May 14, 2023
Just three weeks ago, Jerry Leeman was a commercial fishing captain in New England and a very successful one at that. Now, as executive director of the newly formed New England Fishermen Stewardship Association, he’s leading the charge against Biden administration policies that threaten the industry he loves, including overregulation and wind-turbine development in the Gulf of Maine.
Leeman has spent much of the last 22 years at sea, fishing roughly 240 days a year on expeditions that often last seven to ten days. He lives in Harpswell, Maine, not far from Portland, and grew up fishing, shrimping, and bay scalloping. Fishing is the lifeblood of Harpswell, like many other coastal villages in New England, with the industry supporting workers across a variety of professions, including dock workers, bait dealers, mom and pop food-chain employees, and suppliers of ice and fuel.
“All of these people rely on the fishing industry to create an income which creates the commerce and communities that we have all along our coasts here in New England,” explained Leeman.
On May 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) instituted an 82 percent reduction in haddock landings, lowering the quota for how much fish can be caught and put ashore. The agency instituted this restriction because an assessment found that the Gulf of Maine’s haddock stock declined unexpectedly, resulting in catch levels that were too high, according to a report. NOAA institutes these quotas under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law that governs marine fishery management in federal waters. The agency does this to prevent overfishing, relying on data from the Henry B. Bigelow, a $54 million research vessel.
For Leeman, the statute was effective in getting international companies out of the waters back in the 1970s. However, the government is now going too far. “Fifty years have gone by, we’ve cut back and cut back, and the fact of the matter is there’s more fish now than there was when I started offshore commercial fishing 22 years ago,” he explained.
Leeman said that he and fellow New England fishermen have serious concerns about the accuracy of the NOAA data. Fish-population assessments fell to the wayside during the Covid years — 2021 and 2022 — and the data-collection process has not yet been corrected. At a late April Senate hearing, Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine) brought up the same concern while questioning Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
“NOAA’s survey vessel, the Henry B. Bigelow, is not functioning properly . . . we still don’t know when this vessel will be functional. But, according to NOAA’s staff, it can only be used for this survey through May 26. But it may not be fixed in time. So, that means . . . that NOAA will have to decrease the survey coverage; and that only 70 percent of the planned coverage area, in southern New England, Georges Bank, and the Bank of Maine, will be surveyed,” explained Collins.
“If you don’t know how many fish are out there, you can’t decide, accurately, what the quota is. And the fishermen are on the water every day. They have the best information about the state of the stock, and they’re not involved in the surveys,” continued Collins, to which Raimondo responded: “We had a lot of problems, in Covid, staying on top of the surveys on time. We’re mostly caught up. I regret that we’re not caught up in Maine.”
Leeman explained that as of May 2, the survey, which involves dragging a net along the ocean floor, has not been conducted. Leeman explained to Collins during a meeting that conducting the survey this late would lead to a distorted picture of the size of fish stocks because much of the spawning has already occurred. In Leeman’s view, the incomplete surveys are an open excuse to cut back on fisheries. “Guys fundamentally cannot go fishing because they have no quota, so now what happens is individuals have to lease quotas from permits that are not being used. It puts a financial restriction on the fisherman to viably produce their product for the U.S. consumer,” explained Leeman.
Every vessel has a permit which indicates an allowable catch per species per year, as determined by NOAA. If restrictive quotas are instituted, permit holders lease their fish quotas to other vessels and a bidding war begins. This hurts the bottom line for fishermen — and, according to Leeman, it’s all based on bad data. Haddock is also not the only fish being restricted in this manner, with cod landings also affected.
National Review reached out to NOAA for comment, but did not hear back by press time.
Margins in the fishing industry are tight, and the cost of entry is high. Fishermen have to take into account the cost of fuel, ice, and the crew. They also have to have a vessel. A tiny boat costs a quarter of a million dollars. A 90-foot dragger costs somewhere in the range of $3.5 million. New permits or allocations are not being given to new fishermen, said Leeman, leading to a loss of knowledge. “You’ve made it so that no one can enter the industry,” he said.
The industry is further burdened by the requirement that fishermen pay a federal monitor to join their crew – the subject of a case recently taken up by the Supreme Court. “We are paying out of pocket to have agencies watch us like we’re doing something wrong, and then the crews have to pay to feed these agents,” explained Leeman, adding that the monitors are often very inexperienced, joining crews in dangerous off-shore situations with only a few weeks of training.
“It’s very dangerous. Now you’re putting extra burden and stress on the crews and the captains,” Leeman added. “It’s financially hurting the fishing industry . . . It’s coming straight out of the coffers of the individuals harvesting the fish.”
Regulators even force American fishermen to use nets with a lower yield compared to their Canadian competitors, Leeman added.
