Around 160 fishermen take buyout in Northeast $23 million program aims at helping depleted areas

November 03, 1996|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

More than 160 Northeastern fishermen, representing at least a third of the region's active groundfishing fleet, have applied to sell their boats to the federal government under a $23 million program aimed at sharply reducing pressure on Georges Bank and other depleted fishing grounds.

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said they hope to acquire at least 80 of the boats by mid-1997, sinking or scrapping some, while diverting others to research or other nonfishing uses. In all, they expect to reduce fishing for cod, yellowtail flounder and haddock in New England and New York waters by 22 percent.

"This is a very good program, but there is no way you can take joy in this," said John Bullard, director of sustainable development at NOAA. "You can't make anyone happy when you get to the point that one-third of the people in an industry are saying, 'I've got to get out of here.' "

The boat buyout program is the most drastic option for fishermen who have watched their catch of ground fish plummet because of the explosion of fishing boats and fishing technology in the early 1980s.

Since 1982, the catch of the Northeast's leading ground fish -- cod, yellowtail flounder and haddock -- has fallen from 86,000 tons to 17,600 tons last year.

And, with severe restrictions in place on when, where and how they can fish, fishermen know the worst is still ahead. "There's no question we're still in crisis," said Bullard.

NOAA has already purchased 11 fishing boats, representing roughly 2 percent of the active ground-fishing fleet, under a pilot $2 million boat buyout earlier this year. Based on the success of that program, NOAA officials expect to be able to retire another 22 percent of the active fishing fleet.

Of the 164 applicants, 109 are from Massachusetts, reflecting the state's dominance of the ground-fishing fleet. Thirty-eight Maine fishermen applied to sell their boats, while four other states had fewer than 10 applicants each.

To be eligible, applicants must get at least 65 percent of their income from catch of 10 species of ground fish, and if they are bought out they must promise to stay out of the business. Even if the buyout succeeds, federal officials know it will be hard to prevent other fishermen from taking up the slack.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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