Jason Joyce jumps back into groundfishing

Reprinted with permission from VillageSoup/The Bar Harbor Times in the MLA newsletter, July, 2010.

Jason Joyce will groundfish again under a permit held by a local non-profit organization.

The opening of the 2010 groundfishing season on May 1 was a historic moment for the fleet and a breath of fresh air for at least one fisherman. It has been more than 15 years since groundfish have been caught and landed in commercial numbers in the eastern Gulf of Maine. But on May 1, the Northeast Coastal Communities Sector started operation as sector member, Jason Joyce, a Swans Island fisherman, headed out to harvest groundfish. The Northeast Coastal Communities Sector was formed by the Stonington-based Penobscot East Resource Center, which also started a permit bank in the summer of 2009.

Joyce is an eighth-generation fisherman on Swans. He’s a full-time lobster fisherman, he used to harvest urchins when the fishery was still good, and has taken out scallop divers on occasion. But groundfishing was also an important part of the family’s livelihood. Hid dad used to do a lot of tub-trawling, but lost his groundfish permit in 1991 when he didn’t fish that year.

Joyce bought a groundfishing permit in 1998 for $10,000, but has been unable to use it since 2001, when he lost all his days-at-sea. Still, he said, he did what was required to keep the permit. “I kept up the paperwork for the past 12 years, and I wasn’t able to use that permit for one day,” he said.

When representatives of the Penobscot East Resource Center came around a few years ago to talk about the possibility of forming a sector, he said he was all for it. Eventually, Penobscot East Resource Center also began working with the Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, which had initially formed the Martha’s Vineyard Community Sector to establish a broader sector constituency, which was named the Northeast Coastal Communities Sector. The sector now has 19 members for the 2010 fishing year.

“I know a lot of people in the groundfish industry full-time who feel they don’t like sectors,” Joyce said. “But in my case, coming from a small-boat community that traditionally fished groundfish seasonally, this is my only opportunity to fish.” All but one vessel in the Northeast Coastal Communities Sector uses longline, tub trawl, or pots/traps gear. One vessel, from Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., will be allowed to use an otter trawl with 6.5-inch mesh or larger. Tub trawl and longline hooks must meet a minimum size restriction. Handline hooks have no minimum size. Participating vessels will fish in the Gulf of Maine, George’s Bank and Southern New England.

The hook gear really gets back to traditional fishing, said Joyce. It’s more labor-intensive, he said, but it’s more selective, more likely to allow fishermen to return discards back to the ocean alive, unlikely to take small fish, and better for the bottom than drags.

The Penobscot East Resource Center is a nonprofit organization established in 2003 to help secure a future for the fishing communities of eastern Maine. The center builds alliances among fishermen and community members, fosters community-based science projects, and works to strengthen and diversify marine economies. “This is a really important project for the future of the groundfish fishery here,” said Penobscot East Resource Center Director Robin Alden. “Even this small start has taken getting past almost insurmountable obstacles. Without the permit bank, the sentinel fishery would not be possible. Without the sentinel fishery research, we couldn’t find out what’s happened to the fish. On top of that, we are restarting the shoreside infrastructure — ice, offloading, and marketing.  The door is no longer closed on groundfishing in eastern Maine.”

Until now, according to information from the center, there were several obstacles to groundfishing in the Down East region – no fish to catch, no fishermen with existing federal permits, which meant no legal access, and no data about the status of the groundfish stock and its prospects. The sector program is expected to be the first step toward restarting downeast Maine’s once-abundant and historic local fishery, the center said. There is enough quota on the permits of the sector’s members to support 30 days of fishing during May and June. According to information from the center, the goal for now is to gather information about the condition of stock – where the fish are, what size and what kinds – in the eastern Gulf of Maine. Joyce will be fishing between Matinicus and Schoodic ridges, an area of several hundred square miles.

The sector — one of four in Maine, 10 in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire, and one in Rhode Island — is managed by the center’s Downeast Groundfish Initiative Director Aaron Dority. Like all the sector managers, Dority’s job is to manage the day-to-day business, according to information from the National Marine Fisheries Service. He will calculate and inform each vessel owner of their annual allocation of the sector’s annual catch entitlement for each stock for the year, oversee compliance with the sector’s operations and harvest plan, administer monitoring programs for both catch and discards by stock and location for each vessel and the aggregate of vessels, report calculations weekly to the National Marine Fisheries Service, track any trade of allocation among sector members and between sectors, and provide enforcement.

Each sector member has agreed to immediately report their landings and discards. The sector will participate in the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program, a program of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., and the NMFS-funded at-sea monitoring programs. For the Northeast Coastal Communities Sector, according to the Penobscot East Resource Center, the information is essential for designing a sustainable rebirth of the fishery and the prospect of once again having a part-time supplement to lobstering. The multi-year research project is shared with the Department of Marine Resources, eastern Maine fishermen, and the University of Maine, which is responsible for the research design.

All together throughout the northeast, according to NMFS, about 1,500 vessels and 600 seafood dealers are affected by the new sector management rules. The vast majority of active, full-time groundfishing vessels, as well as many part-time vessels, have enrolled in 17 sectors and represent 98 percent of New England’s historic groundfish catches. In all, the federal government has committed $47.1 million to get the new management underway and to support the industry for the first year. This includes direct grants to sectors to cover planning and organizational costs, training support, covering monitoring costs both dock-side and at sea, developing new technologies to ease monitoring and reporting tasks, and cooperative research to improve gear and fishing methods so that more of the available catch can be landed.

Joyce, onboard his lobsterboat Andanamra, said he is currently targeting cod and hake. When July rolls around, he’ll return to lobstering, but may still go out once a week to set a tub trawl. A traditional tub trawl was a line up to perhaps a mile long that was set with hundreds of hooks along its length and set and hauled by hand; it was coiled in a wooden tub when not in use. Joyce is using a shorter line with 250 hooks. “It’s a change of pace from lobstering,” he said.

The Penobscot East Resource Center is facilitating the sale of the fish directly to local customers through a community-supported fishery called “Community Fish.”
Community Fish subscribers commit to buying a weekly supply of whole fish for $120. Each week, customers receive assorted fish averaging 5 pounds (2 pounds after filleting). Pick up points are at the Stonington Lobster Co-op 2, 4-5 p.m. on Fridays; Blue Hill Congregational Church, 6-7 p.m. on Fridays; The Maine Grind in Ellsworth, 9-10 a.m. on Saturdays; and at Sassafras Catering in Town Hill, 11 a.m.-noon on Saturdays.