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One Square Mile: While Scallops Soar, Groundfishing Struggles In New Bedford

The Port of New Bedford is often touted as the most lucrative in North America. That’s thanks mainly to the popularity, and apparent abundance, of...

The Port of New Bedford is often touted as the most lucrative in North America. That’s thanks mainly to the popularity, and apparent abundance, of scallops. But the success of scallops may be masking hard times for other parts of the fishing industry.

Pat Kavanagh owns three fishing boats in New Bedford. Two for catching groundfish like cod, haddock and flounder. The other is a scallop boat. Right now, that’s his moneymaker.

“As far as groundfishing, groundfishing’s been tough for the last twenty years,” said Kavanagh.

He’s tight lipped about how much he actually makes from the three boats each year.

“But I can say it’s a damn good thing we’ve got a scalloper,” said Kavanagh.

Like many fishermen, Kavanagh got into this business through family, working on his father’s boat. But since the 1980s regulations have tamped down on fisheries, and it’s become harder to get a start in the business. Groundfish prices have fallen, and Kavanagh says buyers are looking elsewhere for product.

“The world has gotten smaller with airplanes and flying fish around,” said Kavanagh. “So we’re competing with the world and there’s some pretty cheap fish out there and there’s actually some pretty good fish.”

The fleet has dwindled, and in the last year, New Bedford suffered another major blow. Carlos Rafael, the owner of a local groundfishing fleer pleaded guilty to falsifying his catch. He’s now serving a four-year prison sentence. His fleet sits impounded at the docks. Federal regulators have suspended his boats from fishing.

Whether you worked with Rafael or not, the shrinking fleet has put strain on other businesses, including Levin Marine across the harbor in Fairhaven, which makes netting for groundfishing.

Fred Levin and his son Jerry Levin

Jerry Levin’s family has worked out of the same building for four generations, where makes nets built to exacting standards.

“There is a lot of pressure on you if something goes wrong or something doesn’t work,” said Levin. “Then that boat isn’t going to catch fish, and so I’ve always been very particular about how I build my net and we’ve always had good reports and good following.”

Despite Levin’s reputation, there is simply less demand for his work in New Bedford.

“Now it’s to the point where there are so few boats in my home port that I’m relying on these other ports where I can do some business, but everywhere really is feeling the pinch.”

Levin’s father Fred remembers when the small business easily supported his family and few employees.

“We beat a living out of it,” said Levin. “We’re still trying to beat a living out of it now, but it doesn’t look good.”

Jerry Levin says in the last decade, his sales have plummeted fifty percent.

“I don’t know how much longer it will go on,” said Levin. “I mean I’m 52, I’d like to get 15 more years out of it, but honestly I don’t think that’s going to happen. Unless something changes, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Family businesses like Levin Marin and Kavenaugh say they fear being pushed out of New Bedford, and replaced by commercial ventures with ready cash for boats and permits.

They say two things could help: rebounding fish stocks and easing regulations on groundfishing. 

Fred Levin and his son Jerry Levin
Fred Levin and his son Jerry Levin
John Bender