PORTLAND (AP) – Groundfishing boats are abandoning Portland and heading south, cutting the local fish supply for seafood processors and the Portland Fish Exchange and costing businesses that serve the fleet lost revenue.

Most of the harbor’s medium and large boats are now taking their catches to Gloucester, Mass., primarily because they can earn extra money selling lobsters they catch in their nets, a practice that is outlawed in Maine, the Maine Sunday Telegram reported.

The city-owned Portland Fish Exchange seafood auction is now staffed by a skeleton crew and has cut the number of auctions from five a week to just two. It has been selling about 60,000 pounds of fish a week, just 12 percent of its volume in the early 1990s, and is trying to lease out a portion of its largely empty refrigerated warehouse.

Fewer boats mean fewer customers for Gowen Marine, which repairs boats and gear and sells supplies, and Vessel Services, the harbor’s lone remaining company selling ice and fuel to commercial boats.

Cozy Harbor Seafood, one of the city’s four larger seafood processors, now imports 95 percent of its groundfish from Canada or Massachusetts, said President John Norton.

It’s hard for Maine processors to compete with companies that have access to local fish, said Angelo Ciocca of Nova Seafood. He expects his company and other shore businesses to close after their owners retire.

“We are living the end of the groundfish-harvesting side of the industry in the state of Maine,” Ciocca said. “It’s done. It’s finished.”

A generation ago, more than 300 Maine boats fished for groundfish and supplied processing plants along the coast.

Today’s troubles comes at a time when the New England fishing industry as a whole is shrinking in the middle of a long-range plan to rebuild stocks of haddock, cod and yellowtail flounder through regulatory measures that include reducing the amount of time fishermen can spend at sea.

In the past year, 20 percent of the active boats in New England have quit groundfishing, said Stephen Ouellette, a maritime lawyer who specializes in fisheries issues.

Portland has been particularly hard hit, with fish volumes going down nearly 50 percent from 2004 to 2007. Fish catches brought to Gloucester have been stable, helped in part by Maine fishermen.

On a recent morning when heavy seas had driven the fishing fleet back to Gloucester, one pier was lined with boats from Maine.

Allyson Jordan of Scarborough mailed her Maine fishing license back to the state after the Marine Patrol – at the urging of the lobster industry – began enforcing a long-standing but rarely enforced law that bans Maine-licensed boats from possessing lobsters in state or federal waters.

Jordan, whose family has been fishing in Maine for three generations, moved her family’s two draggers and shore operations to Gloucester and found an apartment in nearby Rockport.

“It was our family’s way of life, and it kind of stinks we had to leave,” she said.

Sam Viola, a Portland-based fisherman who has been working out of Gloucester this winter, said he and other boat owners believe they have exhausted all options and are now justified in moving to the Bay State.

“Portland is done,” Viola said. “Portland is out of business right now.”

For Gloucester, the arrival of the Maine boats is good news in an otherwise dismal era, said Peter Prybot, a longtime Gloucester lobsterman who writes a commercial fishing column for the Gloucester Times.

“The port of Gloucester, for God’s sake, loves to see the Maine boats,” he said. “They are top fishermen and top producers. Gloucester not only benefits from the fish landings, they benefit from what is spent on those boats, such as fuel and food.”

Information from: Portland Press Herald, http://www.pressherald.com

AP-ES-02-11-08 1036EST

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