For 25 years Francis O'Hara has spent his summers chasing red bottom fish from the Gulf of Maine up the Canadian coast to Cape Breton Island.
But this summer O'Hara is having a hard time finding a catch for his fleet of six, 125-foot trawlers as the U.S. and Canadian governments squabble over territorial fishing rights.
The boundary dispute resulted in an international fishing ban on both sides of the border that has begun to hurt both fishermen and consumers in the four weeks since it was imposed.
"Six years ago the Canadians kicked us out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence," O'Hara said. "They said we were over fishing." Now, with the U.S. and Canada haggling over boundaries and how much fish each nationl may take, the fleet out of Rockport is having trouble finding a catch.
"But the Canadians are just interest in fish," O'Hara added, with a slow Maine accent. "They want 75 percent of the catch from all of Georges Bank, though only about one-third of it is in their territory. The latest thing I heard is Canada turned down a proposal for an interim agreement allowing us to fish while they negotiated. I thought that was a good idea."
No recent developments have been reported from negotiations, though both sides sayd progress is being made, a member of the New England Regional Fisheries Management Council, O'Hara has stayed close to the negotiators, but that doesn't move fish through his processing house.
To offset the loss of redfish, O'Hara and the new remaining big fishing operations in Maine are re-rigging for other species.But new equipment costs money and takes time.
"I can say it hurts," adds O'Hara. "It's not the end of the world but it's forcing us to use some ingenuity. We can try to work around the problem but to keep 70 people busy you have to constantly move fish and we're not doint that."
Most of the Maine fishermen sell their catch to the Boston area market. There, Globe Fish Company spokesman Charles Cudemi says, "Prices for scallops especially are going sky high. They're 60 to 70 cents about the normal price at $3.65 per pound."
The best scallop fishing grounds are on the Canadian side of Georges Bank and north. With U.S. boats banned from that area, the small, fleshy, sweek filets are tough to find.
However, the popular scallop is still finding its way to restaurants and dinner tables. Says Cudemi, "the price is going up and up but the demand is still there. It's the same as lobsters. No matter what the price, people will pay it for scallops.
"There's no doubt that this fish war is hurting us. The supply is down. Even the boats out of Gloucester and new Bedford, Mass, are having problems."
Adds Cudemi, "If there are problems with the supply, you can be sure the consumer is getting it in the neck."
Maine fishermen say the ban isn't helping the Canadian fleet either. David Burnham of Kennebunkport said, "There were a lot more Canadians coming down here than Americans going up there.
"Many Canadian purse seiners come after herring down here. Now they have to look elsewhere for their fish too." Burnham usually takes his small green and white dragger off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts looking for flounder and haddock.
"This thing isn't really bothering the more southern fishermen. Though there is a little less competition without the Canadians," he adds.
Other fishermen can no longer chase swordfish along the Gulf Stream off Novia Scotia. Wholesalers say that delicacy is in extremely short supply. Rockland fisherman O'Hara says swordfish generally leave U.S. waters off Massachusetts following the warm Gulf Stream out into the Atlantic and north to Canada.
Burnham says the fishing bans "are just another example of the government getting into things again. The fishermen themselves would have this thing worked out in a few days if it were up to us. Hell, the Russian fishermen are easier to get along with than the government," he adds.
So while Washington and Ottawa continue a stalemate the plea from the battlefield down East is a familiar one. These Mainers want things the way they're always been. They just want to go where the fish are.