NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) – The real action in the fishing industry last week was about 120 miles north of where Robert Lane’s boat was docked in uncrowded, calm waters at New Bedford harbor. But as Lane stood aboard the Isabel S, chatting with a crew member who was mending a net, he was exactly where he wanted to be.

It wasn’t long ago that Lane was an active voice for local fishermen. He would have been in the middle of the fray as fishing regulators met in New Hampshire, two weeks after a court ruling invalidated key rules and threw the industry into confusion.

But that’s not for him anymore. He recently sold one of his two boats, bought a landscaping business on Cape Cod and stepped back after 30 years in the fishing industry. In those decades, the 56-year-old Lane has seen the business shrink from an international, all-you-can catch bonanza to a tightly regulated colony of survivors. The journey has worn him down.

Like many New England fishermen, Lane has lost faith in government regulators, and the industry’s future.

“I’ve given up on the process,” he said.

For years, the New England fishing industry has been shrinking as regulators seek to end overfishing and protect the most vulnerable species, as required by law. The less committed or skilled fishermen left long ago. But the experienced and successful holdouts are also leaving.

Carlos Rafael, a friend of Lane’s and the owner of 40 fishing boats in New Bedford, said Lane’s frustration is far from unique.

“He’s tired. I’m getting tired, too,” he said. “You keep fighting and fighting and it’s not like you’re making any progress, because common sense is not being used in these fisheries.”

Times have been particularly tough lately. Last month, a federal judge invalidated a key set of fishing rules, saying the government didn’t adequately study one of the major provisions. The decision left fishermen wondering which rules were in place, and also suspended a program that allows many fishermen to survive by leasing unused fishing days from other fishermen.

New Bedford fishermen are anticipating they’ll get hammered by rules proposed for May. Those rules would close new areas, cut the already limited number of days fisherman can fish, and expand the area where each fishing day used is counted as two days. Fishermen who have one permit would be left with about 20 days to fish per year.

It’s a radically different scene from the one Lane stepped into more than 30 years ago.

He grew up in Falmouth and was working in carpentry in the 1970s when he was drawn to fishing because it looked fun. He asked about working a boat out of Woods Hole, and was told he had a job if he could mend twine or cook. Those were skills he didn’t have, but he said he could cook.

Lane enjoyed the independence, and he found it rewarding to provide fresh food. In a few years, he’d worked his way up to the captain’s deck. Lane bought his first boat in 1984 and his second four years later, confident the investments would pay off.

Lane is a skilled fisherman, said Rafael, who credits a style he describes as “aggressive.” Asked to be more specific, Rafael laughs and clarifies: “A little greedy.”

The port of New Bedford once hummed with activity, Lane said.

“It was amazing, you’d get in at 4 (a.m.) and tie up the boat and there was people everywhere and trucks everywhere,” he said. “It was like the whole place was alive.”

Fishing was so heavy, Lane wasn’t surprised in the 1990s when restrictions started, limiting how often fishermen could work, where they could fish, what gear they could use. Lane was convinced regulation would ultimately benefit the industry, perhaps shrinking it, but protecting fish and making the business more profitable and sustainable. He became involved in a Maine advocacy group that was preaching self-regulation. Later he served on the board at the Trawlers Survival Fund in New Bedford, acting as a liaison between fishermen and their attorneys and taking media calls.

“I was dreaming, I think,” Lane said. “I thought we could win the battle.”

His activism exposed him to frequent meetings with regulators, which he describes as bogged down in bureaucratic blather that literally put him to sleep. The actual rules were even more frustrating.

Fishermen sacrificed, but the cuts in fishing days and open areas kept coming, sometimes faster than scheduled. Fish stocks declared robust one year would be declared on the brink of disaster the next, like yellowtail flounder was between 2004 and 2005.

Most galling, Lane said, he can’t get to stocks that have become healthier because of myriad limits on where, when and how he can fish.

“There’s fish out there that we can’t access,” he said. “That’s crazy, that’s just crazy.”

As cuts came, Lane began doing his own boat maintenance to save money. He also found it increasingly difficult to find crews amid bad news about the industry. With the work increasing and reward diminishing, Lane sold one boat, bought his landscaping business last year, and made a big break from fishing. Now, he has more time for his wife, 6-year-old son, and 2-year-old daughter.

“I said, “you know what, I’m killing myself here, killing myself, trying to keep two boats going, and my pay, every year it’s getting less,”‘ he said. “I said there’s no point in that.”

Lane still has a heavy tie to the industry – the 96-foot Isabel S. He nearly sold it last summer, but backed out, figuring it would be a good business four months a year. Now, with new restrictions looming, nobody wants fishing boats. The future of that last boat is uncertain, just like everything about fishing has been for so long.

“It’s disheartening,” Lane said, “because there could be a business here.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.