The New England Fishery Management Council has shown a willingness to consider allowing fishermen into areas of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank that, through conservation efforts and attempts to grow the stocks, have been off limits for many years.
The council asked its Plan Development Team of technicians and fishery scientists to report at the council’s November meeting on the likely results of giving fishermen access to a narrow sliver of the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area and large parts of Closed Areas One and Two in Georges.
But the step taken last month at the council meeting in Plymouth was considered pivotal — and highly controversial. If the council, NOAA’s regional arm of industry appointees and state officials who debate and recommend policy, takes the definitive step next month, fishermen facing certain reductions in catch limits for the fishing year beginning May 1 would have access to inshore and offshore waters that have not been harvested since the late 1990s.
The closings were made during a regulatory regimen based on effort controls, as advocates of opening them pointed out. They also noted that mortality closures are outdated in the era of hard catch limits, which arrived for the Northeast groundfishery in May 2010 mandated by Congress. The council adapted to the hard catch limits by creating a catch share system which allocated the total allowable catch of each stock to permit holders who chose to join fishing cooperatives known as sectors.
Among those advocating for the opening of closed areas was new NOAA regional administrator John Bullard; he was joined in support by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, and the Associated Fisheries of Maine.
There was no clear consensus at the Plymouth meeting on Sept. 27 that produced the directive to the Plan Development Team. But the decision was influenced. according to many councilors, by the decline of the groundfishery into a recognized economic disaster, as officially declared last month by the acting Secretary of Commerce, Rebecca Blank, and a new set or more restrictive catch limits virtually certain for 2013.
The council directive came as a committee strove to finish work on a comprehensive modernization of the Habitat Closures which border the putative opening of the so called “mortality” closed areas.
Peter Shelley, senior counsel at Conservation Law Foundation, said his organization would sue to prevent the opening of the closed areas. Also registering opposition were the groups Earthjustice and The Nature Conservancy. But the Environmental Defense Fund, which played an important role in the decision to create a catch share system for New England, argued conditionally for the opening of the closed areas, if sought by the sectors.
“While that larger important and significant analysis continues, we support the committee’s motion to conditionally consider exemption requests from individual sectors for access to groundfish closures that do not overlap with current (habitat) closures,” said Emilie Litsinger, New England Fisheries project manager for EDF.
“Whether or not access is granted to any sector should be transparent, temporary, and determined based on clear demonstration of the benefits of access in terms of high (catch per unit effort) for healthy stocks and low CPUE of weak stocks,” she added. “We believe that access should also require 100 percent at-sea monitoring to ensure that we are capturing total catch and accounting for all mortality.
Fishery council member David Goethel, a Hampton, N.H., groundfisherman, said mortality closures have had enough time — 16 years — to prove themselves a wellspring for the stocks.
“We should be overflowing with groundfish; instead we have a disaster,” said Goethel, who said the closed areas should be opened.
“When the Northeast groundfish fishery transitioned to hard total allowable catches,” the Northeast Seafood Coalition said in statement, “it was understood the measures that continued to exist under the old mortality controls would be removed. Sectors are now in the third year of operations and very little has been done to remove the artifacts of the old system, other than removing trip limits. Areas fishermen could gain access to (via the request of sectors) are conservative and will not overlap existing habitat areas or new areas being considered under the larger habitat amendment currently under development.”
The Gloucester-based coalition is the region’s largest industry group, and its subsidiary, the Northeast Sector Network, supports 13 of the region’s 17 sectors including all gear types and boats from all the port states.
“We have supported closures, but we at Associated Fisheries of Maine don’t see that they’ve produced,” said Maggie Raymond, the organization’s executive director. “In some way ... we regret supporting it. We have to do something different. The hard TAC (total allowable catch) is the control.
“If not this, then what do we do?” Raymond told the council. “This is an opportunity to bring more fish across the dock.”
Associated Fisheries of Maine is another major trade association of fishing and fishing dependent businesses. Membership includes harvesters, processors, fuel/gear/ice dealers, marine insurers and lenders, and other public and private individuals and businesses with an interest in commercial fishing.
Shelley, representing Conservation Law Foundation, sees otherwise.
“This is a bad idea,” he Shelley. “There is no definition of what the economic emergency is. There is an emergency for some fishing operations, but it’s not everybody.”
Shelley said he was concerned that opening the closed areas without conducting a full environmental impact study was illegal, but he also said he worried that the underlying catch share system insured that, if more fish became accessible, they would end up in the holds of the biggest operators without helping the mom-and-pop fishing boat businesses.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.