Fishermen Say New Restrictions Will Force Them to Scale Back

NEW England fishermen, struggling with an already depleted fish supply, have been dealt yet another blow with the issuance of stiff conservation rules.

The restrictions imposed by the Commerce Department last month come in the midst of a battle to restore overfished New England waters. Fishermen say the regulations designed to protect groundfish - specifically dwindling cod, yellowtail flounder, and haddock species - will force many out of business.

The goal is to halve ground fishing over five to seven years. Restrictions include limits on the number of fishing days by about 10 percent each year, a moratorium on new groundfishing permits, and a 500-pound limit on haddock landings per boat trip. Limits on fish size and net mesh are included with other measures.

Fishermen call the plan too drastic, saying it will not rebuild fish stocks in the long term. ``We all recognize there is a problem and we need to conserve the fish and cut back,'' says Roger Woodman, a Portland, Maine-based fisherman. ``But there are a lot of ways of doing it, and we think this is the wrong way.''

Three years in the making, the conservation plan was developed by the New England Fisheries Management Council, an industry-government group. Some measures will take effect March 1; the rest may not be adopted until 1995.

Fishermen cite problems with progressively reducing the number of days at sea. Gail Johnson, legislation committee co-chairwoman of the Maine Fishermen's Wives Association, says limited days at sea will be devastating since some boat owners will be left with 88 fishing days a year. ``It is obvious that boats can't make enough money when you get toward the fifth year,'' she says.

FEDERAL officials and environmentalists say the restrictions are necessary. In fact, the limits may not even begin to curb the problem, says Douglas Hall, assistant commerce secretary for oceans and atmosphere. He says the haddock population is so depleted that it is now considered commercially extinct in the Gulf of Maine. ``When we look around the country, there is no place that is in as bad a condition as New England - it is in a state of collapse,'' he says.

Indeed, groundfish harvests have plummeted in recent years. Landings of cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder dropped 30 percent from 1991 to 1992, and initial figures show another 28 percent to 30 percent drop from 1992 to 1993, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Environmental groups have long pushed for strict conservation measures. Sonja Fordham, fisheries program specialist for the Center for Marine Conservation, says the plan is not as stringent as she hoped but is a big step. Nevertheless, imposing a cap on the amount of fish caught may be better than limiting days at sea, Ms. Fordham says.

Fishermen say there should be better ways to protect the resource and their jobs. One problem, they say, will be keeping track of fishing days. One option would require fishermen to put tracking devices on vessels so they can be monitored. But it would be impossible for the National Marine Fisheries Services, with its limited resources, to accomplish this without bureaucratic confusion, Mr. Woodman says. Fishermen could easily go to less populated ports where no monitoring stations are operating, he says.

``Maine has a 3,000-mile coastline, and there are two National Marine Fishery Service enforcement agents in the state. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is not going to work very well,'' he says.

Others are concerned about limits on the number of new permits. Jim O'Malley, executive director of the East Coast Fisheries Federation in Galilee, R.I., says the ban will eventually squeeze out small-vessel owners who will sell out to larger owners. ``That sets the stage for corporate takeover. Whoever has the deepest pockets winds up with control of the resource.''

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