July 25, 2008

Ruhle Praised As Fisherman Who Fought for His Industry

By Peter B Lord

Three fishermen -- Phil Ruhle, his son Phil Jr. and his brother James -- visited Seattle last year to be honored by an environmental group for inventing a commercial fishing net that actually helps conserve some fish. A friend who was with them was amazed at how many people knew the Ruhles.

"You couldn't walk a block without someone rushing up to talk to them," said David Beutel, a former fishermen who worked with the Ruhles on the new net.

Yesterday, many of those friends were calling Phil Ruhle Jr.'s home, in Peace Dale, to express their shock and disappointment. The house was filled with children, grandchildren and friends, and all were subdued.

Jimmy Ruhle, based in North Carolina, also received a steady stream of calls starting at 5 a.m., according his nephew, and they, too, came from all over the country.

The elder Ruhle has been missing since his fishing vessel, Sea Breeze, capsized Wednesday night off the coast of New Jersey. Two crewmen were plucked from the ocean by Coast Guard helicopters, shortly before Sea Breeze sank.

Ruhle, 56, has been one of the more successful and outspoken commercial fishermen that Rhode Island has seen in a long time.

He has fished since he was 3, according to his son. You could write a book about his father's fishing experiences, he said. Ruhle captained the Andrea Gail for several years before its demise became the subject of The Perfect Storm. He had been a sword fisherman for 18 years. And he escaped from two other vessels that sank.

In more recent years, as the younger Ruhle spent more time at the helm of the Sea Breeze, his father had time to use his raspy and relentless voice to press fishing regulators, government scientists, politicians and even reporters to improve conditions for local fishermen.

"Through 18 years, we've heard from a whole range in the fishing industry, but Phil stands out as one of the most significant voices looking out for himself and the entire industry," U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said from his Washington, D.C., office yesterday. "He is articulate and very dynamic. There's also no question he is a fisherman and a captain. He has an air of authority. We hope the Coast Guard is successful in finding him."

Just last week, Ruhle called a reporter at The Providence Journal to complain that new federal rules would delay the use of his "Eliminator" until Aug. 13 -- about two weeks after a prime fishing area was to be opened. Ruhle was angry because he felt the delay would allow much of the area's quota of fish to be used up.

"It basically comes down to [government regulators] don't want us to catch these fish," Ruhle said. "I am livid. I'm absolutely livid. I'm never going to work with this agency again."

Ironically, he was repeatedly honored for being one of the region's most active fishermen in dealing with fishing regulators. He always hoped to bring the industry back to the days when fish were plentiful. In 2003, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration name Ruhle an "Environmental Hero" for his work improving the fisheries agency's trawl surveys.

The year before, Ruhle and his son found NOAA was using flawed techniques in its trawls that undercounted fish. When the service admitted it was wrong, Ruhle stood up at a Providence fisheries expo and praised the agency for doing the right thing.

Ruhle's father and grandfather were fishermen. So is his brother, his son and grandson.

Yesterday at his son's house, family members gathered and awaited official word.

The younger Ruhle agreed to tell his father's story. It was a life, he said, focused on fishing and family.

He wore a shirt bearing the Sea Breeze logo. A picture of 80- foot vessel was the wallpaper on a computer screen behind. He sat in an office that was the corner of his child's bedroom.

When his father was a young man, Ruhle said he would spend 40 to 60 days at sea, fishing for swordfish. Now the younger Ruhle captains the Sea Breeze about 80 percent of the time, so his father focused on government regulators, and his grandchildren.

"One reason Phil stood out was because he used his abundant energy to make the fishing industry better," said Beutel, now a fisheries specialist at the University of Rhode Island. "He was passionate, intelligent and innovative and he shared his innovations."

Teri Frady, spokeswoman for federal fisheries agencies in New England, said Ruhle did so much work with fishery regulators that he had "become a fixture whose advice is always valued."

Ruhle Sr. was born in Oceanside, N.Y., but moved to Rhode Island at a young age. The family lived in Middletown and more recently, North Kingstown.

His mother, Gloria, and wife, Donna, were at his son's house, along with his two other children, Roger, 39, and Alicia, 32, and seven grandchildren.

"He was 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds and he was tough as nails," Phil Jr. said. "He wouldn't back down to anyone. I wouldn't mess with him."

Ruhle said he and his father were thinking of buying a second boat, a long-liner so they could fish for swordfish, a fish stock that he said has recovered well.

But everything is changed now.

"I don't think I will go back to the ocean," Ruhle said yesterday. "I can't do it. My kid idolizes his grandfather. He idolizes me. I couldn't imagine someone telling him I'm gone."

David Beutel, right, of the URI Fisheries Dept. pulls on a new net designed to catch hake while avoiding catching other fish. From left are fishermen Rufus Ayers, Ray Carr and skipper Phil Ruhle Jr. Carr was rescued from the Sea Breeze Wednesday night. The Providence Journal / Bob Breidenbach [email protected] / (401) 277-8036

Originally published by Peter B Lord, Journal Environment Writer.

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