FISHERMAN: David Goethel
New England Fisheries Council Member
“Both my sons have fished with me at one point or another. And I’ll tell you, nothing clarifies the mind like picking small fish for the day, 10 miles offshore,” shares David in reference to his two sons’ decision to pursue a college education rather than entering into the fishing indsutry. “I do it because I love it, but it’s not for everyone.” David Goethel, who was born in Boston and raised in Needham, Massachusetts, has been working on the water since 1967, starting out as crew for party boats, which he would fish off of when he got the chance. He later went to Boston University where he received a degree in biology with a focus on marine sciences. David continued to work on boats throughout his time at school and later received his US Marine Officer license which led to him receiving his captains license later on. In the winter of ’76 David worked part-time at the New England Aquarium where he met his wife, Ellen. Though he was offered a full-time position in the Spring he decided to return to the party boat business, because he had felt too disconnected from the day’s natural rhythms working indoors. David later moved north to New Hampshire and was soon able to pay off his college loans in their entirety working on the water.
In 1982 David Gothel had his 44 foot stern dragger built, Ellen Diane, by the John Williams Boat Company in Hall Quarry, Mount Desert, Maine. “There’s only ever been one captain of this boat, and that’s me,” points out David proudly, drawing my attention to the delicate wood work throughout the cabin. Never having operated his own fishing vessel before, he considered the time a great opportunity to enter the industry. “Back then I had the luxury of being able to learn to become a fishermen, there were no regulations and you could fish as often as you wanted.” For that reason, he was able to pay off his custom boat in 3 years. Today David fishes 7 days a week. “If the fishery is open, I’m going,” he exclaims. David tows 3-4 times a day for an hour and a half at a time about 8 miles offshore targeting silver hake, also known as whiting. According to David the first tow of the day is always the best due to the vertical diurnal migration of silver hake, meaning they feed at night just above the bottom, but at the first sight of day they begin to migrate back to the ocean floor, at which time the trawl is most likely to sweep them up. There have been various studies conducted on this unique behavior such as the one from the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences that can be read here.
On an average summer day, David hopes to haul in 3,000 pounds, but there have been days where he’s caught as much as 7,000 pounds and as little as 500 pounds. Today he hopes the price of silver hake to be between $0.60-$0.80 a pound, but that’s not always the case, at times it has been significantly less. Though David is a member of the Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative, his hake is typically shipped straight to the cities where it is then sold around the world since there’s little to no market for them around here. “They taste a lot like haddock or cod,” he says. “They’re really good, just under-appreciated.” David also fishes for tuna, cod and flounder at different times throughout the year. “That’s why there’s always been a fishing fleet in New Hampshire,” he shares, “there’s fish to catch year-round.” David takes pride in the knowledge he has gained as a fishermen and a naturalist over the years. “People don’t know anything about the ocean bottom until you try to drag a net across it,” he claims.
Scattered amongst the whiting within David’s haul, there are also butter fish, mud hake, flounder, lobster, skate, squid. Many of them are thrown over as bycatch and others are thrown in boxes to be sold as bait. “These fish we’re selling as baitfish are great tasting fish,” he says picking them up to show me. “It’s just that nobody wants them around here. If I think back, the things that are delicacies now…I used to throw those things over every day years ago: scallops, monkfish, lobster. It wasn’t until chefs like Julia Child came along and changed all that.” Like David, his wife Ellen is a strong believer in the power of education. A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in biology, Ellen has since started her own traveling education program called Explore the Ocean World Now. With the help of David, Ellen collects different organisms which she cares for in large aquariums set up in their garage. Ellen takes these creatures to elementary schools throughout New Hampshire educating children about the ocean, sharing with them live organisms they may never have had the opportunity to experience otherwise. Ellen visits about 80 different schools a year.
