Rough Seas – Rhode Island’s Fishing Industry – Third of Five Days – Fighting for the Right to Fish
By Paul Davis; Journal Staff Writer
Before he was old enough to drive, Andrew Cavanagh fished. As a boy, he held a flashlight on a dock at Sakonnet Point while his father, a lobsterman, tinkered with an oily engine. When he turned 15, he borrowed $8,500 from his mother and sister to buy a motor and gear for his 22-foot skiff.
He knew fishing wouldn’t be easy. For 30 years his father, Robert, had shouldered raw gales and rough seas to catch lobsters along the jagged floor of the continental drift, some 40 miles from their Little Compton home.
But he never figured the state would make it impossible for him to make a living at it.
“The state has shut me down,” says Cavanagh, one of more than 200 fishermen pushed out of the lobster business by a state lobster conservation plan. Approved in January, the plan limits him to only 21 traps, a fraction of the 350 pots he owns and used a year ago. The 18-year-old, who is dyslexic, had hoped to turn his part-time lobster business and interest in science into a senior project, now required for graduation from Portsmouth High School.
Instead, he’s taken a crash course in the law. In June, he joined the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance and seven other fishermen in a suit against the state Department of Environmental Management and its director, W. Michael Sullivan.
State and federal regulators say they must restrict lobster fishing in a stretch of state and federal ocean off the shores of Rhode Island and Massachusetts known simply as Area 2. But Cavanagh and other fishermen say the plan to rebuild lobster stocks is ruining their livelihoods.
“Instead of putting money in the bank, I invested in more traps and a bigger boat,” says Cavanagh, who built his first boat with his dad and brother. Now, his lobster pots sit idle on the lawn of his parents’ house on Long Highway. He says he can’t catch enough lobster with just 21 traps to cover his expenses.
Other fishermen are in worse shape.
Two months ago, Terrence Mulvey scrambled to come up with enough money to stop a tax sale of his house and farm in Richmond.
When the lobster population began to decline in 2000 after reaching a peak of more than 8 million pounds the year before, Mulvey caught monkfish, a species hunted by a handful of Point Judith fishermen. But the state this year reduced the monkfish quota to 50 pounds a day, all but putting him out of business. Yet, he couldn’t switch back to lobstering because of the new regulations.
Mulvey has had several run-ins with authorities. In 2004 federal enforcers fined Mulvey $380,000 for exceeding his daily monkfish landing limit several times and for failing to supply accurate logs of his fishing activities. In negotiations with federal agents, Mulvey agreed to sell his boat and federal fishing license and give the proceeds of $152,000 to the government.
“Once, if you worked hard, you did well. Nowadays, if you work hard, you’re a criminal,” says Mulvey. “I was breaking the law and I made restitution,” he says.
Mulvey says he’s now driving a truck to make ends meet. The divorced father is struggling to make truck and house payments and help his son go to college. “I’m frustrated a lot of days,” he says.
SINCE JUNE, the newly formed Fishermen’s Alliance has been trying to challenge the state regulations in court, but the arguments on the merits are stalled until U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi determines whether the complaint belongs in state or federal court.
A lawyer for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission says the issue is a federal one because Rhode Island regulations embrace federal recommendations for protecting the lobster supply. A lawyer for the Fishermen’s Alliance says the issue belongs in a state court because the new regulations violate both the state’s original charter and its Constitution, in effect, by turning state waters into private property. Besides, he argues, the state could have developed its own approach for saving lobsters – it didn’t have to follow the commission’s plan.
Fishermen and scientists blame the sharp decline in lobsters in New England waters in the last decade on everything from the l996 North Cape oil spill and pollution to rampant shell disease and warming waters.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees regulatory issues involving lobsters and other species, declared the decline an emergency in 2002. It is time to protect the lobsters in the Area 2 waters, the commission agreed. Commissioners looked at several approaches, eventually deciding on one that allocates the number of traps according to how much actual lobster fishing an individual did between 2001 and 2003.
After conferring with local lobstermen, the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council recommended the history-based allocation plan to the DEM. In January, Sullivan, who heads the department, approved the plan, which sets the maximum number of traps for any lobsterman at 800.
About 450 Rhode Island fishermen with state fishing licenses sought trap permits. Of those, roughly half got allocations ranging “from 1 to 800 traps,” says Thomas Angell, a DEM lobster biologist. The total number of pots allocated was 42,700.
The other half got nothing, because they had done no lobster fishing during the critical 2001-2003 period.
