BOSTON — The top regulators of New England's sagging fishing industry have asked fishermen not to take out their frustrations on the onboard catch observers who monitor what they pull up or throw back.
The request came in an open letter to fishing permit holders Thursday, a little over two weeks into a fishing year that saw the fleet take painful cuts in catch limits.
Observers have reported increased verbal abuse in recent months and the letter is a reminder that such anger is misdirected, said Rip Cunningham, chair of the New England Fishery Management Council and one of the five signees of the letter.
"I think you can look at what's happened in New England — with some of the really serious fisheries issues — some of the folks are, you know, quite frustrated, and sometimes that frustration gets taken out on whatever the nearest person is," he said.
The catch reductions that went into effect May 1 include a 78 percent year-to-year reduction in quota on cod in the Gulf of Maine and 55 percent on yellowtail flounder in the Gulf of Maine and Cape Cod.
Many fishermen say they can't catch enough fish to survive with such steep cuts on already diminished quotas. Regulators don't dispute the industry is in crisis, but say the cuts are needed to bring the fish populations back to health.
The open letter acknowledged ongoing disagreement over whether fish species truly are in dire condition and how much blame goes to fishermen, scientists or regulators.
It emphasized directing concerns to regulators rather than observers and at-sea monitors.
"They work hard to accomplish difficult jobs and they bear no responsibility for the predicament in which we find ourselves," the letter said.
The letter's signees also included John Bullard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's top fishing regulator in the Northeast.
At-sea observers monitor both the catch of prime fish and the discard of unmarketable fish. They are a critical part of a system installed in 2010 that forces fishermen to stop fishing on all species if they exceed their quota on one.
The program is expensive, with fishermen often noting the cost of observers is sometimes more than their profit per trip. But Cunningham noted the observers are employed by private contractors and get just a portion of the costs. In addition, the government has paid for the observers since 2010, and will cover the projected $6.7 million cost this year.
The observers are often recent college graduates with a concentration in biology and can be green at sea in more ways than one, as stories about seasickness are common.
Gloucester fishermen Joe Orlando, a 40-year veteran, said he doesn't mind taking out observers, as long as the government pays, because he can't afford it. He said it frustrates him that a kid who knows almost nothing about a fishing boat can climb on his and declare it unsafe.
Orlando said he hasn't heard about increasing confrontations between observers, captains or crew, but understands why they encounter resentment among fishermen facing ruin.
"You've got to understand something, we're all out of a job," Orlando said. "But they still got a job."