Northeast Fishermen Find It's Harder to Make Living

THE crew aboard the Rhode Island trawler "Excalibur" is wasting no time unloading this day's harvest. The men work quickly as they haul off cardboard boxes filled with whiting fish packed in ice.

Prepackaging fish on the boat helps fishermen improve the quality of their product. Excalibur owner Joe Hovanesian says it is a way to make up for depleting stocks in New England waters. "Hopefully, if we get quality, then we can get away from going out and just catching anything."

Mr. Hovanesian and other fishermen are struggling to cope with increasing restrictions on fishing in New England. Over the last few years, depleted stocks have led to government-imposed conservation measures. These days, fisherman are fuming over even more regulations on catching ground fish as proposed by the New England Fishery Management Council. Ground fish include haddock, cod, flounder, and yellowtail fish. New England and Canadian fishermen catch ground fish at Georges Bank, a rich fishing area of f the Northeast.

Over the past few months, the New England Fishery Management Council, a federally funded agency, has held public hearings on the proposed rules. The council hopes to draw up regulations by August. Final approval by the United States Commerce Department could take several months.

The proposed regulations would place restrictions on days fishermen can fish at sea, limit the number of new vessel permits, and make further increases in the standardized mesh size for ground-fishing nets, among other things. The hope is that the new rules will reduce the rate at which ground fish are being caught by 50 percent over five to seven years.

Conservationists, fishermen, and government regulators agree that something must be done to build up stocks. But fishermen say regulations are too strict and often poorly executed.

`THERE are just too many fishermen, too many boats, and not enough resources," says Joe Dealteris, a fisheries professor at the University of Rhode Island.

New England fishermen have also been fighting a related battle over access to Georges Bank, concerning the emergency closing this month of a 500-square portion of the bank by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The area is normally closed from February through May to protect spawning haddock, but it reopens again in June.

In response to the closure, hundreds of angry fishermen from New England ports held protests in Boston and Gloucester, Mass. Massachusetts Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) and John Kerry (D) lobbied on behalf of the fishermen.

As a result, federal officials announced Friday the reopening of the area after a meeting with fishermen at the Gloucester regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Fishermen were pleased with the decision, but some are still upset about a 2,500-pound trip limit on haddock catches in the 500-square mile area of Georges Bank.

Chris Trupiano, skipper of the Gloucester-based "Stella Del Mare," says New England fishermen are competing against Canadians who do not face such strict regulations and are subsidized by their government. He says the Canadians who fish at Georges Bank sell their fish for cheaper prices in US markets. "What are we doing? We are conserving for the Canadians."

At the Gloucester meeting, Douglas Hall, assistant secretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, apologized for the closing of Georges Bank. Also, he announced the formation of a task force to help assist the region's industry.

Fishermen will continue to battle US and regional officials during ongoing discussions over ground-fishing restrictions. US fishery officials acknowledge that their plan will mean sacrifices, but they argue that if nothing is done, the situation will get worse.

In Rhode Island, Hovanesian says he is concerned about the proposed rules concerning mesh size. "I feel that I can go and make a living [as a fisherman] but not if the government tells me I can't."

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