There seems to be quite an abundance of cod. I’ve been up to Nova Scotia — talked to the fisherment up there. In New Foundland, where supposedly there are no cod, the stocks are up to where they were in the 1950’s.

Fishermen want to go fishing for them, but the biologists say we don’t understand where they came from, therefore you can’t. So, it’s the harvesters. The harvesters are out there — they see what’s going on. But the biologists can’t catch these fish — they can’t see them, so they believe there’s none.

Do you believe these people who say that that the levels in New Foundland are up to where they were in the 1950’s?

I get the Canadian newspaper. The official commercial Canadian fisherman’s newspaper up there. And even the biologists admit, yeah there’s a huge abundance of cod here. But they just don’t know where they came from. There’s all kinds of things that affect fisheries besides fishermen. There’s weather, there’s the gulf stream breaks off a puts warm water in places. There’s all sorts of forces besides us. We can be part of the solution as part of the gear technology. This is how fisheries are run today.

There’s a lot of people who have said that the depletion of cod stocks was due to bottom trawling. What is an example of how you can you fish for cod with your gear in a sustainable way?

What happened with the bottom trawlers in the 40’s and 50’s was you had very big boats with very little horsepower.

The gear that they towed, the rollers that they would use to get over the bottom were made out of wood. The spaces in between were made out of wood. That didn’t tend bottom as hard as all this rubber does today. We have rollers that sometimes in the middle of the night weigh 80 pounds, that kind of thing. If we kind of regress. You know, instead of driving 65 let’s drive 45 again. I think that will help. It’s like computers. You’re not going to throw away your computer, but if it’s bad for you and you find out it’s bad for you and there’s a screen that you can put in front of it to save you, you’ll do it. You’re not going to throw away your computer. Let’s get away from the finger-pointing, let’s fix it.

Did I hear you say that for herring, you’ve got some sort of thing that keeps your net off the ground?

Well this net that I use right now is for whiting. Usually a whiting net would be a chain net that would have chain on the bottom that would be planked hard down on the bottom. If you do that you’re going to catch a lot of flounders, lobsters, other things that are not your target species. This net that I use today is called a double foot rope net. It has 48 inch of drop chains, the chain is on the bottom, the net is 48 inches above the bottom. If we get enough flounders to cover a bottom bushel a day, that’s pretty darn good. We might get one or two lobsters a day. Otherwise we’d probably get a few hundred lobsters, and a few hundred pounds of flounders. We don’t get that. So that’s one example of cleaning up the fisheries.

Can you explain, using yourself as an example, how a fisherman can reduce by-catch as a bottom trawler?

Well, for example this net here that I have aboard my boat right now is a whiting net, which I a small fish that kind of tends bottom but really is a little bit above the bottom. With this net here we have 48 inch of drop chains, this net is 48 inches above the bottom, so we get more of our target species and very little by-catch with this kind of rig.

Some people say that young cod rely on the structure on the bottom. They say that bottom trawlers are doing damage to the ocean bottom and therefore fishermen are shooting themselves in the feet as far as the fishery is concerned.

Well some of that could be true but it’s an appropriate gear for the appropriate bottom. As I was saying before, the gear that we put down on the bottom now, some of these larger boats with these 80 pound rollers that can get over these kind of substraits, yeah, I’m sure that hurts the habitat. If we went back, put smaller rollers on or even went back to the wind rollers we’re not going to get over this kind of bottom and if we do that we’re going to create primary marine sanctuaries, and you know, the habit will be healthy.

What’s happened here is that throughout the ages, throughout the history of dragging, we have gotten more efficient at getting over substrait. Boats used to use wooden rollers, wooden spaces in between. Now everything is hard rubber, heavy rubber, which allows us to get over more and more bottom. And when we do that kind of thing, yeah, I’m sure that we do hurt habitat. I think the drag has a bad name, but I think it’s appropriate in some kind of bottoms — hard sand, mud. I don’t see why not. But this other type of bottom, yeah, I’m sure it does. So let’s roll back the clock a little bit.

Have these been tough times for you?

Well it has and it hasn’t. I think what we need to do is use your imagination. There’s all kinds of things that we could go after, what we really need is marketing. Marketing I think is key. When I was out to the Culinary Institute of America this past weekend talking about fishing, you know fish is flown in all over the world. Gloucester used to be the biggest exporter of fish in the world, now we import fish. But the fish is still there, we’re just not marketing properly. Herring were so much in Europe and Canada, we’re getting cents a pound for it, a few cents a pound. There’s value-added. We could do more value-add. This whole harbor was nothing but value-added products. Every wharf did some kind of value-added. There’s no value-added anymore. We’ve got to get back to value-add in our products and have the fishermen integrate it into the end user price of these products.

I know what value added means, but what is an example of a value added product?

Well it was before the days of refrigerated box cars or planes, so you had to do something with the fish. It had to be salted, it had to be cured, it had to be pickled, it had to be canned. You know, these products could be done again today. Gourmet type products. You know, we could sell a lot of this stuff right over the web. It could work out for us.

The hook fishermen we’ve talked to in Chatham who talk a lot about a value added product say they are going to bring their fish down to the auction and get a better price for their product is in better shape.

I think that’s part of it, that’s one step. I would go further, though. I would take my fish out of New England. I would take my fish out west, to the western part of the states, to the farm countries, maybe even do a little trading with the farmer markets and the fisherman markets. Get the fish to the people out there that never get to see ‘em.

