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New England Fishermen Wrestle With Fishing Restrictions

May 18, 1996

BOSTON (AP) _ After nine days at sea, the trawler Morue reached port Friday with a pretty good catch.

But instead of unloading the more popular cod and flounder _ the very symbols of New England’s long and glorious maritime history _ the fishing boat’s weary crew hefted once-disdained monkfish onto the pier.

Strict catch limits on popular kinds of fish are forcing Mark Theroux and skippers of 1,700 other New England fishing boats to scramble to stay in business; Theroux now hunts for fish he once threw away, like monkfish. Now, more federal regulations are about to make life even tougher for him and his crew.

``That’s a very expensive boat,″ Theroux said. ``These five guys all have kids. You’ve got to make money. This is no joke.″

Rules passed Thursday by the New England Fishery Management Council will cut in half by next year the number of days fishing boats can spend at sea and will close some fishing grounds and limit the total groundfish catch by July.

Federal officials had already closed parts of the rich Georges Bank fishing area and cut back the number of days boats could spend at sea in the early 1990s to protect the supply of groundfish _ chiefly cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder swimming near the ocean bottom.

The groundfish are at just one-fourth of the level considered acceptable by regulators. But fishermen say they, too, are a threatened species.

``The fish need to have a chance and we need to have a chance,″ said Dominic Patania, a boat owner whose family has been fishing for generations.

The history of New England is intertwined with the sea. Colonists in Massachusetts built the first American warship in 1632 and used it to fight pirates.

Gloucester, founded in 1623, was America’s first fishing settlement. Whaling dominated life in New Bedford, Provincetown and Nantucket and fired the national imagination through books by Herman Melville and scores of lesser writers.

But the skippers of old never had to worry about exceeding their allowance of days at sea, or their catch limit on haddock.

The fishermen point to a number of factors for the dwindling supply of groundfish, including tax breaks in the 1970s that encouraged too many people to buy boats. They also blame pollution and shoreline construction.

``You have to look at the ocean as a whole ecosystem,″ said Jim Bramante, whose family owns four boats. ``You can’t destroy everything else and then blame it all on the fishermen.″

The catch of cod, flounder and haddock dropped dramatically in the 1980s as fishing boats became more efficient and remained largely unregulated. Since the early 1980s, the cod dropped 54 percent from an average 39,000 metric tons per ship, per year, to 18,000 metric tons in 1994. Yellowtail flounder fell 84 percent, from 14,000 to 3,000 metric tons,.

In 1994, the council barred new boats from entering the beleaguered fisheries. At the time, there were about 5,000 fishing permits and roughly 1,100 active fishing boats. Today, there are about 1,700 permits out and fewer boats, but exact figures are unavailable.

Theroux has done his best to adapt to the changing rules since he made a down payment on the 84-foot Morue in 1990.

The boat is packed with modern equipment. He has expanded his fishing to target what used to be considered ``trash″ fish: monkfish, scup and sea bass. He goes after squid, and spent money to outfit his boat with lobster traps.

He also makes day-to-day decisions about whether groundfish prices are high enough to warrant using up his precious allowance of fishing days.

When haddock and cod are selling cheap, like they are now, he sticks to unregulated species like monkfish. The council, however, has lately begun developing a plan to conserve the monkfish.

He has been fishing for 15 years, and he is tired. If the government offered him a good price for his boat, Theroux said, he’d take it.

``It’s not fun any more,″ he said. ``I got into it because it was like an adventure. Now it’s drudgery.″

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