ELLSWORTH — When John Bullard came to Ellsworth last Thursday, he had had been the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service’s Northeast regional administrator for just three weeks and four days. During that brief period, he told some two dozen fishermen and other interested parties who came to him at Ellsworth City Hall that he’d been on the road attending similar “listening sessions” with fishermen in harbors from New Jersey to Portland and spent just three days in his new Fisheries Service office in Gloucester.
“Nobody knows me there,” Bullard said.
If last week’s meeting was any indicator, that won’t be the case for long.
Before taking comments from his audience, Bullard made it clear that he shares the view of most of the Maine fishing industry that it faces a crisis and that finding a solution may be more complex than ever before.
The problem facing New England’s fisheries — and the regulators at NOAA and the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) who try to manage them — could be summed up as too many fishermen wanting to catch too few fish, primarily cod but other species as well. Why the fish are in short supply and how to ensure that access to those fish is fairly allocated among the region’s fishermen are the among the key issues that Bullard said he hopes to address in his new job.
“This is worse than the ’90s,” when many New England fishermen left the industry through a federally financed vessel buyout plan, Bullard said.
“Then the problem was one-dimensional — overfishing. Now there is a higher degree of difficulty than we’re used to dealing with.”
That difficulty is the result, at least in part, of the impacts of changes in the ocean that fishermen in the room spoke about.
James “Howdy” Houghton, a Bar Harbor lobsterman, said the bottom temperature of the water around that Frenchman Bay harbor had been “45 degrees forever,” but has increased significantly over the past few years. Five years ago, he said, the temperature had risen to 50 degrees.
“Now it’s up to 60. We’re seeing all kinds of squid around we never see.”
Dana Rice, a Bunker’s Harbor lobster dealer and a former longtime NEFMC member, also is seeing changes in the kinds of fish present in the Gulf of Maine.
“Things have come back we haven’t seen for years,” he told Bullard.
One thing that hasn’t come back is the stock of cod and other groundfish that were once plentiful in Downeast waters.
“It’s a very depleted suite of fisheries we have here,” Ted Ames, co-founder of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, told Bullard.
The absence of groundfish in the eastern Gulf of Maine has driven most Downeast fishermen to become harvesters of just one species — lobster.
“East of Penobscot Bay, there’s no diversity at all,” a Tenant’s Harbor fisherman told Bullard.