PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A diverse panel of New England fishing experts, from a top federal administrator to a seasoned commercial fishing captain who says the scent of burnt coffee has replaced the smell of fish in his home port, gathered Thursday evening and tried to answer one question.

Is commercial fishing sustainable?

The discussion about the future of the region's fishing industry featured a series of exchanges between two colorful fishing captains, an aquatic ecologist from the University of Rhode Island, a lawyer for Earthjustice and a fisheries expert from the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The question whether fishing is sustainable is an unquestionable yes,” said Mark S. Phillips, captain of F/V Illusion out of Greenport, N.Y., who argues that there are more fish in the ocean than there were 20 to 30 years ago.

“The bigger question should be are fishermen and fishing communities sustainable and I would say that is a big maybe,” Phillips said.

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