That’s 100 pounds of fluke, roughly 33 individual fish, most of which were already dead.
It’s an unavoidable fact of the fluke fishery that every time you go out to fish, you have to throw some back. It comes with the territory.
State environmental regulations limit fishing trips by the pound, but it’s impossible to tell how much fish is in a net that’s underwater.
You can estimate based on what you caught the last time, Borges said, but the only way to know for sure is to bring the net up, suffocating or crushing the fish in the process.
Borges and New Bedford’s other fluke fishermen say there is a better way. They say if states could cooperate, fewer fish would be unnecessarily discarded.
Take Borges’ trip to federal waters on Wednesday, April 9. Fishing just south of Rhode Island, he plunged his net into the water and in a single tow brought up 1,600 pounds of fluke.
But the permit Borges has to sell the fluke in Rhode Island only lets him bring 1,500 pounds to shore. So to comply with the law, he threw 100 pounds back into the ocean before coming into Point Judith to sell his catch.
Borges has permits to sell fish in multiple states, including Rhode Island, Connecticut, Virginia and Massachusetts. Right now, he is only allowed to fish for one license at a time.
Borges said if the states would cooperate he could have kept that extra 100 pounds of fish and put it toward his Massachusetts landing license, which allows him to have 1,000 pounds of fluke. He would then come into Point Judith with 2,500 pounds of fish and unload his Rhode Island quota, before steaming up to New Bedford to unload the remaining 1,000 pounds in Massachusetts.
By being able to fish on multiple licenses per trip, Borges estimates he could halve the number of fish he discards while saving himself valuable time and money.
“It breaks my heart to throw them away,” said Borges, who has discarded up to 600 pounds of fish at once. “But I have to do it all the time. It’s the law.”
Those laws, though, are unlikely to change. Marine Fisheries officials in Rhode Island and Massachusetts say doing so would require multiple times more manpower than their offices have. They also worry inter-state cooperation could tempt fishermen to take advantage.
HOW IT WORKS
Borges, who wears a beard, black sweatpants and sweatshirt with black rubber boots aboard the Sao Paulo, has been fishing fluke since 1977. He also fishes groundfish, but increased restrictions on cod means he relies more and more on revenue from fluke, a flat fish also known as summer flounder.
Fluke, which can be found in federal waters anywhere off the East Coast between southern Massachusetts and North Carolina, has been considered a fully restored, healthy fishery since 2011 by state and federal regulators.
That’s thanks to regulations put in place in 1993 to limit the amount of fish caught and killed each year, according to Toni Kerns, spokeswoman for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The regulations create a federal fluke quota (this year’s is 11.4 million pounds), which is then divvied up among the mid-Atlantic states. Each state has a certain percentage of the yearly quota, depending on how much fluke their fishermen historically caught prior to 1993. Massachusetts’ quota is 6.8 percent, Rhode Island’s is nearly double that.
Based on their own quotas, the states then give licenses to fishermen with limits of how many pounds of fluke they can catch per trip. The limits restrict how much fluke can be brought into port and sold to dealers in each state.
What Borges and other fluke fishermen want is the ability to combine their Massachusetts and Rhode Island permits solely for the purposes of taking fewer trips out to federal waters 12 hours from shore. They say they don’t want to sell extra fish in either state. What they want is the ability to bring their boats into port while carrying both quotas, only unloading what each state allows.
“We are not looking for handouts,” New Bedford fisherman Carlos Rafael said. “We just want to be able to work and have a bottom line.”
A few years ago, fluke fishermen had enough with what they saw as nonsensical regulations and circulated a petition for Massachusetts and Rhode Island to cooperate on their fluke limits, multiple fishermen told The Standard-Times.
Nothing came of it.
Today, neither Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries nor Rhode Island’s Division of Environmental Management has any record of the petition.
Both states are extremely protective of their quotas.
Marine Fisheries officials in Rhode Island and Massachusetts told The Standard-Times that they worry allowing boats into port with extra fish meant for somewhere else would cause confusion. Officials worry that the extra fish would somehow end up counting against the quota of whichever state fishermen visit first, even if the surplus catch is later taken to the appropriate port.
