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Net gains have left fishery in crisis

For the volunteers who count fish returning from the sea to freshwater, this has been the loneliest year ever.

The surging Pacific salmon and steelhead are gone; what the fish counters at the Puget Sound ship locks see when they stare at the glass wall separating them from the water is nothing but a reflection of their own faces.

Across the country, in Gloucester and New Bedford, Mass., the story is the same. After 350 years, the oldest American fishing area is largely barren of the great swarms of haddock, cod and flounder that sustained more than 10 generations of New Englanders and became millions of fish sticks.

The Atlantic fishermen have asked that the government treat them like earthquake disaster victims. Last week, they honked their boat horns in Boston Harbor to draw attention to their plight. To some, it was a funeral dirge.

From Chesapeake Bay, where oystermen are fading like fog in the afternoon sun, to the Gulf of Mexico, where the red snapper fishery has bottomed out, people who fish the sea for a living are singing the same sad song.

Government officials say most of the major commercial fishing areas in this country outside Alaska are in trouble, and worldwide, 13 of the 17 principal fishing zones are depleted or in steep decline.

As for salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and three main commercial species in New England, the decline is catastrophic _ threatening to wipe out not just whole industries, but cultures and communities that are fused to the cycles of tide and sea currents.

For the first time, there may be no ocean salmon fishing on the Pacific Coast this year, a situation roughly akin to Georgia not producing any peaches.

Fishing communities in Massachusetts are in such bad shape that Gov. William Weld last week requested emergency financial aid from the federal government. Thousands of fishermen are in danger of losing their homes and boats this spring, Weld said.

Aside from devotees of wild fish, however, consumers may not notice a shortage of fish at the supermarket. In recent years, farm fish raised in pens in Norway or South America have flooded the market, driving down the price.

In some cases, the lowered prices have led fishermen to harvest more ocean fish in compensation.

Who is at fault in the decline is much debated.

"You can't just put all the blame on commercial fishermen," said Russ Nelson, executive director of the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission, the state agency given the difficult task of balancing fishing interests with environmental stewardship.

"There are a lot of factors _ economic and environmental _ it's everybody's fault."

Old-time fishermen blame factory trawlers _ boats the size of football fields that use sonar and satellite communications to track huge schools of fish.

The trawler owners blame small-boat operators who do not follow the rules, fishing out of season or using illegal nets.

Environmentalists blame, among others, industries that have drained wetlands and dumped toxins into shallow bays.

"You can boil it all down to the fact that there are far too many fishermen and not enough fish," said Dick Schaefer, the conservation director of the national fisheries service.

U.S. officials thought they could avoid becoming part of a global trend of overfishing when they passed the Magnuson Act in 1976. It expanded the coastal economic zone claimed by the United States from 3 miles offshore to 200 miles, effectively chasing away large foreign fishing fleets.

But with foreign fishermen gone, Americans began to build up their fleet, purchasing huge vessels and equipment with low-interest loans backed by the government.

For several years, times were good. In the North Pacific, fishermen took in $1.5-billion a year for their Alaskan pollock.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the number of shrimpers increased significantly, although this led to a large decline in species like red snapper that are caught accidentally in the small-mesh shrimp nets.

In New England, many fishermen had record years as they went after the bounty that had been claimed by boats from Russia, Germany and Spain.

"The problem of foreign overfishing has been replaced by even more serious overfishing by the American fishing industry," said Valerie Christy, a spokeswoman for the Marine Conservation Network.

There are several bright spots in U.S. fishing waters, primarily in areas with heavy regulation.

In Alaska, the nation's most productive fishing waters, the salmon catch last year was a record 200-million fish.

Some experts point to Alaska salmon as an example of how to manage fish.

Fishermen are allowed to go after the catch only after state officials determine that enough fish to sustain future generations have returned to spawning grounds. And there is a limit on the number of fishermen.

Most other American fisheries are wide open, with no restrictions on either fish or who catches them.

"The ocean is a farm," said 78-year-old Harold Lashley, a retired Gloucester, Mass., fisherman. "If you take away all the feed and the females, when it comes time to plant, you haven't got any seed.

"Leave it alone. Seed the ocean and allow the fish to grow."

_ Times staff writer Terry Tomalin contributed to this report.