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New England fishermen protest federal regulations in letter to Congress

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Jan. 30, 2013: Jim Weinberg, left, and Capt. Peter DeCola of the First U.S. Coast Guard District in Boston, right, confer during during the New England Fishery Management Council meeting in Portsmouth, N.H. (ap)

New England fishermen facing a dire future for their industry asked Congress in a letter Tuesday for immediate help surviving deep and impending cuts to their catch limits.

The letter, signed by 173 fishermen in ports from Connecticut to Maine, came as the industry prepares for May 1 catch reductions that fishermen warn could finish off the fleet.

A 77 percent cut in the catch limit for cod in the Gulf of Maine and a 61 percent decrease in the cod limit in Georges Bank, off southeastern New England, are the most significant in an array of 2013 catch reductions on bottom-dwelling groundfish.

The letter described the situation as "simply unbelievable" following rosy promises by regulators of healthier fish stocks and economic stability if previous regulations were enacted.

"There is no stability," said the letter, which was sent to 14 regional Congressmen and 12 U.S. Senators. "There are only repeated, record reductions in catch limits. Prosperity is a discarded dream. This is a real disaster."

The letter blamed "the failure of government policies and programs" to accept that current science is inadequate to effectively manage the fishery. It said the fleet has fished within government-set catch limits on every species for nearly a decade.

"We lived within their quotas, but it is now our businesses, our families and our communities that will be paying the price," the fishermen wrote.

In a statement, the Northeast's top federal regulator, John Bullard of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, defended the science, noting the catch of cod in the Gulf of Maine is way down this year, and the science says cod there are scarce.

"In 2013 we expect to take severe quota cuts because key groundfish stocks aren't recovering." Bullard said. "The situation we now find ourselves in is a shared responsibility and it will take a shared effort to fix it."

Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating, who received the letter, said it "resonates with the desperation of our fishing industry" as it faces the cuts.

"It is our responsibility as legislators to mitigate this impact as best we can and ensure that Massachusetts' historic industry survives," he said.

The fishermen hint in the letter that federal regulators have intentionally crippled the industry, reflecting a belief common in the industry-- and vigorously disputed by regulators-- that the government has tried to force smaller boats from the fleet and create an easier-to-manage fishery with a few large players. Regarding the low catch allotments and lack of aid, the fishermen wrote it's "difficult for many of us to believe that this was just a coincidence."

Bullard said regulators have worked hard to help fishermen, citing examples including last week's decision to allow them to increase next year's catch by carrying over a percentage of what they don't catch this year.

The fishermen asked the lawmakers to press for the extension of a 2012 measure that would mean far less drastic cuts in certain species of cod and haddock.

They said regulators should fix fishery science and cover the costs of mandated at-sea catch observers, estimated at about $6.7 million next year. Bullard said regulators are looking into what they can do to help with fishery monitoring costs.

The letter also asked for federal disaster aid, which was stripped by the U.S. House of Representatives out of the recent Superstorm Sandy relief bill.

The fishermen end by writing, "For many of us this is probably our last shot at survival."