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CLOSURE GUTS THE LIVES OF FISHERMEN

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Who needs Georges Bank more, the fishermen or the fish?

The 6,600-square-mile area of ocean, once considered the nation's richest fishing grounds, is being shut down by federal regulators from Monday until mid-March in an effort to rebuild stocks of cod, haddock and flounder.But many fishermen blame regulations for depleting the fish population. Rosario Maleti said the 500-pound catch limit on haddock means he has to dump hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds of dead haddock overboard every trip.

"We make a living on Georges Bank," said the 38-year-old lifelong fisherman, who spent Thursday repairing nets for his 87-foot dragger, Two Sons. "The government wants us to stop. We believe in conservation but they will have to pay us. We have mortgages, insurance, families to support.

"I have to put food on the table. I can't stop."

About 20,000 New Englanders live off the fishing industry, and there are about 800 active fishing boats. Although the Commerce Department put aside $30 million earlier this year for the New England fishing industry, no programs have been set up to compensate fishermen who lose their jobs.

Fish stocks have fallen dramatically over the years. Haddock, for example, is now being caught at a rate of about 800 tons a year in New England, compared to a peak in years past of about 130,000 tons.

As the new restrictions force fishermen elsewhere, regulators wonder how long it will take for other waters to become barren. Jim McCauley, one of 17 members on the New England Fishery Management Council, warned that the Gulf of Maine could be depleted within two years if it's not protected.

"I guarantee that you will get down to catching the last fish in that area," he said.

On Thursday, the council voted unanimously to draw up proposals to allow fish stocks to recover from decades of overfishing. Plans range from a complete ban on fishing of cod, haddock and flounder in the Northeast to a patchwork of bans on types of fishing gear in specific areas.

As fishermen who once roamed freely are forced to cast their nets on shrinking seas, the result is increased competition and overcrowding.

William Brennan, commissioner of Maine's Department of Marine Resources, warned of an offshore traffic jam as big boats meant for the open sea are pushed closer to shore and into competition with smaller vessels.

The number of reported conflicts between boats has tripled in the past few months, according to the Coast Guard, which is charged with enforcing the fishing regulations.

"Most of the time it's been a scallop dredge or a dragger tearing up lobster pots or gill nets or long line gear," said Lt. Cmdr. Stephen D. Austin of the Coast Guard's Fisheries Enforcement Division. "Now, we're getting large trawlers scooping up smaller trawlers' nets, too."

Meanwhile, many fisherman will head out to Georges Bank this weekend for one last haul. Joe Cracchiolo left Friday with Maleti aboard the Two Sons, even though his wife, Carla, could give birth any day now.

"I can't stay home," he said, shaking his head. "I have to go fishing."