Fish-depleted seas leave fishermen high and dry

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

October 31, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- Sebastian "Busty" Moceri leaned into a table at a wharfside restaurant, pinched two paychecks between blunt, workingman's fingers and let the yellow papers droop like two dead fish.

"Seven hundred dollars for three weeks work. There's no fish and there's no money," the Sicilian-born fisherman scowled, lines of disgust stitching his weathered brow. "We're going down the drain day by day. But what are we to do? It's our life."

And so, in a 2 a.m. ritual he knows by rote, the 62-year-old Mr. Moceri departed Gloucester Saturday for the waters off Provincetown -- to set the nets aboard the 80-foot trawler Morningstar, to work like a dog, and to pray for fish.

But even that won't help if the government goes ahead and closes Georges Bank, as it is being urged to. If that comes to pass, Mr. Moceri and other seamen across this once-fertile region face what could be the mortal blow to their beleaguered livelihood and traditional way of life.

Because centuries of overfishing have perilously depleted stocks of haddock, cod, and flounder, biologists say that virtually banning fishing is the only way to give the fish time to replenish.

The 17-member New England Fisheries Management Council, a body created in 1972 along with the 200-mile-limit law, voted unanimously on Wednesday to draw up regulations that would reduce the catch of ground fish, as the depleted fish are known, to almost nothing. This latest round of proposed regulations comes on top of earlier restrictions on fishnet mesh size, days at sea and the area where fishing is permitted that went into effect last year.

The new regulations are subject to public hearings and approval by Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, but they could be in effect as early as January.

No one in this historic New England port, where a statue of a mariner sits harborside, is betting on much relief. Men with alternatives are leaving the boats. Even the round, brick Seafarers Union Hall is on the market.

"In the early 1960s we had 4,000 members in Gloucester alone. Now we have 400. It just keeps going down hill," said Michael Orlando, 72, a retired union officer who sat inside the empty hall last Friday. Outside on the picturesque docks, Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci held a news conference to announce Seaport 2000, a state initiative to pump $218 million into a range of development projects for "port communities hit hard by a changing economy."

Just $27 million is earmarked for fishing communities -- a mere drop in the ocean of need. Fishermen inside the St. Peter's Club, a fisherman's hangout across the street from where the conference was held, barely looked up from their card tables when they heard the news.

"I'm a broker," said Mimo Capone, playing a hand of whist. "Right now, I'm going broke."

Arthur Gounaras, a maritime accountant who audits the records some of the boats in the shrinking Gloucester fleet, sees irony in the proposed government programs to help strapped fisherman. Subsidies are restricted to payments on their boats and gear.

"It's like they're saying, 'You got a losing hand in poker. But here's the money to play it,' " the veteran accountant said.

Carlo Moceri, 52, Busty's younger brother, was among 40 Gloucester fishermen who attended Wednesday's 10-hour council session where the emergency regulations were announced.

Wearing a blue-and-teal windbreaker and black ball cap inside the tumultuous club named for fishing's patron saint, Mr. Moceri gestured at a portrait of St. Peter and said, "It doesn't look good for us at all."

Luckily, he said, he switched six years ago from hunting for groundfish to the species called whiting. For now, he said, his restrictions are fewer. But even his fishing grounds are shrinking. And he anticipates further restrictions.

"It's my occupation," he said, wearily. "It's all I do. I can't wash dishes at my age. It's too late to go to school."

He folded his cards and pushed back from the table. Ten hours later, he put to sea.

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