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: