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Stiffer fishing rules taking toll on marine supply industry

Jeff Wilcox says he will have to close his marine supply company after four generations.

Tim cook/The Day via AP

Jeff Wilcox says he will have to close his marine supply company after four generations.

HARTFORD — Jeff Wilcox is shutting his 135-year-old family marine supply business in Stonington, Conn., a casualty in the battle over federal fishing limits.

As fishermen are sidelined, taking their boats out of service for lack of work, New England’s marine industry that repairs, stores, and cleans boats is next in line to feel the hit. Wilcox, owner of Wilcox Marine Supply, blames the federal government and the fishing limits it’s imposed. In Stonington, he said, the number of draggers — fishermen who drag nets behind their boats —has dropped since the mid-1990s from 50 to two. His business, which employed 13 people in the early 1990s, has dwindled to just himself.

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‘‘It’s put almost all the fisheries out of business and now it’s trickled down to me,’’ he said.

Many southern New England fishing communities face a similar problem. Richard Fuka, president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, warns that if the fleet continues to be diminished, ‘‘Rhode Islanders could see a local heritage industry slip away and become a museum piece.’’

John Bullard, the Northeast’s top regulator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has said sharp cuts in fishing catches are painful but necessary to help fish stocks rebound.

The most significant cut is a 78 percent year-to-year reduction in the catch of Gulf of Maine cod. Fishermen also are forced to take in fewer key flounder and haddock species. Fishery scientists say some species are recovering far too slowly, requiring cuts in catch to meet mandates to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.

Fishermen have criticized science that they say has underestimated the health of fish stocks. Because of the rules, which are the subject of a lawsuit filed last year by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, fishermen say they can’t catch enough fish to stay in business.

‘It’s put almost all the fisheries out of business and now it’s trickled down to me.’

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Michael Fusillo, who teaches economics at Tufts University, said a downturn at port services would cause ripples through the industry, reducing the supply of fuel, drivers who deliver the fuel, and workers who weigh and cut fish. ‘‘It’s not just the owners and crews that are losing out here,’’ he said.

Viking Gustafson, general manager of Gloucester Marine Railways, a shipyard in Gloucester Harbor that’s been in business since before the Civil War, said the industry has consolidated in response to the catch limits. ‘‘Boats have been sold, boats aren’t fishing,’’ she said.

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