'Mayday' from New England's coast

The Atlantic fishing fleet faces a new wave of rules May 1 aimed at boosting fish stocks diminished by overfishing. But will they finally sink a troubled trade?

A blue sky hangs high above his boat. White-capped waves rush swiftly underneath. But John Welch, captain of the Lady Irene, gazes warily ahead, his feet propped up on the boat's helm. He cups his chin in his hand and listens soberly to weather reports on the radio. The April seas are calm along the New England coastline, yet Mr. Welch's face betrays a trace of concern.

A decade ago, as a crewman on a handful of fishing boats, Welch would revel in the drama of a day at sea, inviting waves and stiff winds. Now, he has a more personal stake in success. Welch is a new captain. Last fall, he paid $140,000 for the Lady Irene, a 44-foot gillnet fishing boat.

For a man who immediately took to the tenets of fishing – hard work, high risk, independence – becoming a captain is a natural step. Yet, even as his future and the fishing season begin, Welch cannot chart a confident course.

New federal regulations governing New England's fisheries announced Friday substantially scale back the region's fishing industry. The rules reduce the number of days fishermen may work, close key fishing grounds, and limit the size of fish that may be caught. They also include a mandate to overhaul management of the fisheries by next summer.

Conservationists advocate further restrictions, based on government data showing a dramatic decline in stocks of cod, haddock, flounder, and other ground fish over the past 20 years.

Worst-case scenario: a collapse of some of the fish populations altogether, which recently occurred in the waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where commercial fishing is no longer permitted.

Yet many of New England's fishermen, Welch included, argue that – based on the quantity and ages of the specimens they catch – the fish are coming back faster than studies indicate. While most admit that regulations have worked, they believe further restrictions are unnecessary and could effectively wipe out the industry.

"If they push these regs too hard, the whole infrastructure of fishing here could collapse," says Welch, looking at a graying sky above Buzzards Bay. "It's the fishermen, the fish houses, the mechanics, the crew. They could all lose their jobs."

Like many small-boat fishermen, Welch's daily routine is filled with compromise. In order to load ice onto his boat, he docks at the old whaling city of New Bedford – one of the few harbors that still has a large ice distributor. Packed just 10 years ago with mechanics, trucks, fish-processing houses, and net repairmen, New Bedford, like other harbors, is now a ghost of its former self.

Crewmen are particularly scarce. Low unemployment rates have kept laborers from the docks. Many choose to bypass work that government statistics place among the most dangerous jobs in the country.

Those willing to work sometimes struggle with alcohol and drug dependency. Ship captains routinely have applicants roll up their shirt sleeves to check for traces of heroin use.

Welch recently signed on two men with no fishing experience as crew: Eric Gomes, from the Cape Verde Islands and Javier Frias, from the Dominican Republic. They are both honest men, Welch says. On their first journey a few days earlier, Mr. Frias prayed over the engine as it sputtered with mechanical problems.

Still, Welch must devote much of his time to instruction. Before leaving the harbor, Mr. Gomes nearly allows water from a hose to trickle into the fuel tanks. Welch, frustrated, shouts directions. He soon realizes Gomes doesn't understand him. "It's hard when you can't communicate," says Welch.

Five hours later, bobbing in currents southwest of Martha's Vineyard, the crew pulls up three nets that had been left on the sea bottom for two days. For every four fish John picks, Gomes struggles to free just one. The nets are laden with skate, a wide, flat "junk" fish that, 10 years ago, fishermen threw back because nobody wanted it. Now, in some cases, it is all they can find.

New England's fish stocks, cod in particular, have been subject to large-scale fishing for more than 400 years. Many historians agree that the Puritans came to North America to fish cod as much as to flee religious intolerance.

The advent of steel and steam power at the turn of the 20th century, as well as of equipment that dragged nets along the ocean floor, rapidly accelerated the pace at which fish were taken from the sea.

In 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which reserved the water 200 miles off US borders for American fishermen alone. The government encouraged US fishermen to expand operations.

A decline of fish stocks quickly followed. Evidence of the decline was available as early as the 1980s, but it took rock-bottom stock levels in 1994 to prompt action. The government's response included a reduction of days at sea for all fleets by 50 percent of pre-1994 levels. Now, most fishermen may take fish from the water only 88 days a year, and can land only 400 pounds of cod each day.

The government also closed more than 5,000 square nautical miles of prime ground-fishing water and increased minimum mesh sizes for nets, a move meant to allow smaller fish to escape.

The regulations have taken their toll on fishermen. Between 1994 and 2000, the number of active fishing vessels fell 17 percent to 1,888, according to the New England Fishery Management Council. (The council is an advisory group comprised of state and federal appointees. It develops management plans for the fishery that are submitted to the Commerce secretary for approval.)

In 1996, the government even began buying up vessels and fishing permits in an effort to thin the fleet and assist fishermen struggling with past-due loan payments.

Despite the turmoil, the government has not come close to its goal of rebuilding fish stocks to the point where they can sustain high yields year after year.

Both conservationists and fishermen strongly criticize the management council for fumbling policy for more than a decade. But they disagree on a timetable for making amends.

