PORTSMOUTH — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, was at the commercial fishing pier on Thursday to hear about the many challenges the local fishing industry faces, how Congress can help, and what the fishermen are doing to try and save themselves.
Josh Weirsma is the manager for the two New Hampshire commercial fishing sectors established under the reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act in 2007. Sectors were created to try and deal with new regulations around annual catch limits and accountability measures, but advocates say the two-year-old system has resulted in consolidation of fishing permits, has not helped stocks rebuild and has put many fishermen on shore instead of at sea.
Weirsma focused his comments on New Hampshire Community Seafood, a new community-supported fishery with about 250 members statewide that is working to help local fishermen stay afloat while introducing local consumers to a wide range of locally-caught seafood.
Members can buy in to receive weekly allotments of local fish and sign up to purchase stocks in the community supported fishery. Local fishermen also buy in to participate.
Weirsma said it has been a successful way for local fishermen to directly market to local consumers while receiving a higher price per pound than they would on the global market.
It is also helping to introduce consumers to lesser-known fish that are currently sustainable for New Hampshire’s small dayboat fleet to catch.
He used dogfish as an example, which plummeted on the global market recently with fishermen only able to get about 17-cents per pound. Through the CSF, fishermen are catching dogfish, processing it at sea and selling it for a higher price off the docks. Weirsma said he is currently paying his fishermen $1.50/pound for dogfish and filets are selling for as much as $10 per pound.
“With all of the issues facing our industry at this point, it is a small step in being able to highlight our industry to local residents and have them participate,” Weirsma said.
Weirsma said the more fishermen, and local consumers, can adapt the better it will be for local fishermen, and for rebuilding critical fish stocks.
Cuts to the total allowable catch in Gulf of Maine cod and haddock this year and next have devastated the New England fisheries and Shaheen said New Hampshire has been the hardest hit.
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she helped secure $150 million in federal disaster relief for coastal communities that have suffered severe economic loss as a result of the declining fish populations, but the appropriations bill still has to pass the House of Representatives.
A disaster declaration was issued for the New England fisheries in September, but a previous appropriation for financial relief did not pass the United States House.
Shaheen said House members who voted down the appropriation, citing a lack of need, “did not know what they were talking about.”
Erik Anderson, president of the New Hampshire Commercial Fishermen’s Association said time is not on the side of the industry, and it needs immediate relief.
Help cannot come soon enough for some fishermen. Marc Stettner, a handgear fisherman from Portsmouth, said he has been grounded since July 16 when the common pool he belongs to met its haddock quota.
“Now I can’t fish for any ground fish at all,” Stettner said, adding that he wonders how he is going to pay the bills.
Fishermen said Magnuson needs to be tweaked to allow more flexibility in management and fishing opportunities.
The federal fisheries management act is up for reauthorization. A Senate subcommittee held the first of three hearings two weeks ago.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, is a member of that committee and voiced her support for the New Hampshire fisheries and the need for better science related to stock assessments.