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A struggle for the sea's bounty

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff, 7/11/2000

APE COD BAY - Fishing is freedom. That's why Gary Ostrom chose this life, with its long hours and punishing work, its risks and uncertainty. His arms are thick and muscular from hauling lobster traps, his lionish face ruddy from the sun. The tangle of ropes on his deck - connecting sets of heavy traps - remind him of danger. Every year, someone he knows gets caught in the snarls and is lost overboard.


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But the freedom makes it worthwhile. At 41, Ostrom works for himself, riding his 32-foot boat alone, the radio cranked. He doesn't wear a watch; he goes out at dawn and returns when he runs out of bait. He sees things other people don't get to see. Some mornings, the fog hovers over Cape Cod, obscuring the houses, and the land looks new again.

Life would be perfect, he says, if not for a more recent and confounding set of worries: What size lobster is legal to catch, what sort of gear is legal to use, what will happen if, weeks or months from now, the government shuts down his fishing grounds? Ostrom spends more and more time at public meetings, explaining his perspective. He jokes that he needs a lawyer for a first mate.

''I used to say that I got into fishing because I didn't like politics,'' he says. ''And now, it seems fishing's all politics.''

The New England fisherman's life - a life that's older than the nation, romanticized in literature and art - is a lot more complicated than it used to be. True, the joys and dangers are largely the same. And the work is still, at heart, a fight against the sea, the sort of struggle captured in the best-selling book and current hit film, ''The Perfect Storm.''

But if the ocean was once the chief enemy, many fishermen battle as much these days with the government. The fights take place in slow motion, on dry land, over the intricacies of the regulations: How big should a fish be before it's legal to catch? How many pounds should fishermen take from the water each year? When should they start fishing? When should they stop?

The rumblings of change began a quarter-century ago, when scientists started to warn that fish populations were in danger. Reality hit in 1994, when federal fisheries managers closed Georges Bank, the once unimaginably fertile fishing ground off the Massachusetts coast. Regulators also ushered in stringent controls that affected all fishermen, no matter where they worked.

Fish populations are rebounding now, but fears remain. And fisheries management has evolved into a push-and-pull between those who preach caution and those who think the government is far too slow to respond to new, good news.

This generation of fishermen is the first to face real limits. For Ostrom and hundreds of other New England fishermen, the adjustment hasn't been easy.

It was during the 1970s - the good times - when Bill Amaru started fishing, harvesting cod and haddock from the waters off Massachusetts. The bounty seemed endless, and fishermen treated it that way.

The fishing industry has always evolved to embrace new technology, says Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Over this century alone, fishermen went from using sailboats to steam-powered boats, from steam engines to diesel, from wooden hulls to steel. At about the time Amaru started fishing, the industry began to borrow military technology, using radar and satellites to locate fish.

Fishing was more efficient, the harvests greater, than ever before. Ten years into his career, Amaru recognized the risk: Someday, there might be no fish left.

Some fishermen agreed. Many scientists agreed. But the situation was hard to change. As recently as the early 1990s, the regional council charged with controlling the waters - made up of fisheries managers and political appointees - was still weighted toward the fishing industry. Everyone from fishermen to doctors and lawyers had invested heavily in fishing boats. Banks had made generous loans. And fishermen, with payments to meet and families to feed, had trouble imagining that their lives would have to change.

''We were just simply kidding ourselves,'' says Amaru, who started to speak out at public meetings on conservation, drawing an angry response from his peers. By 1991, two conservation agencies had filed suit against the US Secretary of Commerce, charging that the government wasn't enforcing laws that protect marine life. At about that time, scientists were reporting dire news: The cod population in Georges Bank was nearing a biological collapse.

The lawsuit led not just to the closure of Georges Bank, but to a new way of managing the industry. Today's fishermen can only fish half as many days as their predecessors. Their nets must have larger openings; their traps must have escape hatches. And access to the business is limited. Now, the only way to get a professional license is to buy one from a fisherman.

The changes haven't gone down easily, says Amaru, who joined the New England Fisheries Management Council five years ago. Many fishermen are angry and bitter and blame people like him.

But conservation appears to be paying off. Fish stocks are rising on Georges Bank. ''It's phenomenal,'' says Amaru. So much so that he believes it's time to relax some restrictions. ''If anything,'' he says, ''we have a problem of not being able to catch enough.''

