Floating Protest: Fishermen Appeal to Obama for Help

While welcome signs dot the little island of Martha's Vineyard, encouraging President Obama and his family to enjoy their vacation, the seas are not so friendly. A flotilla of New England fishing vessels -- totaling about a dozen boats thus far -- has converged just outside the Vineyard Haven Harbor. The floating protest is an appeal to the president to intercede with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, on the behalf of struggling fishermen who feel strict new federal regulations will devastate coastal communities and force them to leave their boats and their livelihoods.

The protesters aim to signal a variety of concerns regarding everything from catch limits forcing fishermen to restrict their hauls to fuzzy science they believe leads to smaller fishing allocations and even abuse on the part of government officials who seek to control the industry.

Jacqueline Odell, the Executive Director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an advocacy group that represents more than 250 commercial fishing businesses from Long Island to Maine, understands the frustrations expressed and expects some of the organization's members will participate in the Vineyard protest.

Citing strict new annual catch limits and a new management system, including 'catch shares' which push fishing businesses to operate in sectors and share a given allocation of fish, Odell believes many small boat owners will be forced to stop fishing or lay off crew members.

"The regulations that went in place on May 1st institute a whole new regime of catch limits for fishermen and where they have been set is significantly below the overfishing levels," said Odell. "We are greatly concerned that those low levels, where they set them, is going to force consolidation within the fleet and put a lot of small businesses out of business."

Capt. Russell Sherman has fished for more than 40 years out of Gloucester, Mass., one of New England's best-known fishing communities. He's spent the last 26 years as Captain of the Lady Jane, a 72-foot dragger that supports a five man crew. He fears the new catch limits will put him out of business.

"We're interested in survival at this point," said Sherman. "We've been cut more than half in the last 10 years."

Earlier this week he made a personal plea, publishing a letter in the Vineyard Gazette with the support of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, calling on President Obama's leadership to save jobs and crucial commercial fishing infrastructure.

He says the "catch share" system has already forced some fishing crews to stay at port and lease their percentage of catch out to boats that are still struggling through a tough season.

"I spent the last weekend hustling, calling my friends to try and buy extra fish to keep my enterprise going and to keep my boys working," said Sherman.

Only he's not "buying fish" -- just the right to go out and try to catch them.

"I've been in this business almost 40 years and it's something new to me to go out and have to purchase my opportunity and then there's no guarantee that I'm going to catch this purchase. I just went $50,000 down to ensure myself and my crew a living for the rest of the year."

It's a risk. Sherman is using his home as collateral and says his fellow fishermen are no better off.

"All of us are that way, we're all stretched out tight," said Sherman, who's hoping his long shot effort to grab the attention of the president, will help.

NOAA declined to comment on the protest.