, Gloucester, MA

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August 30, 2011

NOAA cites new data, hikes skate catch limits

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing a 56 percent — or 17 million pound — increase in this year's skate catch.

The action is based on what NOAA says is new scientific information, data that also reflects longstanding industry insistence that skates — taken largely as bycatch by groundfishermen — are a stock complex in far better shape than the government believed or was willing to admit.

Skates have been about an $8-10 million annual industry based on vessel revenues in recent years.

NOAA's proposed "emergency" action cannot become rule until after the closing of the public comment period on Sept. 14.

Because trip limits would not change, the proposal is seen as allowing the region's major skate processors in Gloucester and New Bedford to maintain supplies throughout the 12-month fishing cycle, which for skates and groundfish end April 30.

Due to a smaller catch limit, skate landings were effectively shut off in the fall of 2010, barely halfway through the 12-month cycle.

The complex of seven species is managed as one, and is divided into two parts — whole skates are landed for lobster bait, while the wings are processed for human consumption and exported to France where they are considered a pricey delicacy.

In 2010, skate wings were landed by 503 vessels while whole skates for lobster bait were landed by 56 boats, according to official figures. The wing table food sub sector is led by processors in New Bedford and secondarily Gloucester; the bait sector is based in Pt. Judith, RI.

As a table food, skates are late arrivals; skates were the fish du jour at the Seafood Throwdown in the Cape Ann Farmers' Market earlier this month.

"We've been lobbying for this for more than a year," said Kristian Kristensen, CEO of Zeus Packing Co. of Harbor Loop. "We told them to look at the science. But the emergency action is good."

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