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SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS

Some look for hope beyond courtroom

Photographs by Bill Greene, Globe Staff

Third of four parts

GLOUCESTER -- The hissing began as soon as the slender, bookish environmentalist took her seat in the ballroom overlooking New England's most famous fishing port.

From the back of the room, grim-faced men, arms folded across their chests, drowned out Priscilla Brooks as she tried to explain why a major cut in the region's codfish catch now seems unavoidable.

"Eco-terrorist!" yelled one fisherman, his T-shirt emblazoned with the single letter "Y" -- his question for those who would place more limits on his livelihood.

"Salamander lover!" shouted another at Brooks, who works for Boston's Conservation Law Foundation, the region's leading environmental advocacy group. "Who is paying your salary?"

The confrontation at the Tavern on the Harbor last month was only the latest vivid reminder of how completely environmental activists have taken the helm in the fishing debate, and how shocking and infuriating that is to the fishermen who were once their allies. With a well-financed campaign of lobbying and lawsuits, environmentalists like Brooks have, over the last decade, forced waves of restrictions on fishing and set the stage for the still stricter limits to come. Fishermen have resisted at almost every turn, resorting to heckling, harbor blockades, and even dockside riots to make their case.

Next month, environmentalists may score a historic victory when the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees the industry here, is expected to bow to another of their lawsuits. The council, with its six commercial fishing industry members, has been a reluctant regulator, but it has little choice now: A federal judge has already sided with the environmentalists, making it clear she will impose strict new fishing limits if regulators will not.

The impact of the new rules could be immense. By some estimates, more than a third of the 1,500 or so boats with permits to chase the region's cod and other bottom-feeding fish could be forced out of the business when the new limits take effect at the start of next year's fishing season, in May.

And so furious backstage efforts are underway to forge a last-minute compromise. Pressure to find a middle way has come from the federal judge on the case, Gladys Kessler, and from state Division of Marine Fisheries Commissioner Paul Diodati, who has convened several private negotiating sessions. The goal ia to take the future of New England fishing out of the courtroom and back onto the sea -- and to bridge the corrosive divide between those for whom a healthy environment is their workplace, and those for whom it is a cause.

But so far, their efforts have proved largely fruitless. As the Tavern on the Harbor hearing underscored, the divisions and animosity have only intensified.

As one environmentalist put it, reaching a collision-averting deal could take "a miracle."

An environmental crusader

Peter Shelley was once that sort of miracle worker, the environmental crusader who could find a way to save the fish -- and fishing.

Back in the late 1980s the longtime lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation started getting worried calls from Gloucester fishermen. The great Atlantic schools that had sustained fishing for centuries were disappearing, they told him, and the government was doing precious little about it.

Shelley, who years earlier had joined with fishermen to stop oil companies from drilling off the New England coast, decided to take up the new fight. By 1991 he had filed a trailblazing lawsuit that forced federal regulators to ratchet up protections for the cod, flounder, and haddock that were the staples of the region's fishing economy. And two years ago he helped win an even more sweeping lawsuit designed to put all the key fish species on a quicker road to recovery.

It was after that victory that Shelley, from his office in an old sardine factory in Rockland, Maine, began to fear that he and his environmental peers had gone too far. The shining spring day when the judge ordered the tough new fishing limits was supposed to be his time to celebrate. It was the climax of a 15-year struggle to put limits on a fishing fleet that had pressed the stocks of cod and other groundfish to the point of collapse, and could, without stricter rules, overfish again as the stocks gradually rebound.

Yet as he read the document, then read it again, Shelley felt only alarm. The judge had decided on a formula that fell especially harshly on small boat owners, leaving several hundred all but banned from fishing. Shelley's partners in the lawsuit, a group of ardent national environmental groups, were convinced that even those limits weren't tough enough.

But to him, the 35-page document, written in the cool language of lawyers, read like an execution order for the people and the way of life he had set out to save.

"I was stunned," says Shelley, 56, his hair white and slightly long in the back.

It was a moment that, for him, underscored a key question for those who fight to save natural resources: How far should society go to turn back the ecological clock?

How, in this case, should one balance the need to save the fish against the needs of the fishermen?

For Shelley, whose brother-in-law once fished Pacific salmon, this was no fleeting philosophical question. Having grown up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, helping milk the Holsteins and doing other chores, Shelley gained a deep respect for those who work the natural world.

And when he thinks of fishing families, he holds real people in mind: The Sicilian-born Gloucester woman who shared with him the family fishing lore handed down seven generations, and the Fairhaven captain who took him on a rough, but exhilarating 13-day scalloping trip on Georges Bank.

