Teach a Man to Fish
How Gloucester's Russell Sherman got hooked
Having spent the last days of the groundfishing season on the open ocean east of Cape Cod, Russell Sherman ’71 chugged into Gloucester Harbor in April and docked his Lady Jane at the Jodrey State Fish Pier. Running the 72-foot trawler around the clock, he and two crewmen had taken shifts at the wheel and ultimately caught 6,000 pounds of bottom-dwelling species, mostly haddock, flounder, redfish, and cod, along with a slew of lobsters. He netted $9,000.
A decent haul, Sherman said, given the decades-long decline of the New England saltwater groundfishing industry, but laughable compared to his days on deck in the 1970s. Then, Gloucester was home to generations of fishermen at the center of a thriving business that had been feeding Americans since the seventeenth century. Fresh out of Harvard, Sherman took a summer job on a boat, and essentially never left. “You came and went as you wanted,” he said. “Plenty of dough in my pocket. And when times were a little tough, you worked a little harder, that’s all.”
A high-school football player, he reveled in the physical labor, the manly camaraderie at sea, and standing up to gale-force winds and 15-foot swells “that knocked me around,” he added. “Being young and vigorous, full of fire in the belly, I loved the life I led.”
But the North American fishing industry, already wrangling with foreign fleets, would soon start changing dramatically. The Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (commonly referred to as “Magnuson-Stevens”) officially asserted U.S. jurisdiction over waters within 200 miles of shore. This boon for domestic fishermen, who supported it, initially spawned optimism and an influx of newcomers, especially in Gloucester. Yet the law simultaneously addressed overfishing, a concern voiced as early as the turn of the last century, by mandating unprecedented management of American fisheries. John Bullard ’69, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), credits the act with foreseeing the need to safeguard fish stocks from domestic vessels as well, especially given the advances in dragging gear.
Regional governing councils were established, and the law, tightened to increase conservation and enforcement efforts in 1996 and 2006, set in motion the constantly shifting, often labyrinthine, federal regulations that have since frustrated groundfishermen like Sherman. The councils and NOAA can now specify everything from fishing-ground closures, catch quotas, bycatch requirements and protected species, to boat monitors and their fees (paid by the fishermen), and components of gear.
The most recent groundfishery management system to be adopted in New England, in 2010, is the quota-based Annual Catch Limit (ACL); it replaced the age-old effort-based “days at sea.” The ACL percentages are set annually, based on NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center stock assessments, and represent the number of pounds of 16 different monitored species a given boat can land (bring ashore) each season.
Groundfish historically dominated the regional industry, but now represent only one of 16 Northeast fisheries, including surf clams and quahogs, herring, and deep-sea red crab, many of which, like sea scallops, are flourishing. The fishermen of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Bullard used to be mayor, are the country’s leading sellers of sea scallops, a nearly $500-million business, for example (compared to the $60-million average annual revenue from groundfish). Various stock levels can and do fluctuate, even year-to-year: the quotas for Georges Bank Cod were cut more than 60 percent this year, but hiked very slightly for Gulf of Maine Cod: “They are still in trouble,” Bullard says. On the other hand, the quotas for redfish, pollock, and Georges Bank haddock rose, he adds, because surveys show they are the most plentiful of the 20 groundfish stocks. But because cod and other low-quota species often swim among them, “the challenge is, how do fishermen catch the fish that are abundant without catching the cod and other [restricted] species? It’s very hard to do.” Some of the different species tend to swim together. And once fishermen fulfill their quotas for cod, for example, they are precluded from fishing in waters where cod live.
More pointedly, the overall population of groundfish will never return to the 1970s levels Sherman and others knew, Bullard asserts. Ultimately, “You’re not going to have happy groundfishermen,” he adds, “because there is no longer enough groundfish for all of them to catch and make a good living, and the managers are going to have to restrict the catch no matter what system they use.”
Human contributions to climate change, and the resulting deleterious effects of warmer temperatures and acidification on the ocean and its marine life, he adds, share much of the blame for declining fish stocks across the globe. Fishermen are asked to put fresh fish on our tables, he says, and “then we collectively put carbon into the atmosphere that makes [their] place of business a more hostile environment. It’s not fair.”
NOAA measures, although aimed at balancing the often competing interests in the ocean’s health and resources, spur continuing, often volatile debates. The Gulf of Maine codfish, for example, has been the poster child for all groundfish. “And because they regulate to the weakest stock,” Sherman points out, “we’re set up for a fall right away.” Yet based on his own experience, and what he hears from fishermen in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire, the cod “are everywhere. When we’re out there, we can’t avoid catching cod.”
The “right answer,” Bullard allows, referring to balancing these competing agendas, is ever elusive. That’s partly because the resources shift and scientific data can lag such trends, but also “because the fishing industry is incredibly complicated and litigious—for every action, there are multiple counter-actions.”
Sherman agrees that relations are acrimonious. “We feel there is more interest in getting rid of fishermen than in saving the fish,” he explains. The problem, as he sees it, is worsened by “over-used and unenlightened” policies produced by bureaucrats who fear lawsuits by the “enviros,” and have therefore “privatized what have been common resources for 400 years” (the fishing grounds) and destroyed “the industry that built this Republic.” He has learned to live with the ACL system, and has survived by “stubbornness” and a canny ability to switch up his targeted species, fish inshore and offshore, and gauge ways to benefit from trading his ACL quotas (which is allowed) among fellow fishermen. The ACL system “has done its work, which was to pare us down to very few participants,” he adds. “But they keep cutting the quotas. And now we are in the death throes.”
