“There are very few groundfish boats left,” says longtime groundfisherman Mark Phillips, captain and owner of the New York-based Illusion. “New Bedford [Mass.] has about 30 boats, and that number includes guys like me — guys who aren’t groundfishing nearly as much as we used to.”
Phillips says groundfishing has simply become too expensive. “I’ve only made two trips this year. The cost of making a trip isn’t worth it. I’m mostly targeting squid right now.”
The trouble stems from high lease prices for certain species of groundfish like gray sole, dabs and cod. None of the vessels in the New England fleet have enough allocation — even ones with great catch history — so they have to lease fish to go fishing.
“Often the lease price is higher than the market price,” says Newburyport, Mass., fisherman Jim Ford. “How we change this, I don’t know, but it’s a huge problem. But I don’t think the solution is permit banks.”
Lease pricing can fluctuate depending on area and availability, but recently the average Gulf of Maine cod lease price goes for $2.75 and up; Georges Bank cod is lower, around $2.25. Ex-vessel prices for codfish have averaged around $2.25 per pound. Dabs have been equally tight with lease prices around $1.75 per pound and ex-vessel prices at $1.40.
These days fishermen are being forced to diversify and look to other species to fill the gap.
“You have to find ways to offset the lease prices,” says Ford. “You have to target species other than cod, gray sole and dabs. But that isn’t as easy as it sounds.”
Some fishermen say the rise of hake and pollock prices has helped and that some haddock boats, especially those outfitted with onboard gutting machines, have been making profitable trips.
“We need the quotas to come up,” says Cape Cod gillnetter Mike Russo. “I’m seeing the fish — good sets of codfish all over the place — and they are really showing in the deep water. This isn’t a market problem, this is a science and management problem.”