Many fishermen report waters teeming with large, healthy fish, with stocks larger than they have been in 40 years. "I could pull out a metric ton in one day," says Dan Belforit, based in Scituate, Mass.

Even according to government statistics, the fisheries have rebounded substantially since 1996. "Of the 19 [species], there's probably less than five that aren't growing," says Tom Nies, an analyst with the council. Stocks of haddock and yellowtail flounder, for example, have grown significantly in Georges Bank, partly closed to fishermen since 1994.

Most fishermen support the regulations that have been in effect until now. But many believe they should be given some slack to make up for cutbacks they endured in the past, including a year in which they were held to 30 pounds of fish per day.

"We all made enormous sacrifices," says Barbara Stevenson, a member of the management council and owner of three boats in Portland, Maine. "It's extremely frustrating after having gone through all this to now be told that things are getting worse. Everybody should be declaring success."

There is disagreement, however, on how to define success. Conservation groups are citing the letter of the law, which requires all depleted fishing stocks to be rebuilt to allow for a maximum sustainable yield by 2009.

While most fishermen admit that the deadline would notbe met under the old rules, many say stocks can be rebuilt soon thereafter without new restrictions.

"If you can get there by 2011, why put fishermen out of work to get there two years earlier?" asks Ms. Stevenson.

The latest government data show that, among most groundfish species, only one out of every four mature fish is killed each season, according to Mike Sissenwine, director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., a public group that helps to conduct stock surveys for the government. The low mortality rates give fish a much higher chance of surviving to an older age and, in turn, breeding more offspring.

Yet there are important exceptions. Among them: mature Gulf of Maine cod, half of which are still extracted every season, and mature Cape Cod yellowtail flounder, which suffer a mortality rate of 75 percent, according to Mr. Sissenwine.

Despite significant progress, only one of the 18 ground-fish species has fully recovered from overfishing, and only four others have reached the halfway point.

Indeed, a recent study sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the North Atlantic has one-sixth the number of fish it had 100 years ago – but that fishing continues eight times more intensively.

"What you have now are some babies, and very few mommies," says Ellen Pikitch, director of marine conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. She says many of the fish are adolescents. Though they are large enough to be harvested, Ms. Pikitch says they will breed stronger fish if allowed to grow.

Pikitch likens the current demographic profile of fish to those located off the coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the late 1980s. That fishery is now shut down because there are so few fish to catch. "If we cannot take a sobering lesson from that experience," she says, "then we may very well repeat it."

The loss of fishing, others maintain, would have its own consequences. "The national interest is comprised of small pieces," says Scituate-based trawler Frank Mirarchi. "These fishing communities are every bit as important as agriculture."

Still at sea, but charting a new course

GLOUCESTER, MASS. - In America's oldest seaport, the mood these days is dour.

When news came a few weeks ago that the US government planned to reduce their number of days at sea by 20 percent, fishermen Dan Belforti and Robert Contrino realized they had no choice but to adjust.

"They've closed every door at this point, there's no way an inshore boat can make a living," says Mr. Belforti, whose 59-year-old boat, the St. Anna, is one of the oldest trawlers in Massachusetts.

The new regulations, Belforti says, will limit his annual catch to what he caught in one week 10 years ago.

Mr. Contrino, who fishes for ground fish and lobster, estimates that his earnings this year would fall 50 percent. Like many skippers, he must also contend with mortgage bills and college-tuition payments for two children.

Both men are confused and angry about the situation. Yet they still plan on making a living from the sea. They are currently enrolled with seven others here in a "captains' class," which provides students with training and a license to operate a boat in other commercial ventures, such as charter trips and whale watching.

"I want to spend the last years I have on this planet on the ocean that I love," says Contrino.

For centuries, charitable organizations and families have come together in this seaside city to support fishermen who can no longer work.

The Gloucester Fishermen and Families Assistance Center now fills much of that role. With a Labor Department grant, the center helps fishermen such as Belforti and Contrino to develop new job skills and, in many cases, pay for university and technical-school classes.

The names of fishermen who have gone through the retraining are written on fish-shaped, construction-paper cutouts hung on a wall. Many of the names are Italian, a reminder of the wave of Sicilians who came here in the early 20th century and still dominate local fishing.

Angela Sanfilippo, head of the retraining program, says Gloucester has lost close to 1,000 jobs over the past seven years, most of them related to the fishing industry.

The age of those leaving the industry is dropping every year, she says. The "captains' class" is comprised mostly of fishermen in their 40s.

Those unable to qualify for charter work often find work as carpenters, mechanics, or truck drivers, according to Ms. Sanfillipo.

A sluggish fishing industry has buffeted Gloucester for decades. In response, the state designated the city an Economic Target Area, offering local businesses a 5 percent tax credit. The city has recently attracted light industry and technology firms, among others.

Historian Joe Garland believes many in the fishing trade can now adapt their skills – including some high-tech know-how – for other employment. "Before mechanization, the sailors' skills were narrower," he says. "They had to know about rigging and tying ropes.... Now their skills are much broader."

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