Forty-eight years is a long time to own a boat so there was no sweet sorrow when Capt. Ron Borjeson parted with his beloved Angenette, watching her steam over the horizon with a new owner at the helm. “My kids were devastated,” he told me.
It was back in 1970 that Ron acquired the trim forty-five footer from the original owner. Built Down East in 1946 this stout wooden boat provided his introduction to commercial fishing. In those days Ron fished for cod, haddock and flounders out of Sandwich where he lived. “But then came all the regulations and rolling closures and we no longer had access to what was in our own backyard,” he said. “I had to go chase squid and fluke.” That required him to shift his berth to Hyannis where it’s $13,000 for dock space and a further $12,000 to insure the boat. Operating costs increased every year it seemed but he managed to maintain the boat and his livelihood, supplementing his income by working as a captain on bigger boats. But this year, the seascape has changed. As he reviewed the proposal for the new fluke management plan, a key species, he decided it was time for him, however reluctantly, to consider selling the boat.
Climate change has warmed the ocean, displacing many fish stocks from their traditional ranges. Summer flounder, known as fluke, have moved up from the South. “Eighty-five percent of the fluke biomass is now on the southwest part of Georges Bank,” Ron said. For most species commercial fishermen receive an allocation based on their catch history. Historically most of the fluke was landed down South. Fishermen from Virginia and the Carolinas must now come north of Long Island to catch their fluke. But owing to the intricacies of fishery regulation they are not allowed to land their fish here.
“They have to steam thirty hours to come up here, and the same going back,” Ron said. “So they are going to send their biggest boats to take all the fish they can get. When all that fish gets landed I think the market is going to crash.” Fishing in Massachusetts state waters Ron is limited to taking just 300 pounds per day on Angenette. To sustain his business Ron estimates he needs to get three dollars per pound for his fluke and there are no guarantees in fishing. Another fishery vital to him, and many other local fishermen, is squid. “We’ve been riding high the last eight years on the squid,” he said. “But if, just once, we don’t have the squid in the springtime it would not be a viable business.” Meanwhile the Angenette was out of the water at Bayline and it was going to take a $30,000 investment for the upgrades and maintenance Ron wanted for next year’s fishing. “There was not one thing telling me I was going to get that money back,” he said. When there was an offer on the table for the boat Ron talked it over with his wife. They knew it was time to accept it, difficult as that was.
“I just walked away,” he said. “All I took off that boat was the paperwork.” The boat has gone down south where the new owner will fish her inshore, Ron told me. So one more independent fisherman has left the dwindling ranks of owner-operators here in New England. Single-boat owners have now become a vanishing breed.
“It’s not just me. You go up and down the docks, here and in Gloucester and you see all these boats tied up. With the cost of leasing fish, auction fees, sector fees, they just can’t make any money. The fleet is aging and there’s nobody coming up.” Coincidentally, the sale of Angenette came at the same time as it was revealed the Blue Harvest had acquired Atlantic Trawlers Fishing from owner Jimmy Odlin. His groundfish boats like the Harmony and Morue are well-known in the city. Blue Harvest is owned by Bregal Partners a private investment firm that is part of Bregal Investments, described on its website as “a global family of private equity and fund investment vehicles that has invested more than $12.5 billion since 2002.” I suppose it is not bad news for the industry as a whole that a foreign entity with private equity is seeking expanded investment in our fisheries. But further consolidation does not bode well for the few remaining independent fishermen who face long odds in preserving a traditional way of life. It is no longer possible it seems for a young person to go fishing, work his way into the wheelhouse and eventually acquire his own boat. To me that is sad.