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Common Ground in the Gulf of Maine


Fisheries Research in the Gulf of Maine

Watch a video to see this collaborative research with Gulf of Maine fishermen in action.

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Story Highlights
  • With your support, The Nature Conservancy is purchasing fishing permits and allowing fishermen to use those permits to find sustainable harvesting practices.
  • Fishermen like Vincent Balzano are finding that new nets are more efficient, economical and protect younger, smaller fish.
  • The strategy is common ground among fishermen and conservationists in the Gulf of Maine.
“My dad laughed at me when I was a little kid and asked: ‘What happens when we catch all the fish in the sea?’ ‘That’ll never happen,’ he said. ‘But if it does we’ll be in big trouble.’” — Vincent Balzano

By Kate Frazer

Vincent Balzano, a third generation fisherman, is getting the Northstar ready for a day at sea. In the wheelhouse, a prayer card and laminated snapshots of his two boys are tacked at the helm. Depending on the season, Balzano fishes out of Portland, Maine for monkfish, shrimp, whiting and menhaden, but this morning he’s seeking his mainstay—Atlantic cod.

The Nature Conservancy and Balzano both hold groundfish permits in the Port Clyde sector, which includes fishermen from across Maine. The Conservancy entered the fishery in 2009, purchasing a federal groundfish permit with the Island Institute.

The goal? Help depleted fish stocks rebound by working with fishermen to find and test new, more selective gear.

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Putting Research into Practice
Two years of data collected with fishermen and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute show that a net with larger-sized mesh allows smaller, younger fish to escape. “There’s less discard and less time sorting on deck. The fish caught are of higher quality and get better prices at the dock,” says Geoff Smith, the Conservancy’s marine director in Maine.

The Conservancy is now encouraging more fishermen to use these new net designs. “I’ve been using the 7-inch diamond-mesh cod end,” says Balzano, lifting up a bright turquoise net with openings roughly the length of his palm. “It does what I want for the fish I’m fishing for—large and medium Gulf of Maine cod that bring a good price.”

As fishermen transition to a new catch-share management system, Balzano is committed to harvesting in the most economically and biologically efficient way possible. “Transitioning to a new system is like learning a new language, but to conserve the resource and keep fishing, it’s important to keep getting better,” he says.

What’s Next for the Nets?
To help with the endeavor, the Conservancy recently purchased a second fishing permit in Maine and now has over a half of a million pounds of total quota available to support its collaborative efforts with local fishermen. Next up: Exploring permit purchases in Massachusetts and collaborating with Bay State fishermen.

In an industry often beleaguered by tension, Balzano attributes this project’s success to the open and constructive communication he has with Smith and others at the Conservancy.

“We don’t always agree, but we found common ground around a strategy we both believe in. What matters most is that we have the same goal: to have as many fish in the ocean as we possibly can."

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