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Ways sought to ease cut in fish-haul limits

Deep cuts in catch limits will hit New England’s fishing fleet in less than three weeks, and there is little hint that any real relief is coming. But regulators and fishermen are still seeking ways to lessen a blow that fishermen say will finish them off.

In recent months, federal regulators have pushed several measures that aim to give fishermen more fish to catch by the May 1 start of the 2013 fishing year. Meanwhile, fishing groups and lawmakers want changes that would make year-to-year cuts in the crucial Gulf of Maine cod species less severe.

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As time grows short, Gloucester’s Al Cottone said he and his fellow fishermen seem to be in a sort of ‘‘state of shock.’’

‘‘Everyone’s in denial. They still think, you know, someone’s going to come in on their white horse and save us,’’ he said.

The 2013 catch-limit reductions come as science indicates key populations of bottom-dwelling groundfish such as cod and flounder are weak and recovering too slowly.

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In January, regional managers approved a broad slate of cuts in catch limits to rebuild fish stocks, including a 77 percent year-to-year reduction in catch of cod in the Gulf of Maine and 61 percent in the catch of cod on Georges Bank.

Fishermen predict the range of cuts will kill the centuries-old fleet. The cuts follow a 2012 fishing year that has seen fishermen catch well below their allotments on several key species.

That is proof, some argue, the fish are in trouble, and it also shows the coming cuts might not be as brutal as feared.

But fishermen say the cuts are so broad, and involve so many key species, that they simply leave the industry with too few fish to make a living. So the aim of many mitigation measures proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is to make more fish available to the fleet.

For instance, regulators have proposed increasing catch allotments for healthier species, including white hake and dogfish, alternative species for many groundfishermen.

One controversial proposal opens up segments of long-closed areas so fishermen can better chase robust stocks that live there, including haddock. But that is strongly opposed by environmentalists who worry fishermen could devastate a last refuge. The issue will not be decided before May.

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