Old fishermen worry about state of industry

BOSTON — Joe Sava's legs have absorbed the ocean's pitch and roll from the deck of a fishing boat for four decades. At age 75, the Gloucester fisherman says just trying to stay upright at sea can wear him down.

"It takes a toll," Sava says. "The younger guys can do it."

Trouble is, he and other fishing boat captains say, not many younger guys are working New England waters these days.

Fishermen say that because of years of onerous regulations and the rising, six-figure cost of permits, fewer and fewer young people are becoming boat captains. That's left lots of old salts like Sava doing the grueling job out of both love and necessity.

And they worry about their own safety and the future of an industry that has been vital to New England's economy and its very character since colonial days.

"The door is slamming shut," Sava says.

The National Marine Fisheries Service does not keep statistics on fishermen's ages, but state figures back up the sea captains' observations. Since 2000, the median age of Massachusetts holders of commercial fishing permits — that is, boat owners and owner-captains — has climbed from 46 to nearly 51, according to the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

Pat Kurkul, the Northeast regional administrator for the fisheries service, said she believes that the industry is still a draw to young people and that the current rebuilding plan will ensure the industry is attractive to newcomers for years to come.

"We anticipate that rebuilt fish stocks will be able to generate three times the current catch, providing plenty of economic incentive for new fishermen to get into the fishery," she said.

Over the past decade, regulators trying to stop overfishing have imposed ever-tighter rules that have left as few as 24 fishing days this year for fishermen who catch cod, haddock, flounder and other so-called groundfish. The fishing fleet in the Northeast has shrunk as result, falling to just under 600 working groundfish boats in 2007 from about 1,100 in 2001.

Meanwhile, Northeast groundfish revenue dropped from about $71 million in 2004 to about $62 million in 2008, and the catch fell from about 77 million pounds to 66 million pounds.

As the chance to fish has also become more expensive. Government-issued fishing permits that were bought and sold among fishermen for a few thousand dollars in the mid-1990s go for at least $200,000 nowadays.