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Mar 3, 2010 12:13 PM by Bea Karnes, News First 5

Massachusetts fishermen warn of dire future

Fisherman Al Cottone gestured to his fishing boat, tucked in a cold corner of Gloucester harbor Tuesday, and told the nation's fisheries chief he might not be in business much longer.

A decade ago, Cottone downsized to the small, 45-foot dragger after his fishing partner, his father, retired. He planned to upgrade, he told National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco. But ever-tighter rules left him without the catch and cash to get it done.

Now, a May 1 switch to a new management system has him on the brink of shutting down, he said.

"We're in panic mode," Cottone, 44, told Lubchenco. "I mean, I don't know if you realize that we're in panic mode."

"I heard that loud and clear," Lubchenco responded.

Cottone was among about two dozen fishermen who'd met earlier Tuesday with Lubchenco. In civil, fervent tones, they asked her to intervene in what they described as the unnecessary gutting of their industry.

Fishermen in this historic port say that after years of absorbing tough cuts with a promise they'd benefit from rebuilt stocks, the new system allots them too little catch to make a living. Nearly every fisherman in a bank basement conference room raised their hand when asked if the new rules would put them out of business.

"We are increasing fish stocks, they're going up and up and up," said Dennis O'Connell, 60. "Why do we have to stop and throw everyone out of business?"

Lubchenco said she recognized the situation was dire, but she said with little time before the rules are enacted in May, it wasn't yet clear what could be done.

"We're going try to find some solutions, but I'm not sure what that looks like yet," she said in an interview after she toured the Gloucester waterfront.

Federal regulators say that though progress has been made in rebuilding key groundfish populations such as cod and haddock, 12 of the 19 groundfish stocks under federal management plans are being overfished.

Lubchenco said groundfish stocks still are not healthy enough to sustain historic fishing communities such as Gloucester and New Bedford.

"Our goal is to continue rebuilding, but do so in way that makes for good fishing jobs and healthy communities," she said.

Lubchenco's meeting with the fishermen came hours before her testimony at a Congressional hearing at Gloucester City Hall on fishery enforcement, and about two months before the May 1 change to the new management system.

The current system tried to stop overfishing by curbing fishermen's effort, such as by forcing them to use more inefficient gear or cutting down their fishing days. Some have as few as 24 fishing days annually. The tough measures have nearly halved the Northeast fishing fleet, which fell to just under 600 working groundfish boats in 2007 from about 1,100 in 2001.

The new system breaks fishermen into "sectors," or groups of fishermen who combine their catch allotments and manage it among themselves. The idea is to increase fishermen's autonomy and profits while protecting the fish with tough catch limits.

Fishermen worry breaking the catch into individual shares will lead to massive consolidation that wipes out fishing communities as the shares are scarfed up by large companies run by people who, fishermen Russell Sherman said, "never got any saltwater on their tongue."

"The fish have been put at the forefront, and the people have been thrown to the bottom," he told Lubchenco.

On Tuesday, several fishermen said their catch allotments were absurdly low, and unevenly given out.

They criticized the method of determining the catch allotments, which for many were based largely on the amount of fish a fisherman caught between 1996 and 2006. Some said that was a period when they were laying off groundfish, as regulators wanted, so their catch was lower and that hurt them when new allotments were determined.

Various ways to help fishermen in the near-term were discussed, including finding money to buy out fishermen looking for an exit, or to help keep fishermen in business. Other ideas included changing federal law to give fishermen more time to rebuild species, which would ease restrictions.

Lubchenco made no promises, but said she would work on solutions. Cottone was skeptical any changes would come fast enough to make a difference.

"I'll believe it when I see it," he said.

 

 

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