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 They also noted that mortality closures are outdated in the era of hard catch limits, which arrived for the Northeast groundfishery in May 2010 mandated by Congress.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.