Can you speak to what’s been happening in Gloucester?

There’s a lot less boats than there were, a lot less. You know, with all the rules and regulations that we have on us, you can’t support a crew and their families on 30 pounds of cod a day. You know, it’s ridiculous. We’re throwing hundreds of thousands of pounds overboard daily in New England, dead. We can’t bring ‘em in, it’s just. . . it’s a shame, it’s a sin against God. What’s wrong with putting a law in, like an overage. You know, give us an allotment, give us something that we can live on and if we catch more why throw it overboard dead? Let’s bring it in. Don’t let the fishermen get paid for it, let them get maybe a couple cents a pound, enough to put into a fund to help fund ourselves through. If we do that we start taking control over our fisheries, start funding ourselves, then we can put grants to ourselves for gear technology because nobody is helping us.

Would you want your kids to get into fishing? Is there a future in it?

Yes. Definitely. I see a big future in fishing if we all clean up our acts because the ocean is changing dramatically. We see things out here that we never saw before. It wasn’t the fisherman that brought these things. Look at the area. Down in Plymouth Sound. Did the fisherman do that, no, that’s all hog farms and things like that. We all gotta clean up our act. The ocean is changing, the water temperature is changing and there’s global warming. You know, all these things affect the ocean. Airborne pollutants.

Something we read in all the literature is the idea of too many boats fishing after too few fish. What do you think about that idea?

I can’t speak for other ports because I’ve never been out in the West Coast or anything like that, but you know some of these boats steam to Georges. It takes them 18 hours to get there, they’re steaming all that way, they don’t even see a boat. I brought two boats home from Nova Scotia. I never seen a boat until I got close to shore. There’s hardly any boats left here. So I don’t buy that in New England that there’s too many boats.

What is your take on ITQ’s (Individual Transfer Quotas)?

That individual transferable quotas is a way to destroy family fishing and destroy seaports up and down the coast, that’s all that does. It consolidates the fisheries into a few hands, then those few hands could sell it to a multi-national corporation. It could happen, it has happened in many places where the fishermen don’t even own the fish that’s outside their front door any longer. It privatizes the ocean. And they always use the story of the tragedy on the Commons — that’s always brought up. The true tragedy on the Commons was when they kicked the peasants off the land that managed it for thousands of years and the wealthy landowners brought sheep in — that was the tragedy of the Commons but nobody hears that. That’s when they privatized it, that’s when it went down the hill.

How do we save the fisheries?

Well, gear technology again is a way to save the fisheries and to regulate it from now on, I believe. As I said before, put the fishermen in the room together, we’d all finger-point, let’s admit what the dirty practices are and let’s come up with better and sustainable and ecologically friendly ways to fish. I was involved some years ago in a grant to market cape shot, dog fish. We hook-caught these fish. One of the first things I noticed there was 60 to 70 percent of the fish that we caught were . . the jaws were broken because the fishermen didn’t take the time to unhook ‘em. They bust the jaws off through these two rollers, we call ‘em crucifiers, because they’re too small for the market.

A lot of the problems the market dictates to us, too. You know, they want fish this big or they want this color or that color. Well, you know, you can’t put a little sign on the hook "Sorry, Charlie", you’re the wrong size, you’re the wrong color. You’re going to get . . . by-catching things that you can’t bring in." So I thought to myself why not put a little spring in the middle of that hook that will flop down at so many pounds per square inch, that won’t break a jaw. Little things like this could help us if we can get this kind of dialogue going between fishermen. We gotta take back our fisheries.

You’re going to rip a lip, but that’s going to heal. But I’m not a hook fisherman. But I came up with that idea. You know, a hook fisherman might come up with a better way to drag, I don’t know, let’s get it done.

The hook fishermen in Chatham want to include on the packaging of their product that the fish was caught in Cape Cod by hook fishermen. They are appealing to the conscious consumers. Does that idea appeal to you?

It does and it doesn’t. It appeals to me in one sense. I think that’s a very good idea. We tried to do the same thing with the cape shad. But on the other hand, those guys are below the line where they can catch the fish, we’re the ones that. We can’t catch ‘em. That’s not quite fair I don’t think. I don’t think the fish know there’s a border, or there’s a certain line that they have to turn around.

It’s just like Nova Scotia. They have some laws that are better than us, and we have some laws that are better than they do, but, it’s one eco-system. We should have the same laws for everybody.

It seems that certain industry interests have dominated these regional councils. How do you deal with that? How do you fix that?

That’s a tough one. That’s really a tough one. The only way I can think of fixing it is disregard the council, do an end-run. The fisherman gotta get together, but it’s hard to do because when certain user groups are getting what they want and the other guys aren’t, they don’t care. So if we can get all the small boat fishermen, because that’s what’s really getting pounded now is the small family fishermen are getting pounded. If we can all get together and bypass the council, I think we might have something.

I think we need a huge public awareness campaign of what’s happening to us. I was just out to the Culinary Institute of New York, I asked them about cod. Everybody in the audience said oh, you’re a fisherman? Too bad, there’s no cod out there, you must be starving. When I tell them I’m falling over thousands of pounds a day like every other fisherman up here they’re shocked, they can’t believe it. But this is what they hear, this is what they see in print, this is what they hear on TV. We need to get our word out there.