New England's Fishery in Decline Industry Leaders, Politicians React to Sharp Depletion of Popular Food Fish like Cod, Haddock

Article excerpt

FOR at least the 200th time, Peter Mahoney's left hand reaches down and starts the winch on his lobster boat, "Windemere.

The trawl line, then the trap attached to the line, snap out of the water. His right hand pushes the cage away from the boat's side. The returning arc elevates it.

Chad, his son, muscles the trap on board. Then, with hands surer than the claws of any lobster in the trap, he quickly tosses two "keepers" into the holding tank. Just as quickly, Chad drops five over the side - too small. The ratio is typical.

"Those five are the sign of a good fishery," says Mr. Mahoney with a nod and a smile at his son. "We'll catch them later."

The same can't be said with such confidence for his counterparts in the fin-fishing industry. In what once were some of America's richest fishing grounds, the catch this past year of New England groundfish - cod, haddock, flounder - was so poor that it totaled only half of traditional production.

"If the American farm belt were only growing half the grain and corn it traditionally did, great concern would result," says Jeff Pike, legislative assistant to US Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts. "That's exactly what has happened with the New England fishery." Mandate for changes

The current dire conditions mandate major changes in the management of the fishery, says Eleanor Dorsey of the Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization which last month filed a lawsuit against the United States Secretary of Commerce over the diminished fish stocks.

"Unless the depleted stocks of groundfish are allowed to rebuild, no one will earn a living in the ground fishery," says Ms. Dorsey.

The biomass of fish is a common heritage, and the 1977 Magnuson Act requires it be protected, she says:

"People who remain in the fishery, who reap the benefit of changes that produce an expanded fishery, should pay proportionately for this."

Such a position is difficult to argue with, and no one really is, says Frank Mirarchi, captain and owner of a 60-foot fishing trawler and chairman of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission.

But what fisherman are very concerned about, he says, is legislation and government control that results in a scenario in which investors, rather than laborers, control the fishery.

Does the fishing industry really want the marine equivalent of Consolidated Coal or the Weyerhaeuser Company, a forest products giant, to subcontract laborers on corporate-owned ships, like coal miners and loggers? Mr. Mirarchi asks.

"You don't need very good statistics to know what's going on," says Vaughn Anthony, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for the National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the Commerce Department's National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

"If you want to harvest large amounts of fish, you need to keep certain spawning stock in place," he explains.

Since the Magnuson Act was passed in 1977, there has been a reduction of such stock from a factor of 100 down to a factor of 5 on certain species, Mr. …