NOAA’s New England Fishery Management Council Wednesday heaped derision on a joint assessment of yellowtail flounder conducted jointly by U.S. and Canadian scientists, then trashed the minuscule allocation of the stock based on work that even the agency’s chief regional scientist declined to defend, except to say it was the best “available” and therefore binding.
But the deeply divided council voted 9-8 twice to authorize the $400 million scalloping fleet based in New Bedford and the groundfishing industry centered in Gloucester to land a total of 495 metric tons of yellowtail in 2013 — more than twice the amount authorized by the “transboundary” agreement covering the U.S. and Canada, though a weight that is still projected to constrain, if not short-circuit, scalloping and groundfishing.
Yellowtail and scallops are found near each other throughout the Northwest Atlantic, creating a relationship that has become a challenge for the scallopers, groundfishermen and now for the U.S. and Canadian governments, which have jointly managed the boundary between the nations’ waters that splits Georges Bank.
The council’s action, described as essential to maintaining a domestic scallop and groundfishery in 2013, was immediately undercut by NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard, who said he could not approve the action because it violated two national standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — one that bars overfishing and one that requires adherence to the best available science.
The blunt rejection of the division of the allocation by the two nations — into 285 metric tons for Canadian boats and 215 for Americans — was also repeatedly predicted to jeopardize the transboundry arrangement itself. And with Bullard on record as ready to veto, council members struggled with how to subdivide an uncertain tonnage of yellowtail, between the scalloping and groundfishing boats.
David Frulla, attorney for the scalloping industry’s Fisheries Survival Fund, described the problem as “dividing a crumb.”
The debate opened fissures between advocates of the scalloping industry represented by the New Bedford-based Fisheries Survival Fund and the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest groundfishing industry group.
The backdrop of the debate is the disaster into which the fishery descended over the four years since the council finished work on a radical new industry model, which ended effort controls as the primary method of managing stock vitality and replaced it with an allocative system that resembles a commodity market through the buying, selling and trading of catch shares.
The acting Commerce secretary in September agreed with petitions by the five coastal New England states and New York that the fishery had become an economic “disaster.”
Tom Nies, fisheries analyst for the New England council, predicted “50-60 percent less groundfish revenues for the region in 2013.
Vito Giacalone of Gloucester, policy director of the seafood coalition, said going with the allocation generated by the international body “would mean a collapse of one or both of the fisheries.”
No aid was forthcoming after the disaster declaration which attributed the catastrophe to ecological factors.
David Pierce, the deputy director of marine fisheries in Massachusetts, authorized the motion to trash the recommendations of the “transboundry resource assessment committee,” arguing that the 215 metric tons of yellowtail that the TRAC offered for division between the scallopers and groundfishermen was effectively arbitrary due to questions about the science of the assessment. He also argued that the council was free to approve the 495-metric-ton number generated by the council’s Science and Statistical Committee.
In a letter he read to the council, New Bedford Mayor John Mitchell said the international organization was proposing to slash yellowtail landings by 57 percent from this year and 81 percent from 2011.
“Such devastating consequences would be difficult to accept if the science was certain,” Mitchell said, “but they are impossible to accept given the widespread lack of confidence in the underlying assessment and the fact that the international organization did not follow its own protocols in formulating its catch recommendations.
“The methods used in the 2012 assessment were exploratory in nature,” Mitchell wrote, “have not been vetted, and the international organization’s report acknowledges that the (anomalies discovered after the fact) cannot be explained by biology and fishery practices.”
The first 9-8 vote for Pierce’s motion the replace the 215 metric ton allocation from the transboundry committee took place just before the lunch break.
When the group returned, a motion to reconsider was approved by the same slim majority, which allowed Bullard to work to reverse the substantive vote.
Bullard also argued that approving Pierce’s motion would “blow up” the international agreement to co-manage fish stocks along the boundary that bisects Georges Bank.
“How much worse can it get, (if the agreement is ruptured)?” asked Councilor David Goethel, a New Hampshire dayboat groundfisherman. “The stock assessment is broken; send it back to be redone ... It’s time to stand up and do the right thing, it’s time to stand up and say there’s a problem (with the science).”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x34674, or at email@example.com.