GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 30, 2011

NOAA cites new data, hikes skate catch limits

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

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."

"We made a commitment to respond as quickly as possible when new scientific information affects management decisions," Eric Schwaab, administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said in a prepared statement. "The proposed quota increase will result in considerable increases in revenues for fishermen and positive economic effects to the businesses that support the fishery, while maintaining important conservation objectives."

Emily Keiley, a research assistant at the School of Marine Science and Technology of University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, said Tuesday that the government is responding to new data showing that the skate biomass is increasing and the presumed discard rate was too high.

"They're taking two important steps," Keiley said. "This will help the industry. The increased landings limit is likely to extend the season, consistency of availability is important because they go and get international contracts (and when supplies stop) they lose cargo space."

The split between wings and bait remains at the same proportion: each would go up by 56 percent. Wings would go from 9,209 metric tons to 14, 338, and bait boats would be allowed to increase landings from 4,639 metric tons to 7,223 metric tons.

The assumed discard rate would drop from 52 percent to 36.3 percent.

Under the proposed rule, which was recommended to NOAA by the New England Fishery Management Council, the government said that "significant increases" in the survey biomass of little and winter skates — two of the seven species — through autumn 2010 support increases in the acceptable biological catch.

"Additionally, new research on the discard mortality of winter and little skates in trawl gear indicates that the assumed discard mortality rate of 50 percent is too high, and that the dead discard portion of the catch has been overestimated in the past," NOAA said in announcing its proposed rule.

Political pressure to loosen limits on skate has been brought by Congressman Barney Frank, who represents New Bedford and UMass-Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology. That's the program that, last December, released a research paper that asserted that NOAA was sitting on unreleased trawl data showing no need for the reduced trip limits.

Last year, the limits collapsed the skate fishery, leaving European buyers to South American exporters.

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