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Fishermen: Federal red tape a threat to Northeast

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. - Looming federal deadlines to rebuild fish populations have ensnared fishermen in red tape and threatened their communities with extinction, legislators and fishermen told regulators at a summit here.

"Fifty percent of you will be out of business by August," Carlos Rafael, a commercial fisherman from this city, told a crowd of several hundred during the Northeast Fisheries Summit.

The conference was the latest forum in which fishermen, both commercial and recreational, say they are being driven to the edge by flawed regulations and questionable science - much of it the result of fast-approaching timetables. Federal regulators say the rules designed to rebuild fish populations aren't perfect but are the best available - and need to be implemented to see whether they can succeed. A recent fishermen's rally in Washington and a protest last week in East Hampton highlighted the urgency of the concerns.

Nowhere was the impact of the timetables felt more acutely than in the Northeast and this storied fishing port, where a new program goes into effect May 1.

Even as there are uncertainties about the "catch shares" program, which will allocate portions of the fish catch or a section of fisheries to community groups or co-ops, there's little doubt it will lead to "consolidation" among fishermen.

Rafael suggested that the federal National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees fisheries management, reduce its staff and $300-million budget proportionately.

Eric Schwaab - the recently named chief of the fisheries service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - acknowledged challenges and impacts. "The big challenge here is implementing the long-term vision while still recognizing the short-term realities" on fishermen, he said.

Panelists spoke of problems caused by the restrictions, and said one - throwing back large numbers of untargeted fish - is wasteful and not useful in conservation. In 2009, they said, Northeast fishermen caught 1.5 million pounds of yellowtail flounder and of that, 1.3 million pounds were thrown back.

"What I see out there is not conservation by far," said Tina Jackson, who fishes out of Point Judith, R.I., and is president of the American Alliance of Fishermen and Their Communities.

Meghan Lapp, a recent law school graduate who has trap-fished on the North Fork, said rules limiting the fluke catch for New York fishermen "don't make sense considering that a lot of [out-of-state boats] are fishing in the same waters" and taking considerably larger catches. "New York has an extremely viable fluke fishery," she added.

Julie Wormser, regional director for ocean programs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said while the science that most fishermen here complained about isn't perfect, fisheries managers have no choice but to rely on it.

"You're legally required to err on the side of caution," she said. Programs like catch shares, she said, are better than existing days-at-sea management programs - which limit the time, to the hour, fishermen can fish a specific area - because monitoring is better and fisherman aren't vying so fiercely for the same resource.

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