Another 129 fishermen with licenses to catch lobsters in federal waters (more than 3 miles from shore) got permission to use a total of 84,200 traps.
According to Robert J. Caron, a lawyer for the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, the state could have considered other plans, such as closing fishing grounds or limiting catches, that would have been fairer. Because the DEM plan limits use of Rhode Island’s waters, it’s unconstitutional, he says. “We’re the only state in the union that guarantees equal access by all, and not to a select few.” Just as unfair, says Caron, is a provision that allows fishermen to sell their lobster pot permits to others. That could create what he calls “a monopoly for fishermen and companies with deep pockets.”
Sean H. Donahue, a lawyer for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, counters that the fishermen’s group never proposed an alternative conservation approach. Besides, he adds, individual state plans would make it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a regional approach for rebuilding the lobster population in New England waters. “The strong hope is there will be a uniform set of rules,” Donahue told Judge Lisi in August. “If not, there is a potential for jurisdiction chaos.”
FISHERMAN BRIAN Loftes, a captain and a plaintiff in the suit against the state, took Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy on a fishing trip this summer so he could present the fishermen’s case directly to the congressman.
Loftes stopped fishing in federal waters when the restrictions became onerous. He sold his big boat, bought a smaller one and started fishing closer to home. But this year, the state cut back on the amount of codfish and monkfish he can catch.
“I thought DEM was supposed to help the fishermen,” Loftes told Kennedy. “Instead, they’re doing everything they can to hurt us. They just keep shutting you out of this and this and this. It’s a snowball going downhill.”
Richard Fuka, president of the Fishermen’s Alliance, and Vincent Carvalho, a fisherman also named in the suit against the state, joined Loftes and Kennedy aboard the Damariscotta, a ship named after an Indian word that means, roughly, “gathering place for many fish.”
Under the state’s plan, Carvalho received no lobster traps because he worked as a deck hand, not a captain, between 2001 and 2003, the period that the state used to determine who would get traps. “Instead of providing maximum opportunity to fish and empowering fishermen, the administration is looking at disenfranchisement and privatization of the ocean – exactly the opposite of what we should be doing,” says Carvalho. “This is about ending open access to the water and destroying fishing communities. We need to maximize the opportunity for young people to get into this business, not make it more difficult for them.”
The trip was an eye-opener for Kennedy, who donned gloves and helped sort fish in the stern. Fishermen can’t make good business decisions if the state changes its conservation rules “in the middle of the game,” he says. “Every time fishermen turn around it seems as if they’re getting squeezed. And they’re going out of business.”
Ever-tightening regulations fail to address the larger issue, he adds. “It’s not just an industry that’s being hurt, but a way of life that has existed for generations. A whole culture is disappearing. By focusing on quotas and net sizes and days at sea, we’re missing the larger picture. Part of the fabric of New England and Rhode Island is disappearing.”
THE NEW RULES are pitting lobsterman against lobsterman.
The Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association supports the DEM rules, claiming a reversal of the regulations would likely reduce their trap allocations and hurt them financially.
Michael L. Marchetti, former president of the lobstermen’s group, says he and other lobstermen looked at several plans before recommending the one based on who did the most fishing during the 2001-2003 period. No one wanted to push anyone out of the lobster business, he says.
“We had to consider the rules of other states and federal laws as well,” says Marchetti. Rhode Island was lagging behind other states. If state officials didn’t come up with a plan, federal regulators were prepared to reduce the local fishing effort by more than 70 percent, he says. “It wasn’t going to be pretty.”
The goal of the state plan is to rebuild lobster stocks at least to a level higher than the situation in 2003, when landings were at a 15-year low. Members of the Fishermen’s Alliance say the new rules reward fishermen who caught lobsters at a time when the stock was struggling to rebound. They say they are the true conservationists because they fished for other species during that period.
Lobstermen like Marchetti disagree.
“Anybody who tells you they stopped fishing for lobsters to preserve the stock is a bold-faced liar,” says Marchetti. “They went someplace else because they couldn’t make any money. I chose to grind it out. Some of those same guys suing the state laughed at me as I headed out,” says Marchetti, who got permits to use 800 pots on one boat and 500 on the other. “You make your bed and you lie in it,” he says.
Lobsterman Russ Wallis agrees. He burned through $150,000, his retirement money, when he stuck with lobster fishing during the bad times. “I’ve got to fish another 10 years,” he says.