David is known to be a passionate member of the local fishing community, placing great faith in the collaboration between scientists and fishermen, and has partnered with scientists and organizations on various occasions, conducting research on his boat throughout the work day. An example of this being the tagging of yellowtail flounder, a program he initiated with his youngest son, Daniel, who has been working summers on the boat with his father since he was 14. Daniel is now 28 and working on his PhD at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, with the relationship between the science center and the fishermen at the heart of his research. Eric, David’s oldest son, went to Boston University for air and space engineering and is currently a tugboat captain in Boston.
In 2004, David Goethel was appointed the position of New England Fisheries Council Member by the secretary of commerce. The duties of the council consist of writing the regulations for all fishermen in federal waters, 3 miles offshore and beyond, with 32 fisheries in total. Duties as a council member consist of meeting every other month for 3 days at a time, for a total of 50 days of meetings a year, which are held at various locations throughout New England. Each term is 3 years long, and one member is allowed a maximum of 3 terms. David will be finishing up his 3rd term come next August. “It’s a big undertaking,” he shares, “if you’re doing the job you’ve been appointed.” As a council member you are expected to have a strong understanding of the biology behind stock management and are required to be up-to-date on all the stock assessments. David views sustainable fisheries as a delicate relationship. “We have to have sufficient numbers of both fish and fishermen,” he argues. “We need some flexibility within management; right now it’s way too rigid.” David brings up a quote said by John Bullard, the National Marine Fisheries new regional administrator, at the opening of the Portsmouth meeting on September 12th. Bullard paralleled the declining number of right whales to the declining number of fishermen, stating that only 400 remained of the endangered whales, compared to the 400 fishermen that remain from North Carolina to Maine. “I’ll tell you what,” says Goethel, “we’re dropping a lot quicker than the right whales.” He fears present and past regulations are to blame. “We tend to protect some animals at the expense of others. When you protect one species and exclude everything else you damage the ecosystem.” He describes the increase in harbor seals as a prime example of this, suggesting there’s so many these days, that they are damaging the local fish populations.
David fears for the future of the industry. He believes that once a market for a species goes away, that that market can’t be regained, markets such as silver hake. The market for silver hake dissolved sometime in the ’60’s and since then silver hake have been primarily shipped elsewhere. David also believes it’s necessary to the success of the market as well as the stocks to have a diverse fleet. “You need the big boats to bring in the volume and the small boats to bring in the quality for what I like to call table cloth restaurants, high quality establishments. And the small boats provide fish to the seacoast every single day which help to keep the system going, maintaining the market.” He pauses. “Once you put an end to those day boats you destroy the infrastructure, and you can’t get it back.” The October and November gillnetting closure lies at the heart of our conversation, for the effects of the closure are much greater than the already devastating loss of work for the fishermen. With the closure fast approaching it’s hard to say the effect it will have on establishments such as the Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative. Currently there are about 15 people working there, and if there’s only 5 draggers for 2 whole months, they’re not going to need all those people working. “You don’t need a fish coop if no one’s bringing in any fish,” suggests David. “If Yankee goes away, it’s not coming back.”
When I ask David why it is he fishes, he responds, “I’m happier on the ocean than I am on the land. I get to see the sun rise every day and most days I get to see it set too. 100 years ago I guess they would have called me a naturalist. I get to see it all.” After a near death experience involving a 20 foot fall onto a dock below 2 years prior to the day, for David, each day’s rising sun is a blessing. He looks out over the water from the helm, and looks out back to check on his deckhand. He continues, “I’m not a specialist, but more of a generalist and because of it I have a greater understanding of the whole picture. You have to understand your interactions to your surroundings and respond to them.” He believes this idea the key to effective management. David argues not all stocks can be at maximum sustainable yield. “If something’s up, something’s got to be down, and management doesn’t account for that kind of thing and because of it we’re in a lot of trouble right now. We have got to learn from our mistakes.”
From David Goethel to NH seafood consumers:
“Broaden your horizons. There’s a lot of great fish that are caught off the coast of New Hampshire that people haven’t ever tried. They’re not even being sold in the stores, but that’s because no one’s asking for them.”