Is this man made? I can't wait for how the man made climate change guys will explain this weather. Aivars Lode
By Katharine Seelye
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Mark Abraham, who has fished the New England coast for decades, kept a sharp eye on his catch as the slimy haddock spilled onto a dockside conveyor belt. He had just returned from 10 frigid days at sea, among the most brutal he has spent.
“It’s probably been the worst winter in 10 years,” he said as workers sorted the fish by weight and slid them into bins. “It’s not even the ice that’s stopping you, it’s the wind. It’s too rough to fish. If it’s rough like that, you don’t catch anything.”
This winter has pounded much of New England with record snowfall, encased the region in a deep freeze that has kept the snow from melting, and disrupted work, school and lives in general for millions of residents. Here in New Bedford, the top commercial fishing port in the nation, the winter has also slowed commerce, as was instantly apparent from Mr. Abraham’s relatively meager haul.
He unloaded 18,800 pounds of haddock at the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction here; Richard Canastra, president of the auction, said that in good weather, Mr. Abraham might have brought in 40,000 pounds.
A glance at the historic harbor, the epicenter of the whaling industry in the 19th century, when New Bedford was the richest city per capita in the world, also tells the story.
The Acushnet, the river that is the city’s lifeline to the sea — and the name of the New Bedford whaling ship that Herman Melville shipped out on in 1841 — is nearly frozen over. Vast ice floes clog the harbor, and many smaller vessels are locked in place. For an active port, it is astonishingly still. Nothing moves for hours.
Old salts who know their history know the dangers of trying to navigate waterways caked with ice. The Whaling Disaster of 1871 was a teachable moment, when 33 whaling ships, many of them from New Bedford, were trapped in the Arctic off the Alaskan coast; the ice tightened like a noose around four of the vessels and eventually crushed their hulls.
For the first time in more than a decade, the Coast Guard in February issued “severe ice” bulletins for southeastern New England. “The severe frigid weather we have experienced for the past two weeks or so is expected to continue for at least another five days,” read one bulletin, issued Wednesday.
The Army Corps of Engineers has banned vessels shorter than 65 feet from Cape Cod Canal. The Coast Guard has no mandatory restrictions in place, but warns that buoys and other navigational aids have been submerged or blown off their stations and rendered useless. It recommends daylight passage only and one-way traffic.
“Virtually all mariners have adopted these measures,” said Edward G. LeBlanc, chief of the waterways management division of the Coast Guard for Southeastern New England.
Mr. LeBlanc helps assign the Coast Guard cutters that break up the ice, though the latest bulletin warned that the ice was so thick in spots that it could not be broken.
“Every day we look at where the ice is forming, what deliveries are expected and what ships need to get out,” he said. “Is it to bring in automobiles, which is important for the economy, or is it to bring heating oil and gas, which is vital to keeping people warm? Keeping ferries running to the islands is also key, not just a convenience but a necessity.”
Bigger fishing vessels, like the Humbak, on which Mr. Abraham sailed, continue to operate because livelihoods depend on them. Mr. Canastra, who runs the last fish auction in New Bedford, auctioned Mr. Abraham’s haddock to buyers and processors the morning after it was unloaded. They in turn sold it to restaurants and supermarkets. The prices have climbed, Mr. Canastra said, because supply is low and demand is high; heavily Catholic New England is in the Lenten season and needs more fish on Fridays.
From Jan. 1 through last Monday, Mr. Canastra said, the haul from all of his fishermen was 45 percent lower than in the same period last year. He attributed the decline to the weather as much as to federal quotas.
“In a way, the quotas are worse,” he said. “The storms are only two months of the year, while the quotas are 12.”
The harbor is not the only victim of the harsh winter. New Bedford is enduring record snowfalls and bitter temperatures; on Feb. 21, they plunged to 12 below zero. Like Boston, the city has had to truck snow out of its compact downtown to outlying snow farms. One of them, along the harbor here, is so vast that Jonathan F. Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford, calls it a mountain range.
Mr. Mitchell said he had set aside $350,000 for snow removal but had already spent twice that, with little to show for it since nothing has melted.
“It’s a big pain in the butt,” he said. He had to close City Hall for several days, which also meant shutting down the schools and libraries, which in turn ground many businesses to a halt.
Over the last several years, New Bedford has done much to pull itself out of the economic doldrums that have stymied so many other old Northeast industrial towns. But one growing concern here is that the harsh winter may nip that progress because it knocked out the transit system in Boston. That could mean little political will — and no spare money — to build a long-promised commuter rail line between New Bedford and Boston, 60 miles away.
Mr. Mitchell said that while he wanted the rail service, it was not central to the city’s economic development strategy, which he said depended more on growth at the port and on building out the campus of the nearby University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
The mayor has another plan in the works, saying that New Bedford could bolster Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics by staging the sailing races in nearby Buzzards Bay. Those races are tentatively planned for Boston Harbor, but, Mr. Mitchell said, “New Bedford may well be the best place in America to host Olympic sailing.”
If the ice ever melts.