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Inventive fisherman hopes for a net gain

Fish scales showered like snowflakes onto Luis Ribas as he attached a camera to the net swaying above the deck of the Blue Skies, his wood-hulled dragger. Down below, in the ship's dimly lit cabin, a fish scientist adjusted a monitor.

Slowly a grainy image of Ribas flickered into focus, and everything was ready. Here, 4 miles off Provincetown, Ribas is seeking a way to do what fishermen have spent generations trying not to do: Let fish out of the net.

Ribas, 44, is typical of the region's fishermen in many ways. He loves the work but struggles to wrest a living from the sea. And he chafes bitterly at the limits the government has placed on his catch.

But he also stands out as something of a visionary. He thinks he can save New England's fishing trade not by resisting the coming rules, but by radically rethinking the fishing net.

"Nets are the answer," says Ribas, a stocky, soft-spoken man. "People are losing their jobs, but if we fix the nets we solve everything."

The problem Ribas is tackling is formidable: Fishermen often find themselves barred from going after plentiful species -- like haddock or winter flounder -- because their nets pull up too much cod.

Ribas was led to his invention by something he had noticed during years of fishing. Codfish tend to swim up when they are threatened, while flounder dive for the bottom. So Ribas sewed a net with two types of mesh: a diamond pattern on the bottom that would catch flatfish species, and a wider, squarer mesh on top to let cod escape.

It is a simple, but ingenious idea that seemed promising enough that he and two biologists won a $100,000 research grant in 2000 to test it, alongside a similar European design.

Inspired by the success of a fisherman who designed a net that took in whiting but let threatened flatfish escape, Ribas has joined the growing ranks of net designers.

For Ribas, the early test results were both promising and troubling. While his net did reduce the cod catch by 75 percent, it let out too much of the valuable flounder -- 28 percent by his measurement. Other fishermen weren't interested in that sort of trade-off. His grant wasn't renewed.

But Ribas persevered with his tests, and has just won a larger grant. He is up until the early-morning hours, sketching new net designs, weaving samples from nylon and twine in his basement. The question, he says, is whether he will have enough success, and soon enough, to get the attention of his fellow fishermen and federal regulators before restrictions become too severe.

"Fishing is what we do," Ribas says. "We all need to work on the nets. It is the only answer I see."

Ribas has a sense of urgency about his mission because, like many, he is running out of money -- and time.

Under current fishery regulations, Ribas can fish a total of 89 days a year. And that, he says with chagrin, simply won't do. He barely earns enough to help his son Bruno, 22, through car mechanic school and to help send his daughter Andreia, a gifted writer, through college.

Already, the Portuguese immigrant can no longer afford insurance on his two boats. He works a second job at the town harbormaster's office. His wife, Maria, a soft-spoken woman who dreams of owning her own home, works six days a week as head housekeeper at a local resort.

"Times are a little difficult right now," Ribas says.

Ribas and his wife imagined a far different life when they arrived in southeastern Massachusetts in 1985. After years of working on a German factory trawler, Ribas had heard through friends and family that in Massachusetts, a fisherman could buy his own boat and be his own boss. Maria, Ribas thought, could finally have that house.

In 1991, seven years after starting off as a deckhand on a scalloping boat in New Bedford, Ribas bought a boat. But bad luck followed. One day he and his crew had to abandon ship 65 miles off Nantucket after his engine caught fire. Insurance barely covered his losses.

Although the work is dangerous, Ribas has kept at it. Now, with fishing regulations tightening, he finds himself full of doubt about the future. But he is also quietly confident that, in the end, the "Ribas Net" will win him a measure of notice, and prosperity.

"I could do something else, but I know fishing," he says, as Maria looked at him from across their living room. "This is what I want to do. And there are answers."

All he needs, he says, is time.

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