Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Don't Tread on Me

History informs us that the above inscription appearing in 1775 on a Navy ensign was a symbol of resistance to British repressive acts. Our present day fleet of remaining inshore day boat owners should adapt a modern-day version of a similar flag to fly in the face of NMFS bureaucrats.

Gloucester’s fishermen are currently being subjected to NMFS law enforcement strong arm tactics reminiscent of Nazi Germany Gestapo-style intimidation in the ‘20s and ‘30s. This locally based NMFS service is out of control! They see themselves as being above the law!

Forty-five years ago, full of energy, enthusiasm and bent on a NMFS career with the Fish and Wildlife Service, I reported for work in the statistical office of the Fish and Wildlife Service on Elm St. in downtown Gloucester. At the time, the NMFS Fish and Wildlife Service was my chosen career path. I believed I could contribute to the agency, and in doing so, improve the local fisheries, thereby insuring our fishermen’s economic future for decades to come. I saw this employment as a chance to make my mark and truly be a factor in helping the industry. Within three days I realized that what I had dreamed about, meaningful work resulting in a better industry, was really a pretense!

Once seated at my desk, reality set in. I had a feeling of emptiness, disappointment, almost despair. After only a few days I knew a terrible mistake had been made in accepting this port agent job with the National Marine Fisheries. To me, the office was a haven for “lay-abouts”, inventing mundane projects, passing the time of day by reading brown paper-covered novels, and following the stock market. The boss took his daily afternoon nap, face down on his desk!

The average citizen working in the private sector, often sees federal government civil service as being somewhat of a lofty career. At least that was my impression as a young man back in the ‘60s. The truth was, data gathering at the Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s was anything but reliable! Inaccurate statistics were often reported by disinterested skippers. Vessel landings were frequently erroneous, often based on guesstimates. The whole process seemed flawed and a sham. It was wishful thinking on my part; the job was a pipe dream. Six months later I resigned. How anyone could endure a 30-year career of those non-productive shenanigans is beyond me! No wonder Dick Marchant, my mentor, was so anxious to get out the door!

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Research Vessel Delaware

Years later, my friend “Lew” Knickle, chief engineer on the agency’s research vessel, R/V Delaware, stationed in Gloucester, would reminisce with the Delaware’s fishing skipper and friend, Bill Murphy. They talked about the research cruises they and the government scientists had sailed on. At sea, the agency’s scientists directed the vessel’s operation and overall mission. Capt. Murphy; chief engineer, Knickle; cook, Bert Cluett, and fishermen deckhands were only along for the ride. The professional fishermen welcomed the often bad weather-imposed vacations on every cruise. It was always interesting and sometimes comical when the weather picked up; a breeze over 20 mph brought the command from the scientists to seek a sheltered nearby port! The professional fishermen readily complied. On a swordfish research excursion, the Delaware scientists and crew took liberty in Portugal. As “Lew” Knickle would relate, it was always fair weather sailing with the scientists on the R/V Delaware.

All that was decades ago. The law enforcement branch of the Fish & Wildlife service, located in the old Gloucester National Bank building, was just getting up to speed. These Fish &Wildlife law enforcement agents initially were recruited from the ranks of experienced fishermen in the fleet. At sea, these newly trained and armed enforcement agents would board vessels of former fellow fishermen, enforcing agency rules and regulations. This was the beginning of the strong-armed tactics we live with today. As I see it, the NMFS in my lifetime, starting in the 1940s, primarily serves itself. The fishing industry is secondary.

NOAA New Headquarters, Gloucester

In the 1960s and early 1970s the government subsidized the fishermen, encouraged vessel investments, and found ways to pump money into vessel construction. The vessels St. Nicholas, Andromeda, and St. Anthony are a few examples. Later, the government encouraged just the opposite with vessel buyouts. Today, in order to reduce the fleet, the NMFS is now relying on fine-tuned narrow interpretations of laws, changing rules, and levying exorbitant fines on our working fishermen.

I don’t rely on scientific data published by the NMFS, when I can talk to the real fishermen at Lee’s Restaurant on any given morning. They tell me the codfish and haddock are eating the keel out of the boat! The whole fishing business has been regulated down to a joke: only the joke is on the little guy, bent over in the scuppers.

The fishermen’s real friend, as I see it, is the "Gloucester Daily Times". The waterfront in its heyday, always had an ally in the local newspaper, but in this era of small fleet day boats and industry downsizing the Times has stepped up continually to champion the cause of our remaining fishermen. The Times in depth frequent reporting of the goings on with the NMFS is the fishermen’s only hope! Persistent, factual, “in your face” reporting by Richard Gaines has produced results—bureaucrats/politicians do respond to publicity. It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Newly confirmed director, Lubchenco, may have the support of the Pew Foundation and our local gal, Kurkul, can defend the Interim Rule all she wants, but the heat is on these bureaucrats, and they know it. That’s why NOAA fisheries administrator Dr. Balsiger is so willing to listen and encourage dialog. Balsiger can massage the press all he wants; he can write letters to the media, he can have conference calls and meetings with the Times and extend the olive branch - he has to!

Here’s my bottom line common sense advice for the NMFS: “cut out the nonsense, drop the charges against the auction, get off Billie Lee’s back, forget the Interim Rule, and let the boys go fishing.” The cod and haddock are eating the keel out of the boat!

Ron Gilson

1 comment:

  1. So it would seem like NMFS was doing nothing in the '60's and '70's when the technology was advancing and overfishing became a problem. Now, many are arguing that the regulations are too strict and at times misguided (in reaction to the mistakes of the past). I hope that there is a way that we can "let the boys go fishing" and keep the fish around so that future generations can do the same.