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When Keith Mason went to Murray State University in Kentucky years ago to study business he learned all about the law of supply and demand.

Then he came home to the North Carolina coast to become a fisherman.``I found out the law of supply and demand doesn't apply to the water,' Mason says.

Fish are scarce on the coast this winter. So guess what? Prices are low.

Mason, who fishes out of Sea Level near Morehead City, went out in his 40-foot boat Monday morning and returned with six bags of clams. Not too long ago he might have caught 25 or 30 bags and received maybe 23 cents for each clam.

He figures he'll get 10 or 12 cents each for Monday's catch, enough to cover the increasing cost of gasoline for his boat, but not much more.

``The way it looks now I don't know if I can make it until the spring,' he says.

Even in the best of times, fishermen are chronic complainers, but this winter their griping seems to have a basis.

Horrible weather, including a snowstorm that dumped up to 20 inches on some areas of the coast, plus pollution problems, bans on mechanical harvesting and depressed prices caused by imported fish has produced a depression in the fishing industry and put hundreds of commercial fishermen out of work.

``This is the rock bottom I've seen for the fishing industry in this area,' says Clint Willis, 42, director of the Carteret County Watermen's Association.

``It's terrible ... worst I've seen in 45 years,' said Monroe Taylor, owner of a seafood packing business in Sea Level. ``The oysters are all gone. Clamming is overworked. The freeze at Christmas killed the scallops. And apparently the weather caused what food fish that were around to go off shore or move south.'

The worst hit area appears to be the central coastal section. One report says virtually all of Carteret's estimated 500 full-time commercial fishermen are out of work.

The situation isn't as bad in the northern and southern coastal area, but the fishing isn't great there either, says fisherman Charles Meekins of Stumpy Point , a community on Pamlico Sound not far from Manteo.

What's really bad is oystering. Oysters are so hard to find that the state has placed a limit of 15 bushels a day and a four-day work week on fishermen. This compares with 50 bushels and a six-day work week last year.

Getting 15 bushels isn't easy.

``We had eight bushels today,' Meekins said. ``We probably worked about six hours.'

He said he has caught his limit only once this season.

He blames the problem on better methods of catching oysters. That has reduced the numbers. And there are more people fishing for oysters, plus pollution has reduced the oyster population.

``I think the oystermen are the real enemy,' he says. ``I think they have caught most of the oysters and there hasn't been a real good replenishment.'

Adding to the woes of fishermen is the fact that fish such as clams, scallops and oysters really aren't that scarce in the marketplace. Like other products, fish can be imported. Scallops, for example, are coming from China and Florida.

For that reason, prices for North Carolina scallops, when they can be found, have been running as low as $18 per gallon or ``1970s prices,' says Willis, the leader of the Carteret County fishing group.

The situation is making charity cases out of some proud fishermen.

At Martha's Mission Cupboard, a nonprofit community ministry that provides emergency food supplies for the needy in Carteret County, families of commercial fishermen are coming in daily to get food to help tide them over.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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