His goal in pressing the litigation had been to prod the government to do for fish what enforcement of environmental laws had done before for the air, and water, and endangered wildlife.

But as he read the judge's order that day in his office, he wondered: What have I unleashed?

"It broke the fishermen's back," Shelley says. "That wasn't what we wanted."

Seismic changes

Sitting over dinner one evening in the late 1980s, Angela Sanfilippo's husband, John, told her that the fishing seemed off.

Leaving with the morning tide, often before 3 a.m., from the pier near their brick-faced Gloucester home, he took his 68-foot dragger, the Padre Pio, to the same rocky spots where he had cast his net for two decades. But the fish weren't there.

A few months later, Angela's brother, Joe Orlando, reported that he, too, was hauling up empty nets.

"Then all the wives started seeing the paychecks go down," says Sanfilippo, longtime president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, her voice lilting with the inflection of her native Sicily. "When the paycheck changes, you know something is wrong."

An unstoppable, 4-foot, 11-inch force, Sanfilippo, 53, has won millions of dollars in fishermen's aid over the years through a campaign of graciousness, determination, and, on occasion, tears directed at the region's congressmen. And so she wasn't shy in making her case after becoming convinced that something was amiss with the fish.

She first took her concerns to members of the management council. When they didn't seem eager to help, she went to an old friend, a lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation named Peter Shelley.

The two had become close a decade earlier when they joined in the crusade to keep oil rigs out of the Georges Bank fishing grounds, a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Shelley was shocked by what Sanfilippo and other fishermen were telling him now, and he agreed to help.

His decision set off a chain of events that have forced a turnaround in how the nation manages its oceans.

But it also unleashed seismic changes in New England's fishing communities, threatening their existence and severely testing the friendship between the woman from Porticello, Sicily, and the man from Bucks County, Pa., that had set the whole drama in motion.

It is remarkable that the same stretch of coast that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick more than 150 years ago and draws tourists from around the world is home to a people who are just now learning that the ocean, and the animals in it, need their care.

For more than a century, lonely voices have been warning of trouble as undersea treasures have been quietly plundered, one after another -- minerals, oil, fish. Still, it is only over the last 15 years, with a drawn-out fight over commercial fishing and now wind farming in Nantucket Sound, that managing some of the region's richest resources has drawn sustained focus.

As long ago as the 1830s, the coastal waters of the Northeast lost most of their halibut to overfishing, and by the 1860s, the stocks farther off shore were crashing, too. They have never recovered. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant created the first national Fish Commission, in part to study "the decrease of the food fishes of the seacoasts and lakes of the United States."

In this century, as boat technology rapidly advanced, scientists warned that stocks couldn't handle the pressure. By the early 1990s, New England cod -- the fisherman's bread and butter -- were heading toward disaster. But the public, and even the environmental movement, had not focused on the problem of overfishing.

"It just wasn't seen as a problem," says Andrew Rosenberg, former northeast administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The oceans were infinite. The public, the environmentalists even believed that. It wasn't until the fish were almost gone that anyone paid attention."

So Shelley was largely acting in a void when began his work with Sanfilippo and the fishermen by attending a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council. Sitting in a meeting room at the King's Grant Inn in Danvers, he was utterly bewildered as councilors threw around arcane acronyms like "FMSY" and offered motions and countermotions that didn't seem to go anywhere.

Frustrated, he hired a marine biologist to sit in on the meetings and explain the situation to him. She offered this simple bottom line: Too many fish are being killed.

But it soon became apparent that the council, even as it reluctantly conceded the problem, was not prepared to act. And so Shelley went to court. His 1991 suit charged that the government was ignoring its own environmental laws, threatening the long-term future of the entire fishing industry.

As news of the lawsuit leaked out, some of Shelley's fishermen friends questioned his motives. Others, who didn't know him, pegged him as a meddling outsider, a "clean fingernailed" lawyer without regard for the fate of a proud fishing tradition.

Sanfilippo, however, knew better. She had heard the complaints of friends whose fisherman husbands had to take second jobs to make ends meet. She had taken those complaints to Shelley.

And so she and her allies decided to support the Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit, the only fishing group to do so.

Shelley, meanwhile, was bracing for a long legal battle. He expected the Washington lawyers for the federal regulators to bury him in denials and demands when he sat down with them to discuss the suit.

Instead, "the lawyers just agreed with us," he recalls, shaking his head. "They said, `You're right.' "

What should be done?

Shelley's overnight success proved a kind of signal flare to environmental groups across the nation.

