Rulemakers who protect the fish off New England's crooked coastline are considering ways to make sure the small-boat fishermen who chase those fish don't vanish in the meantime.
The New England Fishery Management Council is beginning to devise so-called "accumulation limits" to restrict what any single fisherman or fishing business can haul home annually.
The idea is to keep the wealthiest fishing interests from accumulating such a dominant share of the catch that they swallow the small, independent boat owners who've sustained New England's fishing communities for centuries.
This persistent industry fear heightened last year, when a new management system was installed that allots each fisherman a transferrable share of the total catch, which they can lease or sell. Some say that makes it far easier for well-moneyed fishing interests to accrue catch shares from smaller, less profitable fishing businesses.
David Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman who owns one boat, believes the way the catch was distributed in the new system gave large boat owners an unearned advantage that could drive out small operators like him. Accumulation limits are needed to make things even, he said.
"We're a seafaring family and it's a way of life, and what they're doing is taking our way of life and turning it into a commodity," Goethel said.
Hundreds of jobs linked to the small boat fleet, the region's heritage and access to fresh, locally-caught fish is at stake, said Goethel, a council member who emphasized he was speaking only for himself.
The council last month took the first steps toward establishing accumulation limits and said it was working to amend fishing rules to include them.
They start with even basic concepts undefined, such as what the "diverse" fishing fleet they're trying to preserve would look like, or how big is too big when it come to the shares of the region's groundfish, such as cod, flounder and haddock.
Not all council members want the limits. Some say they unfairly disrupt the free market, can't really work, and that the fleet actually needs to shrink further.
Jim Odlin, a Maine fisherman who owns five boats, said the new management system was designed, in part, with the recognition that there are still too many active boats. When too many vessels are chasing too few fish, no one wins, he said.
"We need to have each segment survive, and they will ... but there has to be less of each, there's just no question about that," said Odlin, a council member who also stressed he was speaking only for himself.
Fishermen of all boat sizes believe they were allotted far too few fish under the new "catch share" system, installed in May 2010.
But fishermen with bigger operations and fish allotments have advantages that help them survive it and accrue fishing rights, said Aaron Dority, of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Maine, which works to preserve traditional fishing communities.
For instance, they have the ability to take on more debt and the mobility to reach fish in far-flung areas small boats can't safely reach, he said.
They're also the most likely customers when smaller fishing business owners decide their allotments are too low to justify the cost of going to sea, and lease or sell their catch shares.
"Small boats, boats in rural ports, part-time fishermen, they end up being losers in the system," Dority said.
New England's groundfish catch was worth about $80 million in 2009, a small portion of $3.9 billion U.S. commercial fishery that year. But there's a local reverence for iconic stocks like Atlantic cod and a fishery that pre-dates the nation's founding and was a key part of its early economy.
The region's fishing fleet has been shrinking since well before last year's switch to the new system. A boom period between the late 1970s and mid-1990s doubled the size of the Northeast fleet to about 1,350 vessels by 1996, but that's been dropping since as rules tightened to stop overfishing.
By 2008, the Northeast counted just under 700 vessels, as once-lively ports all but disappeared. The industry is now heavily concentrated in Massachusetts, home to the region's largest ports, Gloucester and New Bedford.
A report on the first nine months of this fishing year showed decreasing numbers of active boats, trips and jobs, with revenues increasingly concentrated in a shrinking percentage of boats.
But that just continues existing trends and it's too soon to know with certainty how big an effect the new rules are having. Goethel said it's time to act on accumulation limits because the council believes right now "nobody has the ability to manipulate the market."
Similar limits are in place around the country, including caps on how much fishing quota any one entity can control in the Pacific groundfish fishery and the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, among others.
Other possible measures that could be considered by the council include committing a share of the catch _ say 10 percent _ to the local community, to draw new fishermen or beef up the catch for fishermen who have paltry quotas. Another idea is to require a fishing boat's owner or operator to be on board a certain number of days per year, to discourage huge out-of-state corporations from buying up quota.
There's also talk of allowing everyone in the fishery to keep their current shares, then requiring those over a certain level to eventually sell some off to multiple individuals, though such measures are sure to raise questions about fairness and forced redistribution.
Odlin thinks the complex, lengthy task is best abandoned. As one of the region's more prosperous boat owners, however, he knows there's skepticism about his motives. "I've been one of the guys that's been trying to look out for the industry as whole since I've been around," he said.
Fishing communities already have a significant safeguard in regional "permit banks," which have received millions to buy fishing rights and lease them out at affordable rates to smaller fishing businesses, he said.
The nature of the market is also a protection, he said. Local "white-cloth" restaurants demand fresh fish daily, and they'll always need the small boats that steam back each day with their catch.
Meanwhile, he said, accumulation limits won't work because they restrict how fishing businesses can expand or consolidate in the future, before anyone knows what their future needs are. Volatile fuel costs and changing market tastes are among the factors fishermen need flexibility to adjust to, he said.
But Dority said accumulation limits are about simple fairness to the smaller operators who've hung on for so long.
"If everyone has sacrificed, why should just a few reap the benefits?" Dority said.