By Patrick Anderson
Sector fishery cooperatives, the linchpin of federal plans to protect wild fish stocks in New England, could collapse under new catch restrictions for one of the ocean's more unpredictable species, members of the industry working on the system say.
Pollock, the low-profile relative of cod often consumed anonymously in breaded cutlets and fish sticks, is dangerously overfished in the northwest Atlantic, federal scientists say, and needs to be protected with sudden, large-scale catch reductions.
According to preliminary recommendations, the reduction could represent a cut of 67 percent from last year's pollock catch.
But fishermen and boat owners say pollock is doing much better than the scientists say and the new rules could make the already uncertain transition to a quota-based catch share system — an imperative of the Obama administration and environmental groups — a disaster.
"This stands to break the system," said Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the largest industry group on the East Coast. "There is not even enough for bycatch. The viability of sectors is potentially fatally compromised by the recommendation of allowable catch for pollock."
"A lot of guys I know, maybe half, aren't going to make it," said Raymond Canastra, co-owner of the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction in New Bedford and the manager of a sector. "The total allowable catch is not going to be enough. I don't have any faith in it."
The new system, approved this summer, will divide a portion of what has always been a commonly held wild harvest into shares to be allocated to new regional fishing cooperatives, called sectors.
Through an ownership stake, they are designed to encourage those in the industry to conserve the stocks, reducing the waste, inefficiency and bycatch that takes place under the current effort control system.
Grudgingly accepted by the East Coast fishing industry when it became clear that catch shares could not be avoided, the system clears the way for 19 sectors, including two prototypes on Cape Cod and 13 organized by the Northeast Seafood Coalition.
But to divvy up the catch, regulators have to figure out what the size of the harvest should be and early figures have many in the industry concerned they won't be allowed enough catch to share.
Because the sector system uses a hard quota and counts bycatch — essentially fish scooped up by accident — those in the industry trying to make sectors work fear that large swaths of the fleet could be shut down, barred from catching other, healthier groundfish stocks, such as haddock, to avoid pollock.
Government trawl surveys of pollock indicate that populations of the fish have dropped by more than half since 2004, with less than 1 kilogram of the fish coming up in each of their tows, compared with more than 2 kilograms five years ago and 7 kilograms in the 1970s, according to NOAA fisheries.
But if the government scientists are wrong and pollock are abundant, then not only is there less need to protect them, but avoiding them while fishing for other species will become that much more difficult.
"The pollock catches in a sector will be so restrictive, they are liable to shut themselves down for a fish that is abundant," Giacalone said. "If the pollock were really at the level they say they are, it would not be a problem. But pollock are showing up in greater numbers everywhere."
In 2008, there were 11,370 metric tons of pollock landed in U.S. East Coast ports, Canada and in recreational fishing, according to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual port rankings. But NMFS preliminary projections call for allowing just 3,813 tons during 2010.
The New England Fishery Management Council, which will ultimately set catch limits for sectors, is scheduled to meet next month in Plymouth.
"Pollack has been a staple to our industry for many years," said Larry Ciulla of the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction. "Especially with all the restrictions that will be in play. To a lot of people, it will be devastating and result in a drastic decrease in the volume this port sees."
Canastra of New Bedford agreed.
"It's the kiss of death," he said.
Richard Burgess, owner of four Gloucester gillnet boats, said landings of pollock are down because fertile grounds in the western Gulf of Maine have been off-limits for years and prices for the fish have been low, discouraging boats from targeting them.
"If they shut down pollock entirely, it is based on bogus landings," Burgess said.
In addition to the reductions in pollock, the draft recommendations reduce the totals for Georges Bank cod, a valuable stock that fishermen say is much more plentiful than the government suggests.
Cod are also much more plentiful than the government suggests, Burgess said.
The sector factor
Complicating the situation is the fact that when the new sector system is introduced, some boats will still be allowed to operate under the old system of effort controls, such as days at sea limits and area closures, in a group called the "common pool."
As sectors were approved this summer, the regulations on the common pool were ratcheted even tighter.
But, in the short term, Giacalone said, they may still be in better shape than the sector boats that will immediately come up against the hard cap. While effort controls on common pool boats would likely be tightened further in the following year, the damage to the sector fishermen initially could be damaging.
As it has for years, the science behind fish stock assessments, and resulting catch limits, is at the heart of complaints by fishermen, who often attribute low numbers to a few bad days of fishing by scientists.
Pinning down the strength of pollock, which cover large areas and swim in midwater as well as on the bottom, is a particular challenge.
"Pollock are a notoriously difficult stock to assess; there is no beating around the bush on that," said Paul Rago, a research biologist with NOAA fisheries science center in Woods Hole. "They move around a lot in time and space — they are extremely variable."
The recommendations for catch limits are based on three-year estimates of fish populations, derived from annual trawl surveys conducted in the fall. In the case of pollock, one vessel conducts around 200 trawls each year in an area stretching from Long Island to the Canadian border and counts the fish collected.
While acknowledging that scientists are not as certain about the state of pollock as they are about other groundfish like cod or flounder, Rago said he was confident that pollock are, in fact, overfished.
"There is definitely a lower abundance than this resource can sustain," Rago said, pointing to similar numbers from Canadian pollock counts.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at email@example.com