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January 9, 2011

Top scientist sees end to 'overfishing'

BOSTON — For the first time in at least a century, U.S. fishermen are not taking too much of any species from the sea, one of the nation's top fishery scientists says.

The projected end of overfishing comes during a turbulent fishing year that's seen fishermen out of Gloucester and throughout New England switch to the radically new catch share management system.

But scientist Steve Murawski said that, for the first time in written fishing history, which goes back to 1900, "As far as we know, we've hit the right levels, which is a milestone."

"And this isn't just a decadal milestone, this is a century phenomenon," said Murawski, who retired last week as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service.

Murawski said it's more than a dramatic benchmark — it also signals increasingly healthy stocks and perhaps better days for fishermen who've suffered financially. In New England, the fleet has deteriorated since the mid-1990s from 1,200 boats to only about 580, but Murawski believes fishermen may have already endured their worst times.

"I honestly think that's true, and that's why I think it's a newsworthy event," said Murawski, now a professor at the University of South Florida.

Fishermen and their advocates, however, say the documented end to "overfishing" has come at an unnecessarily high cost.

Dave Marciano, who fished out of Gloucester for three decades until he was forced to sell his commercial fishing permit last June, said the new catch share system has simply made it too costly to catch enough fish to stay in business.

"It ruined me," Marciano, 45, said of the catch share management scheme. "We could have ended overfishing and had a lot more consideration for the human side of the fishery."

An end to overfishing doesn't mean all stocks are healthy, but scientists believe it's a crucial step to getting there.

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