Educated and outspoken, Sherman has often been drafted to advocate for his community, which he was glad to do—believing that “we could reach fair and equitable solutions for the environment and the traditional fishing folk.” He started in the late 1980s (when some fishermen and environmentalists were actually working together productively), and was heartened by the hard-won battle that helped lead to a ban on oil exploration and drilling on Georges Bank, a particularly nutrient-rich stretch of sea floor between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. Sherman has since testified before Congress, served on advisory panels for the New England Fishery Management Council, helped co-found the nonprofit Northeast Seafood Coalition—and even engaged in brainstorming sessions with environmentalists, scientists, and politicians. In 2014, he won the industry’s National Fisherman Highliner Award for his efforts.
Photograph by Stu Rosner
Regulators should “cease focusing on us as the bête noire,” he said during a recent interview at his Gloucester home, four miles from the downtown pier. They should “focus on the other problems that exist: natural predatory mortality—seals, dogfish, and skates are doing a better job than fishermen; pollution—sound and chemicals; and water quality. I am not saying we’re lily-white, but the majority of us have done exactly what we’ve been told since they have been in charge since 1976. Now, where the hell is the result?”
Painfully aware of his role as a relic, the 68-year-old wants to retire, but can’t. In 2000, against the wishes of his wife, Christine, he invested in a bigger boat that could operate both inshore and offshore, thereby hedging unpredictable fishery closures. That’s the main reason he’s still in business at all. But having done that, he now cannot get a decent price for his nest egg, Lady Jane. So Sherman hangs on, and this spring he geared up, despite a titanium hip and bursitis in both shoulders, for his forty-fifth year on the water, saying simply: “You do what you have to do.”
That ethic, he says, grounded family life while he was growing up in modest circumstances in the small “backwater mill town” of Putnam, Connecticut. His father was a World War II veteran who worked hard at any job he got, on railroads, as a meat-cutter, truck driver, and insurance agent, and ultimately as a bank-debt collector repossessing cars in Hartford’s toughest neighborhoods. “He was a real gentleman, he was calm and rational,” Sherman says. “And after the war, nothing scared him. He used to say, ‘Put your best foot forward, always, but if somebody steps on it, all bets are off.’”
A top student and football player on scholarship at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, Sherman arrived at Harvard, also on scholarship, in the fall of 1967. Political and cultural tensions already were roiling the campus, and by sophomore year, things turned violent. He recalls “seeing the cops drag a young lady out of building who had beautiful blond hair, and it was soaked in blood, and I lost it. I charged. I was an excitable boy at that age, a young Irish spalpeen. Big mistake. Billy club. I got taken to pieces.” Perhaps more privately traumatic was his personal life. At the end of freshman year Sherman married his prep-school sweetheart, Marion Pratt, who was pregnant; the couple moved off campus and shared brief roles as parents to two infants—both whom died of a rare genetic disease—before separating at the end of his senior year. Moving to Gloucester soon after that, he fell in love with the place, with “her people and history, the bedrock of our Republic,” as much as with fishing.
Sherman catalogs his life choices, and knows he had more than many because of his Harvard education. Turning one’s back on a professional career was not that unusual among his classmates, he says, at least in the years following graduation, largely as a consequence of political activism—the fight against the Vietnam War, the fight for social and economic equality. His only regret about college, where he concentrated in history, is that he didn’t study hard enough.
In 1982, when he married Christine (a Gloucester native from a fishing industry family), his parents, always disappointed by his career decision, urged him to return to school for an advanced degree. But he “wanted to be the captain of my own boat, my own business.” He put $10,000 down on his house, and in 1984 borrowed another $10,000 to buy the Captain Dutch. In 2000, at age 52, Sherman took on a second mortgage to buy the Lady Jane, knowing that the increased financial burden would mean spending more time on the water, catching more fish, and adding crew. The industry outlook had somewhat improved, he recalls. In an interview with producers of the 2002 documentary film Empty Oceans, Empty Nets, in which he is featured, Sherman agreed that although the industry was shrinking, a “hard-core” group of fishermen “who stick it out for this interim period [of] the next three or four years, are going to be rewarded at the end. I have to believe that.”
Sherman has never been against “intelligent” regulation that conserved fish stocks, and has voiced his beliefs even if they ran counter to those around him—“often to my detriment,” he reports. “I’ve had my gear sabotaged, I’ve had personal threats.” But he does think regulation has “gone too far now.” So far, he worries, that the next time federal leases for offshore exploration or extraction are proposed for sites in the mid and south Atlantic Ocean (a process that could begin as early as 2019), there won’t be any independent fishermen “screaming and hollering like scalded cats, ‘Don’t drill! Georges Bank is too rare a jewel.’ Because,” he says, “we are gone.”
In 2012, when Sherman’s blood pressure hit 190 over 90, his doctor warned him to bow out of political activity, or risk having a stroke. He is now out of the danger zone, but it was nevertheless a relief, he says, to come ashore after finishing the 2015-2016 season, to work on repairs and maintenance for the Lady Jane, and to sleep in his own bed.
By mid June he was back on the water, following a business plan revised to reflect the new ACL allocations and grounds-closure timetables, volatile market auctions, weather patterns, the state of his health, and that of his crew. “I’ve been 30-odd years a captain now, and I’ve never been a high-liner—what we call a guy who just made the fish dance aboard. What I did was by rote, by cussedness,” he says. “So I did okay. We raised our daughter and had our house. And in a business full of corruption, I’ve never cheated anyone, always played by the rules. Took care of my crew. And if I can just retire out, please, without ever having hurt anyone or lost anyone on my boat, and knowing people will say, ‘Jeez, that Russell did all right by me,’ then I will be a happy guy, my career a success.”