PORTLAND (AP) – The lines are sharply drawn in the debate over dramatic proposed cutbacks to New England’s fishing fleet.

Fishermen predict immediate economic upheaval and dislocation, while others believe the rules will ensure a future of abundant fish and big catches.

Each side will be armed with numbers and charts for intense debates at three meetings this week hosted by the New England Fishery Management Council.

The council is holding public meetings in Portsmouth, N.H., Ellsworth and Portland, as it prepares to propose a final set of rules to the federal government.

“The tough question to answer is will the current participants (in the fishing industry) be able to make it through the next couple of years so they can get the benefits down the road,” said Thomas Nies, a fisheries analyst with the fishery council.

Commercial fishermen, seafood processors, conservationists, sports fishermen and political leaders will argue for one of four alternatives or, in many cases, against all of them.

Council members have little choice but to choose one. Federal law requires that each species be restored within 10 years, and a federal judge has ordered the law be enforced starting in May.

Proposals range from cutting fishing days by 65 percent to shutting down fishing areas as soon as certain catch limits are reached. The fishery council’s analysis says the rules could eliminate $95 million to $200 million in revenue next year and affect as many as 3,400 jobs.

It also says that catches will soon begin to rise so that in 12 years the industry will recoup its losses and in 22 years will bring in an additional $30 million in annual revenue.

The figures are widely criticized as inaccurate, but they are being used to argue both for and against the new rules.

Fishermen and processors who have endured a decade of tightening restrictions say the rules could dismantle the industry in Maine just as haddock and some other species are starting to return.

The overall population of the 12 species of groundfish has tripled in size since 1994 and most, but not all, of the species are still growing.

If 2001 rules were left in place, New England groundfish landings would climb from about 127 million pounds this year to about 289 million pounds in 2026, according to the council’s analysis.

Adopting the new rules would increase the catch to as much as 327 million pounds, a net gain of nearly 30 million pounds a year, the agency estimates.

Some fishermen are expected to go out of business, especially those with smaller inshore boats that can’t reach the best fishing grounds.

“The long-term gain isn’t worth the enormous short-term pain,” said George Lapointe, Maine’s commissioner of marine resources.

Fishermen with larger offshore boats are expected to leave Maine for ports such as Gloucester, Mass., which are closer to the offshore fishing grounds. Relocating to the south would allow Maine fishermen to avoid spending limited fishing days steaming back to the Portland Fish Exchange.

But not everyone at this week’s meetings will be critical of the rules. The restrictions, though financially painful in the short run, will finally put the fishery on a sustainable path, said Geoff Smith of the Ocean Conservancy in Portland.

Smith points to figures in the council analysis that say the short-term losses may well be smaller than feared, and the long-term gains larger.

“What the document is saying is, we’re going to have a minimal drop in landings and revenues in the first year and we’ll be right back up, and we’ll have healthy fish stocks,” Smith said.

Conservation advocates also say that despite the threefold increase overall in groundfish, important species such as cod and yellowtail flounder are still overfished and are not rebounding.

AP-ES-09-22-03 0216EDT

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