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.