GLOUCESTER, MASS. — Lena novello leans over the kitchen table and passes a heaping platter of pan-fried fish to her son, Sam, who skippers the Vincie N. out of Gloucester Harbor. But the fixings are not what they used to be, in the days when Sam's father could haul in whatever his wife needed - firm catfish or whiting for chowders.
"Now, I'm lucky when Sammy can bring in extra haddock napes, what we used to use for cat food," she says.
Fishermen dining on "cat food." That's how difficult it is for mariners like Sam Novello to make a living in the waters off the craggy New England coast. It's not a new story, but 1999 may mark one of the biggest turning points for the fishing industry since the days of three-masted schooners.
Like the one-tractor farm and the small family ranch, the New England fisherman occupies a mythic place in the American tableau - and is increasingly spoken about only in wistful terms. Just how far the industry may recede may be determined by new federal rules, going into effect this month and next, that govern how, when, and where fishermen can cast their nets.
Consumers will feel the pinch, at least for a while, in higher menu prices for some seafood entrees, such as cod and halibut.
But the impact on New England fishermen, from the lobstermen of Maine to the scallopers of Massachusetts, will be far more serious as a way of life slips from their grasp. "Fishing is a part-time job now because of all these regulations," says Mr. Novello. "I'm discouraging my sons from going into it."
As of April 1, in the latest restrictions aimed at protecting stocks of cod and other groundfish in the Gulf of Maine, five additional fishing areas off Gloucester's Cape Ann were closed. This means Novello will have to spend 10 hours of steam time just to arrive at a fishing ground.
On May 1, the start of the 1999 fishing season, the daily limit on cod will be slashed by half to 200 pounds, cinching an already tight tourniquet on the livelihood of small-boat fishermen.
It would be hard to overestimate the impact of these regulations on the men and women who work the sea and some of the towns that have grown up around them. In Gloucester, the coastal, fiercely independent way of life that inspired "Moby Dick" is threatened with extinction.
Since Colonial times, when Cape Cod was christened after the fish that fed the Puritans, cod has been king. The fish helped usher in the settlement of the New World and provided a young America with the first currency in the international market.
A wooden codfish hangs in the gallery of the state House of Representatives in Boston, displayed as prominently as a painting of John Hancock proposing the Bill of Rights. At Our Lady of Good Voyage Church here, the Virgin Mary cradles not her son, but a cod-fishing ship.
"Fishing's always been a family thing," says Mrs. Novello, a gold cod pendant hanging from a chain around her neck. "Back when fishing was good, we were a real community - we wives helped one another while our men were out at sea."
Their livelihood has been threatened not only by overfishing of the region's waters, but also by the efficiency of multinational factory trawlers, global warming, and ocean dumping. All have dealt blows to locals' capacity to fish. All have moved the region further away from the days in the late 1800s when so many cod inhabited New England waters that the fish virtually jumped into boats.
Despite the 1976 expulsion of foreign fishermen from within 200 miles of Northeastern shores, the New England fishermen are still feeling hard-pressed. Even Gorton's, which has been an economic and social symbol of Gloucester since 1857, is no longer using American fish, importing Pacific pollack of Korean and Russian trawlers in the Bering Sea.
This is why the federal government has stepped in to give fishermen a hand. In 1995, as part of its effort to reduce fishing pressure off the New England coast, the US began buying out active fishing boats and licenses.
Within three years, 78 boats and 537 commercial fishing permits had been eliminated. Congress recently granted the fishermen $5 million in emergency funds, and another buyout is under way.
"We have tried to help people make their own choices," says Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a cosponsor of the bill. "To keep a vibrant fishing industry ... we've got to facilitate the capacity of people to hang in there, but also help those who want to get out."
In addition, the state and federal governments have been funding vocational centers since 1994 to retrain hundreds of fishermen and their families to enter the work force onshore.
With so many fishermen jumping ship, the salty character of Gloucester is changing. Four industrial parks already thrive with high-tech firms. With its proximity to a highway and rail lines, some predict the area will become a "silicon harbor."
With more than 100,000 visitors coming to the Gloucester area each year, old-school gillnetters now have to share harbor space with casino cruises and whalewatching vessels. And some of the newcomers want to drop anchor permanently. "Everyone east of the Mississippi wants to move here," says local historian and author Joe Garland. "The real estate market is hot."
From trawlers to condos
With the marine industry weakened, many fishermen worry "their" harbor may be turned into upscale condos. Despite the waterfront's "marine industrial" designation, they say, everyone from politicians to bankers is eager to sell waterfront property to Boston yuppies.
Main Street is already showing signs of gentrification. Pushing her Gap-clad baby in a jogging stroller, a women coasts past fourth-generation Sicilians congregating outside a pastry shop. Scratching his gray beard, a lifelong fisherman peels off his plaid shirt and stretches in the warm sun in front of a yoga studio.
Referring to the hordes of "outsiders" from Cambridge and Boston, Mrs. Novello muses, "It's so different today." She has the weathered look of a classic seafarer. "Everybody's got their own problems," she says. "They can't be bothered with other families."
Her son, Sam, senses a permanent change, too. "Fishing will just have to live side by side with the tourist industry," he says. "They're pushing everyone out of the waterfront."