Which leads to tomorrow's debate. Now that the fish are returning, how much fishing should the government permit - in order to be fair to fishermen and safe for the fish population?

Close to the shores of Cape Cod Bay, the water is littered with colored buoys, each marking somebody's lobster traps. Every day, Gary Ostrom finds his markers, pulls up his traps, and measures the lobsters inside with a metal gauge.

If a lobster is too big or too small, he throws it back. If a female hasn't shed her eggs, he throws her back. On an average day, two-thirds of his catch returns to the water. Ostrom says he doesn't mind. ''You take them now,'' he says, ''you're throwing away your future.''

Like most fishermen, Ostrom recognizes the need for conservation. But like most, he also grumbles that the current rules are flawed: too stringent, too byzantine, too slow to translate new information into policy. Especially now that the fish are returning.

Cod are ''coming back like gangbusters'' in the Gulf of Maine, says Molly Benjamin, a longtime fisherman from Cape Cod. It's a fact few scientists dispute. But because of legal limits on each boat's catch, she says, fishermen end up tossing dead fish back into the sea.

They're ''pitching over hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds with no practical use except feeding seagulls,'' she says. ''It's killing something for no reason.''

But fisheries managers continue to preach caution, even in the face of abundance. A large population today is no guarantee of fish in the future, Frady says. And as species continue to rebound, she concedes, the temptations will only increase.

''It'll take you less time and effort and risk to harvest more than you're harvesting now,'' she says. The challenge will come in resisting.

It will also come in adapting, becoming more comfortable with the fishing industry's inevitable changes. Something not all sons and daughters of fishermen want to do.

Young fishermen on Cape Cod used to have pride and ''jingle in their pockets,'' Benjamin says. Now ''I look at the kids around here, the recent high school graduates, and most of them are banging nails. 'Cause that's where the money is.''

Some of them, though, will always want to fish. They'll have it in their blood. Like Ostrom, who caught the bug as a child, vacationing on the Cape. Or Linda Greenlaw, a swordfishing captain featured in ''The Perfect Storm,'' who fished over summers as a college student, and didn't want to stop.

Or, perhaps, like Ostrom's 8-year-old son, Josh, who will spend a whole day lobstering with his dad and then come home and ask, ''Can we go fishing?''

By the time he's old enough to make a living on his own, some of the current conflicts will probably be resolved. And more and more fishermen will probably work like Joel Fox.

At 61, Fox is a large, weathered man with a classic-looking fisherman's white beard and a classic fisherman's no-nonsense way of talking. But his method of harvesting oysters and clams is a sign of the future, not the past.

When he moved to Cape Cod in the early 1980s, abandoning a toolsetting job for a fisherman's life, shellfish were harvested by boat. Thirty or 40 boats worked the Cape, collecting 50 bushelsful of oysters every day. Aquaculture - the practice of raising the shellfish yourself - was relatively new and largely dismissed.

''People told me I was completely out of my mind for buying quahog seeds in a hatchery and planting them,'' Fox says.

Twenty years later, Fox is one of dozens of fishermen who lease land on the Wellfleet shores. They buy millions of tiny clams at a time - each about eight millimeters wide - and drop them into the sand at low tide.

''You plant 'em like you plant radish seeds,'' Fox says. And then you let them grow. Within two years, Fox can dig a rake into the sand and come up with hundreds of clams, a bounty.

Aquaculture may be an answer to the fisheries dilemma, but it hasn't yet arrived in force. The United States lags behind other countries in encouraging the programs, Frady says. And not all fish lend themselves to safe, ecological farming. For now, the practice is largely limited to fresh-water fish in high demand, such as catfish and tilapia, or premium fish that command high prices, such as Atlantic salmon.

Not to mention shellfish, which is attracting more interest from fishermen. Molly Benjamin just started a crop of her own.

Planting fish isn't quite the same experience as harvesting them from the sea, Benjamin says. ''It's not the same rush as fishing.'' But it clearly has its joys: ''You just never get over that giggle of digging your rake.''

And you never get over the life, Fox says. He sets his schedule according to the tide, harvests as much or as little as he wants, decides when to start and when to stop. It's a good life, he says. It's freedom.

''You don't punch a time clock, that's for sure. You're accountable only to yourself. Independence, I guess, is the word,'' Fox says. ''I did that for 20 years when I punched a time clock. I'd never go back. No way.''



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