They had come late to the fishing crisis, having been off saving whales, seals, and other more charismatic creatures during the 1970s and early 1980s, the years when fishermen, their boats and gear ever more efficient, were turning fishing from a hunt into something more like scooping goldfish from a bowl.

But environmentalists more than made up for lost time, as national organizations and foundations such as the Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Foundation poured money and resources into New England and other regions. From 1992 to 2000, the major philanthropies that fund environmental causes increased spending on fisheries issues from $3.6 milion to more than $26 million a year, according to the Foundation Center, which tracks charitable giving.

Meanwhile, commercial fishing lawsuits by environmental groups against the National Marine Fisheries Service have proliferated across the country. Shelley's 1991 case was the first and the model; there are 34 open cases today.

"These groups are incredibly powerful," says Dennis Nixon, associate dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. "They win lawsuits. They know how to campaign."

But the aggressiveness of some of the national groups -- like Oceana, an advocacy group funded by the Pew Foundation -- convinced some fishermen that their needs and concerns were of little account to these idealistic newcomers.

The national groups seemed particularly blase about fishermen's claims -- which were not without foundation -- that some of the fish stocks were bouncing back.

"You have to ask why," says Ed Barrett, a Marshfield fisherman. "We are paying our dues, and we're seeing benefits. And these groups don't mention it."

"We were dying," says Vito Calomo, a former fisherman and executive director of the Massachusetts Fisheries Recovery Commission, a state-funded fishing research group. "And these groups -- we didn't even know who they were -- kept beating us down."

But there is equal adamance on the other side. Eric Bilsky, a lawyer with Oceana, says New England's experience has made it clear that neither the fishermen nor their local regulators can be relied on to safeguard this natural trust.

"They aren't complying with the law," he says. "It's clear they will continue to violate the law again and again unless we file lawsuits."

But with all the intensified interest and activity, the harder question remained: The landmark lawsuit had been won. Now, what should be done?

The regulatory choices that were ultimately made and remade and remade again would be felt up and down the coast, wherever fishermen ply their trade.

Or mend their nets: Inside a narrow, dimly lit room, the wood-planked floors scruffed and faded, two Cambodian women were twisting twine as if performing the children's game "cat's cradle." With two thick pieces pulled tight across the room, each woman wove the nylon filament over and under, tying knots to create a sheet of diamonds that will be lowered into the ocean to catch fish.

In Don King's Homeward Bound shop on the way to Rocky Neck in Gloucester, the net weavers follow a tradition that is hundreds of years old, but changing quickly. As new regulations are issued, the nets made here keep changing, with bigger and bigger diamonds to let out all but the largest cod and flounder. And every time they change, all the old nets have to be tossed.

"The rules always change," says a frustrated King, a stout former cod fisherman who lost $40,000 in canceled orders and outdated nets with the last change. "It's impossible to predict a future."

A law with teeth

But even as fishermen started to chafe at the rules that grew out of Shelley's 1991 suit, an unprecedented alliance of environmental groups had formed around the idea of a greater leap forward in fishery conservation. It was this shift into environmental overdrive, in fact, that would lead to the present confrontation.

They called themselves the Marine Fish Conservation Network. Five representatives of some of the most influential environmental groups at the time -- Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, National Audubon, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, and a group that later became the Ocean Conservancy -- gathered in September 1992 to figure out how, once and for all, to save the fish off American coasts.

By 1995, the network had enlisted the help of dozens of conservation groups, and some fishermen too, such as the Maine Lobstermen's Association. And they showed some political smarts, sending pairs of advocates, an environmentalist teamed up with a fisherman, to convince members of Congress to reform the laws that govern the nation's fisheries.

"They saw these two competing constituencies coming in and had to say yes," says Gerry Leape, a founding member of the network.

In 1996, as the Gulf of Maine's cod stocks teetered near collapse, the network helped push through a bill called the Sustainable Fisheries Act. It represented a profound change. No longer would local management councils be trusted to protect the fish of their region; they'd be required to. The law said councils must act to guarantee that, within a 10-year time frame, key fish stocks would rebound.

"Everything changed then," says Bilsky. "That law was powerful and revolutionary. It had teeth."

At first, New England fishermen weren't particularly worried about the new law, believing that conservation measures already adopted here would be enough. Some said they were reassured that fishermen-friendly politicians such as Barney Frank and Olympia Snowe had voted for the law.

"We were reasonably sure we had taken care of the problem," says Barbara Stevenson, a Portland Maine boat owner and former fish council member.

Only now, as the full might of the 1996 law is finally to take effect, is it clear how wrong they were.

