NORTH KINGSTOWN – There were times in 2008, shortly after Margaret “Peg” Petruny-Parker took the helm of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, when her job seemed more referee than executive director.
“I get called in to help work out issues that will ultimately benefit the fishing industry,” explains Peg, who is the foundation’s only full-time employee, functions as a liaison between industry leaders and scientists whose research helps determine catch sizes and, ultimately, regulations.
“There were irate and frustrated fishermen vs. scientists who represented federal bureaucracy,” she notes. “It was very tense in the beginning. There were hard feelings. Over the course of a couple of meetings those barriers started to break down. The scientists learned a lot from the fishermen.”
New England’s commercial fishing business has shrunk drastically from the industry’s heyday when, Peg recalls, “There was abundant supply and a demand so steady the boats were tied up three deep at Point Judith. You could practically walk from Galilee to Jerusalem by stepping from boat to boat.”
When the salad days wilted, a group of visionaries decided to use funds from a government award to try and ensure the future of commercial fishing. In 2004, a nine-member board of directors including fishermen and representatives of support businesses was formed. Collaboration led to redesigned, improved gear and far-ranging training programs in crew safety.
The following year the foundation expanded to include those involved in harvesting shellfish, lobster, finfish and squid.
Part of Peg’s job is to encourage “players from the different worlds to have a solid relationship” based on research, data and results that everyone can live with.
“The job kind of chose me,” she says of the foundation directorship. “In graduate and undergraduate school, I was interested in the natural sciences but also social sciences including economics and law.” Peg did her master’s thesis on fisheries management at Stony Brook University.
Early in her career she worked in research, hazardous waste management, environmental health and education and resource supervision for private companies, public schools and academic institutions. She came to Rhode Island – she lives in Saunderstown – where she raised a family, acted as a marine policy consultant for the state House of Representatives and served as a fisheries consultant for the Coastal Institute and the Rhode Island Sea Grant Fisheries Extension Program at URI.
She describes the foundation position as “a great opportunity. It’s the most challenging job I’ve ever had but maybe I was headed to it for a long time. It really puts me to the test – communicating, facilitating, listening to people’s ideas. It’s exciting: no two days are ever the same. Every so often, it’s very rewarding.”
A case in point occurred during a break in a meeting when fishermen told scientists they saw “really unusual things” while at sea during the winter – stronger currents, a different fluctuating water temperatures. The scientists were intrigued and examined satellite images using the fishermen’s perspective. They concluded that the Gulf Stream has moved closer to Southern New England than ever before.
The scientists will soon publish a paper citing the fishermen in helping in the discovery.
Elsewhere, the battle lines have been drawn over the future of herring stocks. Are these little fish, brought back from dangerous depletion and now wildly popular for a number of uses including the Omega-3 supplement, being overfished again? As in the past, it seems to be a matter of scientific data versus fishermen trying to make a living.
“It’s the latest very difficult fisheries issue going on,” Peg acknowledges. “It’s important to bring everyone together to get to the truth without being driven by emotion.” She says people need to “get past the blame game. Nobody wants to do the wrong thing here.”
A happier prospect is the recent purchase of the former Point Judith Fishermen’s Co-op, once a booming enterprise in the heart of Galilee that closed in 1994. The property has been purchased by Seafreeze Ltd., the main East Coast player in the business of processing and freezing seafood on huge vessels offshore.
Promising 50 to 60 new jobs and revitalization of the fishing village, Seafreeze – headquartered at Davisville Pier in North Kingstown – will use the Co-op’s 37,000 square feet to handle the catch harvested by local fishermen.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the fishing industry [along with] challenges and complexity,” Peg says. “Rhode Island is sitting in a position where we should be thinking of the future. The opportunities are there.
“We’re in a very painful transition, trying to get the right balance between the industry and the resource; the science [determining] the sustainable levels of catch. What people have seen here in Rhode Island is very complicated – policy all the way to the national level; [the accusations] of overfishing by the foreign fleet.”
Moreover, she explains, Advances in technology “allowed fishermen in bigger boats with more powerful engines to find fish easier. There was reluctance on the part of fisheries management to reel in runaway fishing. By the mid-90s, they were in trouble and the pendulum swung the other way. Environmental organizations came in and said ‘We need to stop overfishing.’”
The future of the industry, Peg asserts, is “highly dependent on getting the science right. It is not good enough if we’re guessing. There’s an urgency to get the data correct so we feel confident in saying ‘This is the harvest level.’ Once that’s done, the business side can plan.”
She says future success calls for “a smart marketing strategy [such as] taking advantage of social media and direct community outlets. There’s lots of potential.
“I work with a great group of people; the fishermen are very passionate about what they do. It’s very inspiring to be on their team.”
Martha Smith can be reached at her new email address firstname.lastname@example.org .