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As grim fishing year approaches, industry tries to deal with new catch limits

Deep cuts in catch limits will hit New England's fishing fleet in less than three weeks, and there's little hint any real relief is coming. But regulators and fishermen are still seeking ways to lessen a blow fishermen warn will finish them off.

In recent months, federal regulators have pushed several measures that aim to give fishermen more fish to catch by the May 1 start of the 2013 fishing year. Meanwhile, fishing groups and lawmakers are lobbying for changes that would make year-to-year cuts in the crucial Gulf of Maine cod species less severe.

As time grows short, Gloucester's Al Cottone said he and his fellow fishermen seem to be facing the future in a sort of "state of shock."

"Everyone's in denial. They still think, you know, someone's going to come in on their white horse and save us," he said.

The 2013 catch limit reductions come as science indicates key populations of bottom-dwelling groundfish -- such as cod and flounder -- are weak and recovering too slowly.

In January, regional managers approved a broad slate of cuts in catch limits to rebuild fish stocks, including a 77 percent year-to-year reduction in catch of cod in the Gulf of Maine and 61 percent in the catch of cod on Georges Bank.

Fishermen predict the range of cuts will kill the centuries-old fleet, while regulators acknowledge industry upheaval is ahead.

The cuts follow a down 2012 fishing year that's seen fishermen catch well below their allotments on several key species.

That's proof, some have argued, that the fish are in trouble, and it also shows the coming cuts might not be as brutal as feared.

For instance, the 61 percent year-to-year cut on the quota for Georges Bank cod doesn't look as harsh when the total allotment for the cod in 2013 is still more than fishermen are on pace to catch this fishing year.

But fishermen say the cuts are so broad, and involve so many key species, that they simply leave the industry with too few fish to make a living. So the aim of many mitigation measures proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is to make more fish available to the fleet.

For instance, regulators have proposed increasing catch allotments for healthier species, including white hake, dogfish and monkfish, which are alternative species for many groundfishermen.

The winter flounder that swim in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic could again be available to catch for the first time since 2009, with regulators saying the species is now healthy enough to fish.

Fishermen could also boost their quotas by transferring over a percentage of whatever they didn't catch from their 2012 allotments.

One controversial proposal opens up segments of long-closed fishing areas off New England, so fishermen can better chase robust stocks that live there, including redfish and haddock.

But that's strongly opposed by environmentalists who worry fishermen could devastate a last refuge for a struggling species. The issue won't be decided before May.

Federal regulators have also pledged to find $6.7 million to cover the cost of hiring required at-sea catch monitors.

The Northeast's top fishing regulator, John Bullard, said no one's pretending the proposals will help fishermen escape the pain of the cuts.

"Cushion the blow is probably the right term," he said. "We're not going to avoid the blow."

Jackie Odell of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group, said the measures will help some fishermen, but most won't see much difference.

Her group is seeking broader relief through the extension of emergency interim measures -- first enacted for 2012 -- that could significantly reduce the cuts on Gulf of Maine cod and haddock.

Bullard, though, has been unconvinced, saying that it's not legal and that easing the cuts will do nothing for fishermen or species that are clearly struggling.

Massachusetts lawmakers are trying to go over Bullard's head and have asked Gov. Deval Patrick to lobby his close friend President Barack Obama to get the interim measures enacted.

Meanwhile, various requests for federal disaster aid for fishermen have circulated in recent months, so far to no effect.

Odell emphasized that stocks are struggling even though fishermen haven't exceeded their fishing limits for years.

There is a fundamental problem with how fisheries are managed, she said, and the industry urgently needs support until changes can be made.

"People have got to be focused on opportunities and bridges, whether it's money, whether it's policies, whether it's programs, whether it's interim rules," she said. "What are people doing to help the industry?"

Cottone, the Gloucester fisherman, said he hasn't a clue what he'll do when May 1 comes. He's also unsure of what, if anything, could make a real difference for an industry on the brink of disaster.

Cottone said he's been allotted so few fish this year that he could hit his catch limits on all of them in a single tow. And then what?

"No one knows what they're going to do," he said. "Nobody."

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