IT HAS BEEN MORE THAN 30 YEARS since Russell Sherman nearly died in the ocean off the coast of Maine, but the Gloucester fisherman remembers as if it were yesterday. He spent 14 hours adrift in 20-foot seas that November night in 1978 after the boat he was working on sank and two of the five people on board drowned.
He remembers standing in the engine room, knee-deep in water, before the boat went down; when the fear hit him, he started vomiting. He remembers the rescue helicopter that buzzed overhead that night as he flailed below, invisible in the black water, and he remembers looking up in the dawn light to see Cadillac Mountain. Weak and half frozen, clinging to an aluminum skiff, he started paddling toward it.
Sherman relishes telling the story, and he paces it slowly, deliberately, every well-burnished detail building the suspense. It seems safe to guess that part of his pleasure comes from knowing how it will end: with his unlikely survival, every time.
But this is not the story he has come to tell this stormy Sunday afternoon. Today's story has no ending yet and concerns a different kind of danger, one that has been bearing down for decades on the 65-year-old captain of the Lady Jane and his fellow fishermen. When he starts to speak of that calamity — the collapse of New England groundfishing — Sherman's manner changes, fear and anger roiling close to the surface. It is clear he feels himself flailing again in deep water.
This time, though, his rescue is uncertain. After years of watching the government cut the amount of fish they can catch and watching their incomes shrink, Sherman and his peers find themselves on the brink of extinction. On May 1, fishery managers enacted the most drastic catch limits ever seen in the history of New England fishing, slashing the amount of cod that may be caught in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent and sharply cutting other groundfish catches like haddock and flounder.
Sherman, who is just back from some 40 miles offshore, gazes out the rain-streaked window of a Gloucester coffee shop, his worried eyes the palest blue against his windburned face.
"Scared to death," he says, his eyes averted. "I'm scared to death."
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