A devil's pact

Long before the confrontations of the last year, Angela Sanfilippo had begun to suspect that she'd been wrong to put her trust in Peter Shelley.

Once, in 1993, she had climbed onto a chair in the Gloucester High School auditorium to stare down jeering fishermen until they'd hear Shelley out. Now she found herself listening to her family when they asked if she knew what she was doing when she sided with an environmentalist. As round after round of fishing limits took hold, her husband's income declined. Her nephew went out of business. The dinner table conversation was about how the fish were coming back -- and yet the men weren't allowed to catch them.

Sanfilippo still believed that she had been right to worry about overfishing. The natural balance between fish and fishermen had been fundamentally altered, first by giant factory trawlers that vacuumed the sea clean until they were banned in the mid-1970s, and then by New England's own fishermen as the government grants enabled fishermen to boost the catching power of their boats.

But as the Gloucester waterfront reeled under the new restrictions, Sanfilippo felt that siding with Shelley and the Conservation Law Foundation may have been a devil's pact.

"I stopped trusting him," she says. "People were losing their jobs, and I thought Peter was going to make it worse. It became clear CLF was for the fish, not the fishermen."

And when Shelley, joined by three national groups, sued again in 2000 -- this time to enforce the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Law -- her dismay and anger only grew.

She was in no mood to give him another chance when she learned that Shelley, after winning his latest lawsuit, had begun to have second thoughts.

Why should she believe him now?

But he meant it.

Last spring, deeply concerned by Judge Kessler's landmark ruling, Shelley convened a diverse group of fishermen, environmentalists, and officials to plead with the judge to relax the rules. Amazingly, she did. The final reckoning has been put off until next May.

Shelley took this step on his own, without the support of the national environmental groups that had joined in the lawsuit and that wanted even stricter rules.

"To some groups, the fisheries problem is a faceless one," says Shelley. "We acknowledge the reality they are going through. We see it every day. We live among them."

He had even once gone to sea with them. In the spring of 1994, Shelley joined the crew of Thor, an 85-foot steel-hulled scalloping boat out of Fairhaven. At the time, he had been working for seven years to restrict fishing, but had never set foot on a commercial fishing boat.

Then Ellen Skaar, a fisherman's wife from Fairhaven, told him she didn't think he could possibly understand the situation if he didn't know the hardships and the rewards of fishing. Embarrassed, Shelley agreed.

The trip lasted 13 days. When the dredge opened up onto the deck, Shelley would squat with the other crew members and pick through the stones and squirming fish to find scallop shells. He learned to wedge them open with a sharp knife and slide the blade along the shell, shucking out the succulent circles of meat. The routine never ended, day and night; Shelley took breaks only to eat or catch some sleep below deck.

"Fishermen work hard," Shelley says, "and they withstand tremendous danger."

Sanfilippo and her group were among those who refused to sign on to the compromise Shelley had talked Judge Kessler into. But his boldness in breaking with the national environmental groups nevertheless impressed his old friend.

In March, she ran into Shelley at a fisheries meeting in Maine. He looked her straight in the eye.

"Well, Angela, are you going to hug me or slap me," Shelley asked.

Angela paused. Then she hugged him.

And the two, if no longer close, now find themselves among those in the middle, desperately battling for compromise in advance of next month's vote on the future of the fishery.

They are in their own separate ways seeing the need for fishermen and environmentalists to look beyond their culture clash to an agreement that might conserve fish and fisherman, both.

At a hearing in Portland several weeks ago, Shelley seemed almost contrite as he tried to explain his mindset.

"Sitting and listening . . . you could not hear the real world of fisheries and not be affected by it," a weary Shelley said, visibly moved. He went on to say that tougher rules are needed, but that his goal is to save the small-boat fishermen.

Unknown to Shelley, Sanfilippo was quietly strategizing that week with the same goal in mind -- saving the small-boat fleet. And she was distraught as she rose to speak after the fishermen had heckled Shelley's colleague Priscilla Brooks at the hearing last month.

The tiny fisherman's wife looked around the room. The fishermen were stern-faced. So were the environmentalists.

"There must be a better way," she said.

Tomorrow: New England fishermen face their future.

about the series
Part one:
 SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS:
A once great industry on the brink
 'I'm not going to do anything else.'
Part two:
 SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS:
Mistrust between scientists, fishermen mars key mission
Part three:
 SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS:
Some look for hope beyond courtroom
 'It's all about end runs for the special interests'
Part four:
 SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS:
For all sides, goal is preservation
 Inventive fisherman hopes for a net gain
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