But overregulation is only one part of the picture. The other part is the federal government’s push to build wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine, which has New England fishermen seriously concerned about the economic and species problems they may cause.
Leeman explained that he and other fishermen have been compiling data about how the proposed 10 million-acre lease to build wind turbines would hurt fish populations.
“Whether you’re a lobsterman or a ground fisherman, a trend up and down the coast here is that nobody wants wind turbines placed in our environment. It’s going to mess up our stocks and our species. Not to mention it’s going to change the viability for generations to come in the fishing grounds,” Leeman said.
Since NOAA’s data suggest there are vast swaths of the ocean able to be utilized by wind farms, proponents of the plan don’t think they’re hurting existing stocks of haddock and cod — but they’re wrong, Leeman said. If the plan goes ahead, the ocean floor in these areas will be harmed, hurting fishermen and consumers now and in the future.
Asked how fish stocks would be negatively impacted by the wind turbines, Leeman cited a Norwegian study. High-voltage direct current (HVDC) sub-sea cables supply power to the wind turbines. These cables also produce magnetic fields (B-fields) that could impact marine life. In the study, researchers found that the swimming activity of haddock larvae was reduced after they were blasted with B-fields.
“The magnetic pulses . . . are going to cause problems with reproductions of our fish stocks which are going to be detrimental to the fisheries,” explained Leeman. “What it does is it will slow the juvenile fish down, and now the predator fish will eat that new reproduction from the new year class, so we’re detrimentally impacting our fish stocks.”
It will be particularly damaging around the shoreline, where juvenile fish live before moving to deeper waters as they grow older.
Leeman added that these magnetic pulses have also caused lobster deformities. Scientists from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland discovered that lobster larvae exposed to electromagnetism were three times more likely to develop abnormalities around the tail and eyes, according to the BBC.
According to Leeman, even researchers at NOAA have conceded the possible negative impacts of these wind turbines.
“Nothing good is coming down our way,” he asserted.
A ProPublica report from January explained that whereas the Trump administration stalled permits for offshore wind, the Biden administration is moving full steam ahead. Incentives for offshore wind manufacturers were included in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.
The administration is moving forward despite concerns from federal scientists and industry regulators. In a May 2021 decision approving one wind project, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) conceded that fisheries will be negatively impacted. Fisheries scientists have warned BOEM that repeated sound-wave impacts from pile driving into the ocean floor can cause a “cumulative stress response” that disrupts the ability of fish to feed or spawn. Suspended sediment on the ocean floor kicked up by construction can harm fish, and digging long, deep trenches to connect turbines to shore by cable would result in “permanent loss of juvenile cod” habitat.
The wind farms will force fishermen to either fish closer to shore and risk getting tangled up with lobstermens’s gear or go farther out to sea.
“Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs of the world,” explained Leeman, and that job becomes even more dangerous the farther out at sea you are.
The other option is to tie up your boat once and for all and join the unemployment line. Decisions like this have consequences for supporting professions and even local banks, which hold loans fishermen have taken out.
An adjacent issue regulators have sought to address is the problem of whale deaths. Lobstermen in Maine have been accused of contributing to whale deaths through net entanglements.
But for Leeman, this doesn’t accord with the facts. Whale entanglements in the Gulf of Maine are exceedingly rare. Leeman instead suggested the animals are washing ashore due to the surveys and bottom mappings being taken.
At a hearing last year considering a NOAA whale regulation, Senator Susan Collins listed several facts: Maine lobstermen have removed more than 30,000 miles of line from the water, there has not been a known right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear since 2004, there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear, and as the Gulf of Maine warms, right whales have moved farther north to follow their primary food source.
“Despite this overwhelming evidence, NOAA has continually refused to follow the science,” said Collins during the hearing. “Instead, it relentlessly targets the Maine lobster industry, and that is simply unfair. These new regulations will not meaningfully protect the right whale. That’s why we’re so frustrated. But they will threaten the livelihood of hard-working Mainers.”
Leeman said ground fishermen, in addition to the lobstermen, are being unfairly scapegoated.
“They keep telling everybody that it’s commercial fishing that’s killing the whales, but that’s just untrue. We’ve been doing the same fishing activities for the last 80 years,” said Leeman. “We have not changed our methods. There has been no new technology.”
For Leeman, the overregulation and wind-turbine development constitute a concerted attempt to diminish an industry that is deeply rooted in the American way of life, going all the way back to Plymouth Rock. He finds it ironic that the White House talks about food shortages and fertilizer shortages when the fishing industry is an answer to both.
Wiping out this industry would also mean higher prices for the American consumer, who wants affordable products.
“We’re destroying a resource that could feed our nation for generations to come,” Leeman concluded.