By Allison Connolly

GLOUCESTER--Vito Calomo is a third-generation fisherman who remembers landing heaps of haddock and cod with his father off the coast of Gloucester decades ago. "I never in a million years thought we'd run out of fish," Calomo said.

But like other fishermen, Calomo has seen the fish disappear. Where he once netted 1,000 pounds of fish in a few hours, he said he would only catch 10. So he sold his boat several years ago and left the fishing life with a heavy heart.

Today, Calomo is executive director of the Gloucester Fisheries Commission, which represents fishermen and the industry. He also represents the growing majority of those in the industry who are torn between supporting regulations that conserve their fish stocks and opposing restrictions on their livelihood.

The thin line Calomo is trying to stand on is becoming thinner as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act comes up for reauthorization. The federal act is reauthorized every four years, and a major overhaul took place in 1996. The law was amended with the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which required that all fish stocks be rebuilt within 10 years.

Earlier this week, a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing was held in Boston to explore the issues facing the fishing industry in the region.

Calomo, who testified at the hearing, said in a later interview that there is evidence the regulations worked: The levels of yellowtail flounder and haddock, as well as cod, appear to be up.

"The problem, if anything, is that we have to use (the act) better," Calomo said.

The U.S. House has come up with its version of a bill, HR 4046, that pushes for strengthening the act by placing restrictions on endangered habitats, mandating record keeping of catches, and minimizing "bycatch"--non-targeted fish caught in nets by mistake. The Senate plans to introduce its version of the bill next month.

While fishermen agree the act--particularly since 1996--has helped fish stocks come back, they are still wary of further restrictions. And most of all, they don't want to see any fishing areas closed off completely, as Georges Bank was a few years ago.

"A lot of fishermen in our area were distraught about it," said Paul Parker, a hook-and-line fisherman and executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Association. "Now, in hindsight, we look back, and the stock is much healthier."

In 1998, Massachusetts fishermen tallied 253 million pounds of seafood worth $204 million, according to U.S. Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., who sponsored the 1996 act. Kerry testified that the yield was 33 percent less than that of 1990, when the catch was worth $300 million.

However, it is not known how much of the difference can be attributed to restrictions or how much can be blamed on depleted fish stocks.

Kerry and fellow senators Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, held a hearing in Boston this past week to hear testimony from fishermen, environmentalists and scientists.

Kerry noted how difficult it is to manage the region's fisheries.

"It is obvious that the enactment of the SFA has raised a series of unanticipated questions for fishermen and fisheries managers that will require innovative and creative solutions," Kerry said.

But Kerry stressed the goal should be to maintain and replenish the region's fishing stocks. He said such a result would benefit both the environment and the fishing industry.

"Our current progress in rebuilding shows we need to stay the course to sustain our fisheries and communities," Kerry said.

At the hearing, Penelope Dalton, assistant administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said fishermen stand to make a fortune on potential yields if the stocks are rebuilt properly. She told the senators that New England fish stocks could one day sustain a billion dollar industry.

But how to rebuild the stocks is the issue.

Fishermen are most opposed to quota measures which limit them to a certain daily catch based on the average number of fish they have caught in recent years. A moratorium has been placed on implementing quotas until Sept. 31, but Congress could lift the moratorium after that date.

Some fishermen say the quotas would be unfair if they were based on past performance, because many have been docked or have had bad catches because of low fish stock and restrictions. Other fishermen fear larger fishing boats could buy "transferable quotas" from smaller operations and put many of them out of business. Other quota systems could force fishermen to throw fish overboard if they exceed their daily limit.

Still, some hook-and-line fishermen say the regulations should be focused on the type of nets that larger operations use, some of which could damage the ocean floor and prevent groundfish from reproducing.

"They're not taking into account the effect of the gear," said hook-and-line fisherman Ted Ligenza, who said he has gone from fishing cod in his 31-foot boat off Chatham to clamming, just to get by.

Calomo thinks all parties should move past a single issue and implement the act's provisions equally.

"It's like the Ten Commandments," Calomo said. "You can't just stop at one."