A careful balance on a rolling sea

You don't have to work at sea to form an almost symbiotic bond with it. Summer nights lazily casting for stripers can do it.

I like to head up to Plum Island, a spit of sand below Newburyport, Mass., carrying two long poles and a Tupperware tub of mackerel chunks as bait. Even when nothing bites but greenhead flies, I never feel I've come away empty.

The size of a "keeper" varies from year to year and among types of fish. Historically, that has been the only real restriction imposed on recreational ocean anglers. When a bid to require a saltwater fishing license began in Rhode Island recently, surf-casters shouted it down.

Commercial fishermen are even more resistant to what they see as official intrusion. Many of those who go down to the sea in diesel-powered boats share a spiritual affinity for the freedom of fishing.

But the issue runs deeper.

Because they can't get by on just sunrises – as we casual surf-casters can – most fishermen adapt any new technology they can find to help boost their catches.

The problem: Technology always manages to outpace the ocean's ability to regenerate.

Fishermen understand that their harvest must be managed. Many also think they understand the realities of fisheries management better than scientists do – and that new government moves to boost fish stocks have hung them out to dry.

"Who would ever venture a penny in this business now?" asks Robert Contrino, a fisherman out of Rockport, Mass.

To answer that question, two Monitor writers fished with first-year captain John Welch. They also plumbed both sides of the bitter debate over regulations, and found they share a noble goal: to strike a sustainable balance with the sea.

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