Wallis, president of yet another group, the Ocean State Fishermen’s Association, says he spent years trying to unify the fishing community through cookouts, golf outings and a fund to help fishing families. Since the new lobster regulations, he says, the group has done nothing and volunteers are hard to find. “We’ve lost a lot of friendships,” he says. “The attitudes around the docks have changed.”
Even those with adequate lobster traps aren’t having an easy time of it, says the 41-year-old Marchetti, who started fishing more than 20 years ago. The lobster stock is coming back, and “this year I’m paying my bills and catching up on some old ones. But I’m on pins and needles, just like everybody else.”
SOME 100 FISHERMEN appealed their allocations. About a third of them have won more traps because they were either ill or in the military during the qualifying years.
The much younger Cavanagh also appealed, drawing support from teachers and an assistant principal at Portsmouth High.
“By denying Andrew lobster permits you are ruining his senior project, squashing his career ambitions and increasing the likelihood that he will drop out of school,” wrote teachers Christine Lawrence and Lisa Murphy. “Andrew is exactly the type of lobsterman our state needs. He is more likely to follow DEM guidelines because he has studied why they are in place. Lobstering is Andrew Cavanagh’s dream and his best chance at success. Please don’t take that away from him.”
Cavanagh’s sister, Alison, an engineering student at Norwich University, also wrote to the DEM.
“I helped to finance his skiff and his traps, knowing that he would probably never be able to go to college because of his disability. I expected that he could make a decent living lobstering,” wrote Alison. Andrew pointed out that the rule based on an individual’s fishing history doesn’t make sense. In 2001, he says, he was only 11 years old.
The DEM was not moved. The appeal was denied.
Cavanagh does have one potential option. Since the state is no longer issuing permits, fishermen who want to catch more lobsters can buy trap permits from other lobstermen, if they can find someone who wants out. There’s no fixed price for a permit; the cost, say fishermen, will probably be steep. Also, each time an allocation permit is sold, 10 percent of the traps will be retired permanently as part of the ongoing conservation effort.
That sale of permits, however, is on hold until the complaint against the state is settled.
Meanwhile, Cavanagh isn’t doing much fishing.
His senior project now involves cutting and hauling firewood.
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The Providence Journal / John Freidah
Fishermen and their families gather at Superior Court in Providence. Their newly formed group, the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, is fighting the state Department of Environmental Management over a conservation plan that severely restricts the number of lobster traps. About 450 Rhode Island fishermen requested trap permits this year and roughly half got allocations. In some cases, fishermen were allowed far fewer traps than they had in the past.
Andrew launches his dinghy in Sakonnet Harbor, where he moors his skiff. At age 15, he borrowed $8,500 from his mother and sister to buy a motor and gear for the craft.
Andrew Cavanagh, 18, has been fishing as long as he can remember. He had hoped to turn his part-time lobster business into a senior project, required for graduation from Portsmouth High School. But under a conservation plan implemented by the state Department of Environmental Management, he’s limited to 21 traps, a fraction of the 350 pots he owns.
Richard Fuka, president of the Fishermen’s Alliance, speaks with the group’s lawyer, Robert J. Caron, outside U.S. District Court in Providence in August. Caron argues that the state could have considered other plans – closing fishing grounds or limiting catches, for instance – that would better serve all fishermen.
Andrew Cavanagh, at left, returns in July from a gill-netting trip with his brother Sean, 21, at Sakonnet Point in Little Compton.
Chris Levasseur, left, and Lynne Taylor are among the fishermen and their families who gathered at Superior Court in Providence in June, where their new group, the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, is suing the DEM over the conservation plan. The case is stalled until U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi determines whether the complaint belongs in state or federal court.
The Cavanagh home in Little Compton.
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Four days aboard the Miss Trudy with Captain Craig Huntley and his crew, as they travel more than 200 miles from Point Judith to trawl for fish in Munson Canyon.
Commercial fishing last year was the most dangerous occupation in the United States. Since January, seven New England fishermen have lost their lives.
Rhode Island lobstermen are in court fighting a state regulation that they contend restricts their ability to make a living from the sea.
How fishermen overfished the ocean, and how the government, through complex and ever-changing regulations, alternately helped and hindered them.
At a time when others are bailing out of the industry, seeing no future in it, Newport’s Brent Bowen hopes to spend his life as a fisherman.
A timeless tradition.
The American dream.
Conflicting regulations. The most dangerous livelihood.
For four audio slideshows and other stories in this series, go to projo.com/rough_seas
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