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Portsmouth, N.H. - New England fishermen say their centuries-old industry is facing collapse after regulators on Wednesday approved cuts in cod catch limits that fishermen warn will hollow out what remains of the fleet.
"I'm bankrupt. That's it," Gloucester fisherman Paul Vitale, 40, a third-generation fisherman. "I'm all done. The boat's going up for sale."
The New England Fishery Management Council approved a year-to-year cut of 77 percent on the Gulf of Maine cod limit and 61 percent for Georges Bank cod. The move is expected to be backed by federal managers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Fishermen who chase the region's bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and flounder, say the cuts are unjustified and leave them with far too few fish to catch to make a living.
"We are headed down the wrong course here, of exterminating the inshore fleet, for no good reason," said David Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman and council member.
NOAA's top federal fisheries regulator, John Bullard, acknowledged the cuts will be devastating, but he said tough action was the only way to reverse the industry's steady, excruciating decline.
"The first thing we have to do is put denial behind us," he said.
The cuts hit an industry that was a crucial part of the nation's early economy and one imbued with the risk and romance of man versus nature that's depicted in the famous "Man at the Wheel" statue in Gloucester of a fisherman facing the sea. The valuable cod, meanwhile, is so embedded in local history that Massachusetts' famous cape was named after it.
The new low limits on cod reduce the catch to just a fraction of what it once was and prevent fishermen from landing more plentiful species, such as haddock and pollock. That's because fishermen can't pull up the healthier groundfish without catching too much of the cod that swim among them.
The catch limits approved Wednesday go into effect May 1, the start of the 2013 fishing year, and combine with a slew of reductions, ranging from 10 to 71 percent, on other local species of haddock and flounder.
An economic analysis by the council indicated that the cuts would reduce overall groundfish revenues by 33 percent, from about $90 million in 2011 to about $60 million in 2013. But fishermen said the projection is too optimistic.
"It's fantasy," Goethel said. "I mean, I'd rather go to Disney World. I've got a better chance of meeting Peter Pan."
Fishermen have consistently disputed the accuracy of the fish science driving the cuts, which indicates that stocks are in bad shape. Maine fisherman Jim Odlin, a former council member, pointed to an analysis that shows for about the last decade, the industry has generally fished at or below levels recommended by science.
"It can't be this council's fault or the industry's fault that the advice we've gotten for 10 years is wrong," he told the council Wednesday.
Brian Loftus, a Point Judith, R.I., fisherman, blasted the council, saying its management has been "a complete and utter failure for everybody."
But Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation said fish populations are struggling, and the council had to cut catch limits drastically so the stock can recover.
"A far worse result would be to fail to take the kind of action that would secure a future for this fishery," he said.
The massive reductions have been foreseen by fishermen and regulators for months, but attempts to avoid or mitigate them have failed.
Last year, the U.S. Senate committed $150 million in its Superstorm Sandy relief bill to be shared by fishermen in the Gulf Coast, Alaska and New England, where a national fishery disaster has been declared. But House lawmakers stripped out the funding, and the bill passed Monday with nothing for local fishermen.
The Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group, lobbied to extend an interim measure that allowed the industry to put off huge cuts in cod and haddock in the Gulf of Maine in 2012. Bullard rejected that, saying there was no legal justification. Several lawmakers who represent fishing communities have asked him to reconsider, but Bullard said Wednesday that he wouldn't, citing the law and the persistent poor health of key fish stocks.
"The day of reckoning is here, for legal reasons and for reasons of biology," he said.