GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 8, 2013

Budget items target fish science

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — Three initiatives now included within the fiscal 2014 state budget hold hope for a Massachusetts fishing industry under increasing duress due to landing cuts imposed by NOAA based on controversial scientific fish stock assessments and the agency’s interpretation of the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The budgeted projects, announced Friday by the Gloucester delegation of state Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, are:

The Gloucester Genomics Initiative, an effort to identify and sequence the genetic code of groundfish such as cod, allowing scientists to determine among other mysteries whether the inshore (Gulf of Maine) and offshore (Georges Bank) fish are one or separate stocks;

Experimentation in the use of sonar technology to provide real time supplemental data on the size and location of stocks in the Northwest Atlantic to be organized at the University of Massachusetts, primarily at its campus in Dartmouth, adjacent to New Bedford.

The development of plans for the recovery and survival of Gloucester, New Bedford and secondary ports that have been weakened by the radical reduction in landings ordered by the federal government.

Funding for the genome and sonar initiatives in different amounts was approved by the House and Senate versions of the budget, and await reconciliation by the Joint Conference Committee, the Gloucester lawmakers said in a briefing paper.

“We can’t stand idle in the face of the regulatory disaster that is unfolding in front of us and jeopardizing the survival of fishing ports like Gloucester, New Bedford, and those on the South Shore and Cape Cod,” Tarr, the Senate Republican minority leader. “While our state budget is only a fraction of federal spending, we are working to make a significant investment in the programs and research needed to defend the fishing industry.”

Eight months ago, the acting commerce secretary declared the Northeast groundfishery to have declined into disaster but President Obama, his administration and Congress have failed to appropriate any disaster relief. “We’re taking action now while we await federal assistance,” Tarr added.

“NOAA has made it clear over the past decade that it is not interested in collaborative research nor is it interested in advances in scientific technique,” Ferrante added. “In the absence of NOAAs leadership on the issue of cooperative research, the Massachusetts Legislature has chosen to lead in the effort to attain the best science rather than settle for that which is simply “available.

“Rest assured, in the wake of this regulatory disaster the commonwealth will not remain silent,” Ferrante added. “The commonwealth has taken this extraordinary step to invest in cooperative research, to seek more modern and reliable methods thereby complimenting Attorney General (Martha) Coakley’s case against NOAA by not only alleging inadequate science but also putting dollars behind our allegations.”

Coakley filed a federal suit against NOAA May 30 alleging that the radical cutbacks ordered in landings were illegal due to lack of balance and respect for a mandate within the Magnuson Act, which serves as the law of the land when it comes to harvesting the sea. That mandate requires the protection of fishing communities while also protecting the resource, and that limits generate a “maximum sustainable yield.” The Coakley lawsuit also alleges that NOAA has failed to use the best science available.

Both the House and Senate versions of the budget included $200,000 for the Gloucester Geonomics Initiative; the House budget has $75,000 for the sonar project while the Senate budget has $350,000 for sonar. The Senate budget has $150,000 for the Ports Recovery Plan.

A joint conference committee is working to reconcile the many differences between each chamber’s version of the budget which after reconciliation goes to Gov. Deval Patrick for vetoes and further negotiations.

Tarr and Ferrante described the targeted projects in detail.

“Gloucester Genomics is a ground-breaking scientific initiative” led by Cape Ann residents David Walt and Greg Verdine, chemistry professors at Tufts and Harvard universities, respectively, and by Marc Vidal, a biologist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Experts in genetics and bio-technology, they “came forward” to work cooperatively with fishermen “to use advanced technology in the biotech field to resolve age old questions such as: Are Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank Cod the same species?” the state lawmakers said.

That question is germane to catch limits and the answer could affect how the stocks — or a given stock — is managed.

The 2013 catch limits, which took effect May 1, have cut landings in Georges Bank cod by 61 percent compared to last year, but have sliced the allowable landings of inshore Gulf of Maine cod — prime target of Gloucester’s groundfishing, day-boat fleet, by 78 percent.

Tagging studies indicate the stocks mix, but a fuller understanding of the relationship between these two stocks and the third stock from the Scotian shelf requires genome research.

The sonar project is an effort to reset an initiative which was given $1.4 million from the state budget and seaport bonding last year for the design and implementation of a program to count fish using a technology created for military purposes. The project was brought to the attention of the legislators by Roger Berkowitz, owner-president of Legal Seafoods, who learned of joint research into acoustic fish counting by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The briefing paper explained that, at the time that the state advertised requests for proposals for the sonar project, the permitting process became unwieldy. So Tarr and Ferrante said they chose a different approach, and have secured House and Senate funding to direct UMass-Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology “to develop and design an assessment using sonar and other innovative and advanced scientific methods to determine the size of the stock.”

Port planning was included in the budgeting to provide “grants to individual municipalities or regional collaborative of municipalities to develop plans to respond to the crisis (posed) by the impacts of dramatic catch reductions.

Fishing efforts, landings and port vitality is dramatically off since the start on May 1 of the 2013 fishing year, with many boats reduced to less than 20 percent of their output due to the 78 percent cut in inshore cod. The loss of cod allocations handcuffs boats from fishing for stocks without severe constraints.

The loss of access to one stock is known as a “choke” stock due to the mixing of many different stocks, and the rule under the catch share commodification system for boats to not exceed their smallest allocation of any stock.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.