NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Like the 19th century whalers who lived and labored here before them, scallopers say they fear they may become the next fallen icons of New England, remembered only in museums, books and the tall barroom tales of fishermen.
Dwindling stocks of sea scallops, foreign competition and increased enforcement of federal fishing regulations have turned their once-pleasant trade into an ordeal that threatens their way of life, say the men and women who work the seas.
Situated on Buzzard’s Bay, New Bedford and the neighboring town of Fairhaven share a port that brings in a $200 million catch each year, the largest in the nation. Memorialized by Herman Melville as a whaling port in “Moby Dick,” the Buzzard Bay area has long attracted fishing families from Portugal and Norway.
An estimated 300 vessels, 120 of them scallopers, compose the commercial fishing fleet, which in large part fuels the economy of the poor, working-class community of New Bedford. Unemployment there was 15.2 percent in February, compared with 7.7 percent nationally.
Tensions soared last month when federal agents raided 22 scalloping vessels in the Port of New Bedford, seizing $126,220 worth of scallops. The agents, armed and wearing bulletproof vests, charged six boat owners with catching undersized, or baby, scallops and a seventh with unloading a catch outside the 5 a.m.-to-5 p.m. “window” set by federal officials.
Scallopers, their families and many others in this closely intertwined community of about 116,000 said they were outraged by what they considered overzealous enforcement of rules they say are complex and leave scant room for error in judging the maturity of scallops. Fines for such violations can be as much as $100,000.
“We’re not drug runners; we’re not murderers; we’re not rapists,” said Bobby Bruno, a 52-year-old scalloper who started as a deckhand 33 years ago and now owns the Alpha & Omega II, a 96-foot scalloping ship. “We’re just fishermen, and we go out and we work hard so we can come home and be with our families and be happy.”
Federal agents acknowledged that tensions were high during the seizures, but they said that part of the tension had been caused by numerous death threats against agents and their families. A federal investigation of the threats is under way, said John McCarthy, special agent in charge of the Northeast region for the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the Commerce Department that regulates the fishing industry.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who inherited the New Bedford area in last year’s congressional redistricting, said of the fishermen: “They get hammered by huge fines. Some of these guys feel like they’re the last guys shot in the war before the truce. They’re not hurting anyone. They are guilty sometimes of working too hard.”
At issue are two government regulations that scallopers say have made them feel, and sometimes behave, like criminals, while forcing them to work harder for smaller catches.
One involves the Hague line, a boundary set by the World Court in 1984 to delineate the fishing waters of the United States and those of Canada. Fishing on the Canadian side of the line, patrolled by the Coast Guard and Canadian submarines, can bring penalties of up to $100,000, the forfeiture of boats and the loss of fishing permits.
In January, 12 boats, most of them scallopers, were cited by the Coast Guard for crossing the line. Eight of the catches were seized and sold, the proceeds held in an escrow account without interest pending appeals.
The second regulation is one devised by federal officials in 1982 to protect baby scallops and thus future stocks. The rule, known as the meat count, limits the number of small scallops in an average pound. A catch is considered in violation if a random count shows that a pound contains more than 36.3 scallop meats per pound.