In Rhode Island, for example, the state Legislature has passed a law reserving state landing licenses for Rhode Island residents and business owners.
Mark Gibson, of Rhode Island’s DEM said there are maybe a dozen out-of-state license holders who were grandfathered in when the law was passed, but that, “The view of our lawmakers is that the economic benefits ought to be reserved for Rhode Island residents and businesses.”
“Call it parochial or narrow minded, but that’s the view they took,” he said.
Rhode Island is so protective of its state quota that Gibson said when the state grants safe harbor to boats fishing on other states’ licenses officials do not let the boats unload their catch until a quota trade is put in place.
“If the boat is bound for North Carolina, we will not let them unload here until we secure a commitment from North Carolina that they will transfer some of their quota to our state,” he said. Though not unloading the fish in Rhode Island could mean hundreds of pounds of spoiled fish, Gibson said, “We would not allow them to do it until the state agrees to backfill our loss.”
Therefore, Gibson said he is more than skeptical of the idea that fishermen would come into Rhode Island’s Point Judith with fish meant for two states and only unload the amount meant for Rhode Island.
“We have an accounting question because quotas are assigned to the state and this would complicate that,” he said. “We don’t want fishermen to see the opportunity for hanky panky to happen if they are coming in here with multiple limits.”
Massachusetts officials, too, said they are skeptical that cooperation could work.
DMF Deputy Director David Pierce said his main concern is that any such agreement would have to be “done by the books.”
Pierce said his office is willing to sit down and discuss the issue with fluke fishermen, but that the real issue would be ensuring that everyone complies with the law.
“Many fishermen out there will do whatever they can above board, but there are others who might use it as a loophole to fish more if it’s not monitored right,” he said. “There could be abuse.”
Environmental Police Captain Patrick Moran said that manpower on the ground is an issue.
Standing in the New Bedford fish auction last week, he said his department is unable to check every fluke landing every time for lack of manpower.
“If an officer is in the area, he will come around and check the boat. It’s hit or miss,” he said. “If you don’t have an officer here, you don’t have a monitor.”
Moran acknowledged that, as a result, fluke fishermen could already be bringing in excess fish without being caught, but he worried that if the opportunity was greater, they would be more tempted.
“A lot of guys out there are struggling, so if the opportunity is there for them to sell extra, some – not all – are going to take it,” he said.
Still, Moran said he could sympathize with the fishermen, and would be willing to sit down to talk about the problem.
“I get where they are coming from,” he said. “I want to see these guys survive.”
Fish dealer David Stanley, vice president of vessel operations at Bergie’s Seafood Inc. in New Bedford said he was indifferent to whether boats bring more fish into port than they unload.
“As dealers we will buy the same 1,000 pounds no matter what,” he said. “We don’t want to buy extra because that would get us in trouble.”
He said he understood the fishermen’s gripe with the regulations, but noted that, “Some guys say it’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.”
He said it is not uncommon for fishermen to come into his dock just 10 or so pounds over the limit.
“Usually they are just trying to get as close to the limit as they can, but you can tell when they are trying to pull something over,” he said.
Fluke fishermen like Borges are aware of the stereotype many enforcement officials have of them.
If you ask Borges about his plan for Rhode Island and Massachusetts to cooperate, he will tell you multiple times that, “We are not trying to get away with anything.”
“If they want to come check me, fine,” he said. “I won’t have one fish over the limit.”
Rodney Avila, who owns two draggers, put it this way: “The law enforcement ain’t going to accept it. They automatically assume everyone is a cheat.”
It’s true that adopting a plan to combine state fishing licenses won’t only help save fish. It will save fluke fishermen from taking extra trips to federal waters, helping them conserve time and money.
But regulations putting financial strains on fishermen isn’t anything new, Borges said. What makes the state fluke regulations seem so “nonsensical” is that they are meant to save the fishery even as they cause more waste.
“We’re not asking for one more pound than we are entitled to,” explained Donald Fox, who manages six boats out of Point Judith, Rhode Island. “But I guess this solution makes too much sense to happen.”
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