UPIC (8) At the Mercy of the Government

A pension plan for retired fish lumpers could collapse if federal fishing regulators continue to make drastic cuts in the number of days groundfish vessels can go to sea. While the plan is currently solvent it is “coming to a very slow death” said James M. Dwyer Jr. secretary treasurer of New Bedford’s Fish Lumpers Union Local 1749 ILA.

South Coast Today 3/12/06

That death came five years later when the plan ran out of money and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation came in to pay benefits and administrative expenses but that 2006 story has ominous warnings for other union plans currently at sea and at the mercy of onerous government regulations on almost everything with the singular exception of adequate pension funding levels for multiemployer and public plans.

Boat owners contribute $150 to the pension fund each time one of their vessels completes a fishing trip and lumpers unload the catch. With fewer fishing trips allowed each year contributions are shrinking said Mr. Dwyer a trustee of the fund.

New Bedford’s groundfish fleet was restricted to around 50 fishing days per vessel in 2005. When the 2006 season opens May – the fleet could see a de facto 50 percent cut in fishing days as regulators aim to reduce fishing rates on depleted cod and flounder stocks.

The economic impact of the cuts will ripple through the working waterfront bringing losses to ice companies seafood processors fish packers truck drivers and lumpers Mr. Dwyer said.


The demand for fish lumpers began to drop in the early 1990s when fishing regulators adopted strict measures to stop overfishing of cod haddock and other groundfish. Fishing restrictions included the closure of large sections of Georges Bank in 1994 a federal boat buy-back program in 1998 and a 40 percent cut in fishing days in 2004.

In 1990 120 vessels took a total of 2783 fishing trips creating jobs for 68 lumpers according to data from the Fish Lumpers Union. 2004 only 26 lumpers were needed to unload 60 vessels that took a total of 675 fishing trips.

The union’s membership peaked in the 1960s with about 130 members Mr. Dwyer said. Today there are 25 members though only 12 of them can find steady work. He estimated that there are about 8 active lumpers or “scabs” that do not belong to the union.

“Since the regulations came into place you can’t promise anyone a certain number of jobs” Mr. Dwyer said. “Year to year you don’t know where you’re going.”

Lumpers who are paid by the amount of fish they unload per trip once earned an annual salary of $25000 to $30000 Mr. Dwyer said. Now they make half that.

Faced with mortgages many have found part-time jobs as firefighters custodians or truck drivers. Others have taken early retirement at age 55 or quit altogether to find a new profession.


Mr. Lacombe who plans to work 15 more years is concerned about his pension.

“It doesn’t look good” he said.

To rebuild the fund pension trustees have made several adjustments such as increasing the flat fee paid by boat owners and diverting contributions from its defunct Welfare Plan to the pension Mr. Dwyer said. But major cuts in fishing days will likely undo any gains he said.

He believes the only way to save the fund is to receive federal assistance from Congress & the same body that passed fishing regulations that have hurt lumpers.

Mr. Lacombe agreed.

“We’re at the mercy of the government.”

Asset history of the New Bedford Fish Lumpers Pension Plan taken from 5500 Schedule I filings:



2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Daniel Pellissier on December 8, 2016 at 11:50 am

    Thanks for the fascinating details about the difficulty of keeping long-term pension promises in a changing world. Life involves taking risk and defined benefit pension plans can only do so much to manage those risks. When public policy decisions reduce the revenue from the underlying fish harvest so dramatically, there is no way to fix the plan. In hindsight, the late comers and current workers would have been better served by a defined contribution plan.

    Note that the fund expenses range from 59 to 18 percent of payouts.


  2. Posted by George on December 10, 2016 at 11:44 am

    So what happens with the coal miners? Everyone would prefer if coal was not used for power. Whether or not that is practical is another question.

    Senators Vow to ‘Use Any Means Necessary’ to Ensure Taxpayer Bailout of Private Union Pension Plan



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: