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Net gains put fisheries 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 of fish.

In some cases, the lowered prices have led fishermen to harvest more ocean fish in compensation. About 40 percent of the nation's important saltwater species have been overfished, meaning more fish have been taken than there are young fish to replace them, according to a recent report by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Who is exactly 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 recreational and commercial 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 in remote areas.

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.

"It's been tough," said Jerry Sansom, executive director of the Organized Fishermen of Florida. "Unlike Alaska or New England, the effects of population growth are more pronounced here because we are a coastal fishery."

Experts seem to agree on a few points. Pollution has indeed played a role: Pacific salmon have disappeared because the freshwater streams where they spawn have been soiled or are blocked by dams. Restoring the streams may cost in excess of $2-billion in the Northwest.

But, the experts say, fishermen themselves are also to blame for taking more than the sea could give back in New England, the mid-Atlantic and the gulf.

"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.

A coalition of Florida conservation groups is gathering signatures to put the issue on the ballot in November. If passed, the referendum will put Sansom and approximately 1,500 net fishermen out of business.

"Habitat loss and pollution are serious issues," said David Lear of the Florida Conservation Association, the group leading the charge. "But overfishing is a problem that we feel can be easily corrected by stricter regulations for all user groups, including recreational fishermen."

Technology has made fishing so sophisticated that major marine areas can be cleaned out in a short time.

And the system set up to regulate these public resources is awash with conflicts of interest. Fishing in U.S. waters is regulated by eight regional councils, which themselves are dominated by the fishing industry. In most cases, they have been unable or unwilling to set fishing limits for themselves.

Critics say it is as if the national forests were handed over to the timber industry to decide how many trees to cut every year. The fishermen who defend the present system say the councils are weighted toward their industry because they are the most knowledgeable and have a self-interest in preserving their livelihood.

As a result, most fishing areas are free-for-alls, as fisherman try to catch as many fish as possible before a rival does. Congressional leaders say the councils will probably be remade this year as legislators consider reauthorizing the nation's fundamental fishing law, the Magnuson Act.

U.S. officials thought they could avoid becoming part of a global trend of overfishing when they passed the 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, the number of shrimpers increased significantly, although this led to a large decline in the species of fish, like red snapper, that are caught accidentally in the small-mesh shrimp nets.

And 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.

But now there are too many boats and not enough fish. Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, has proposed that government's pay fishermen to get out of the business. Here in Seattle, home port for most of the North Pacific trawlers, fishermen spend as much time in bankruptcy court as they do mending nets.

"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, a coalition of major environmental groups.

With boat mortgages and equipment costs to meet, some fishermen are loath to limit their take as a way of providing for future years, although some fishermen criticize that as shortsighted.

"The ocean is a farm," said Harold Lashley, 78, a retired Gloucester 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."

To protect the fish that are left, the government has closed a large part of Georges Bank, the continental shelf east of Cape Cod whose stocks of cod, haddock and flounder have been exhausted, and has approved a plan that by restricting fishing days will reduce the catch off New England by 50 percent over the next five to seven years.

The measures were put in place only after the council that is supposed to regulate New England fishing was sued in federal court. Similarly, on the West Coast, several groups are threatening lawsuits to force the regional council to protect fish species.

The council considered a total salmon-fishing ban two years ago but did not proceed, and the region is now seeing the lowest number of fish returning to spawn in memory.

There are several bright spots in U.S. fishing waters, primarily in areas with heavy regulation. New England lobster fishing has remained steady.

Striped bass and mackerel have made strong comebacks on the East Coast after conservation measures were put in place.

"There are real success stories," said Sansom of the OFF. "King and Spanish mackerel have really made a come back because of regulations.

That is one are where the the OFF and there counterparts in the recreational industry, the FCA, agree.

Offshore, Floridians now enjoy king and Spanish mackerel fishing so productive, there are now a string of tournaments geared specifically to those species. And inshore, recreational anglers enjoy a bounty of red drum and snook, two species protected from commercial netting.

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. In Alaska, 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.

If present trends hold, not only will major American fishing areas continue to decline, but the lives that revolve around them may also disappear. The Magnuson Act requires fishing managers to consider preserving "a way of life" as they try to conserve fish. But putting that into policy has been difficult.

Lashley, the Gloucester fisherman, says his family has been in fishing for hundreds of years, but that will change. Lashley said his grandson, Michael Lashley, 28, "will definitely be the last fishermen in the family."

Bob Spaeth, of the Southern Offshore Fishermen's Association in Madeira Beach, said there are no easy answers.

"The fishermen have been taking the blame for a long time," he said. "You want the problem? Just look at inshore development. But that's a political hot potato. Nobody wants to take on the developer. Where the construction industry goes, so does the economy."

_ Times staff writer Terry Tomalin contributed to this report.