By Richard Gaines
---- — NOAA's regional office has affirmed the agency's decision to impose a two-month closure on gillnet fishing in the Gulf of Maine beginning Oct. 1 due to what officials say are unacceptable levels of harbor porpoise bycatch that, to the government, showed lack of compliance with a requirement that nets be equipped with functioning "pingers."
The closed area encompasses about 2,130 square miles of prime fishing grounds north, west and south of Gloucester. Pingers, which are placed in fishermen's nets, send an audible signal designed to scare away the porpoises.
The decision to stick with the closure announced last spring came in the form of a rejection of an alternative proposal.
Presented last summer by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry group, the alternative would have reduced the length of the closure and the size of the area being closed; it also would have shifted the closure from October and November to the second half of March and April.
The decision to stand by the closures marks the first major science- and law-based action by John Bullard, who just weeks ago took over as Northeast regional administrator. Since his appointment in mid-summer, Bullard, a former mayor of New Bedford, has been on an introductory and opinion-and-fact-gathering tour of the states from Maine through North Carolina, whose federal waters are governed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast offices in Gloucester's Blackburn Industrial Park.
In a letter last Thursday to Jackie Odell, the seafood coalition's executive director, Bullard wrote that he had asked the acting administrator of fisheries, Sam Rauth, to have the harbor porpoise protection problem delegated to him; since then, Bullard said, he directed his staff to see if there was a way to protect harbor seals that "could justify" modifying the "consequence" closing.
Bullard rejected the proposed alternative proposed by the coalition, writing that switching to the coalition alternative offered fishermen or the harbor porpoises little to gain.
Moreover, he warned in his letter to Odell, a recent harbor porpoise stock assessment showed the "population has declined," implying that more radical actions than the "consequence" closure would be expected.
The term derives from the harbor seal management plan and indicates a carrot-stick approach to protecting harbor porpoises as required in the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"The consequence closure area strategy gave gillnetters control of their own fate," Bullard wrote to Odell. "Fishermen on the (harbor porpoise take reduction team) accepted this as a challenge they could meet.
"Environmentalists on the team accepted it instead of an immediate closure of a smaller area. Unfortunately, during the past two years, fishermen in the Gulf of Maine did not fully respond to the compliance challenge," Bullard wrote.
Richard Burgess, who owns a multi-boat gillinetting business, disputed the assertion that the Gloucester-based gillnetters failed to utilize the pingers, while Paul "Sasquatch" Cohan, another Gloucester-based gillnetter, said losing the inshore grounds in October and November cannot be obviated by fishing in open months, due to the dearth of equally valued fish.
Cohan said he found insulting the suggestion by Bullard that, if they chose not to fish, gillnetters could lease out their quota. Such a business decision would produce a small fraction of the revenue of fishing one's own quota, he said.
"The analysis provided in the environmental assessment supporting the 2010 amendment to the (Take Reduction Plan) shows that if fishermen use the appropriate number of fully functional pinger the harbor porpoise takes would stay below total allowable catch equivalent for porpoises," said David Gouveia, a member of the take reduction team.
"If takes continue to occur at this high rate," Gouveia added, "the 'consequence' closure will likely be the back story as more measures to reduce harbor porpoise bycatch will likely take the front page."
That will likely be the focal point, he said of a take reduction team meeting in October.
In the initial announcement\of the Gulf of Maine closure, NOAA's Protected Resource Division said, "We have determined that the bycatch rate for the Coastal Gulf of Maine Consequence Closure Area has exceeded the target rate" for harbor porpoise mortality of one per 71,117 pounds of fish.
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But the "bycatch rate was so high (in the first year of monitoring) that the two-year average cannot be reduced below the target bycatch rate for this area, even if no harbor porpoises are observed being caught (in year two)," the NOAA statement said.
The two-year bycatch rate for porpoises in the Coastal Gulf of Maine Consequence Area was set at 0.031 porpoises per metric ton of fish landed, and in the first year the bycatch rate was reported to be 0.078.
In contrast, gillnet boats working in the east and south of Cape Cod did no exceed the limits: Pinger compliance was 65 percent, and the one-year by catch rate was 0.012 porpoises per metric ton of fish. The target rate for the Cape Cod region was 0.023 porpoises per metric ton of fish.
A Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team made up of industry, environmental group representatives, the New England and Mid-Atlantic Regional Fishery Management Councils, gear researchers and state and regional management organizations wrote the plan, required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to drive down losses to a statistical zero.
Before management began in 1998, there were about 1,500 porpoise deaths a year from fishing gear, but the number fell to near zero for the first five years of regulation, before fatalities began trending upward again in 2005, which was when pinger compliance efforts were increased, said NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus.
Government officials said they saw a cause and effect relationship between pingers and porpoise bycatch levels.