GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 7, 2012

NOAA eyes easing redfish, dogfish rules

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard has announced a suite of measures designed to give groundfishermen options as they continue to grapple with reductions in limits on their preferred target species.

The proposals, not yet cast as policy and subject to sign-off by the acting commerce secretary, feature the opening of certain waters for taking dogfish without having to use their limited groundfish fishing days. Dogfish are not managed under Amendment 16, the catch share system for members of fishing cooperatives or sectors.

”Several of the new measures were conceived by fishermen, and others are the product of collaboration between fishermen, researchers and our staff,” Bullard, based in the Gloucester office in Blackburn Industrial Park, said in a prepared statement. “By working together and thinking creatively, we can find fishing opportunities even in these challenging times.”

The proposals were posted on the NOAA’s Northeast region website earlier this week.

The greater access to spiny dogfish “will provide fishermen with better access to this abundant fish stock with little risk to groundfish stocks,” Bullard’s statement said. “Fishermen catch very few groundfish when fishing in these areas for dogfish.”

Bullard’s proposal was praised by Nils Stolpe, a fisheries analyst, researcher and columnist who has long advocated allowing fishermen to take more dogfish, a predator whose protection by NOAA for years was suspected to a cause of declines in the status of prized stocks such as cod and other groundfish.

Another industry-generated request being considered by NOAA Fisheries would allow groundfish fishermen to use smaller mesh size in their fishing nets in certain areas to target the healthy stocks of Acadian redfish. To protect vulnerable groundfish, NOAA Fisheries is limiting the amount of other fish that can be caught and requiring that fishing vessels carry an observer to monitor catches during redfish fishing trips.

For fishing vessels that use small mesh fishing gear to catch hake, the agency has proposed adopting trip limits.The fishery is currently managed primarily through a combination of mesh size restrictions in fishing nets and limits on the number of fish they can keep. The New England Fishery Management Council recommended the use of trip limits, or a limit of catch per trip, as a way to maintain a more steady supply of fish throughout the fishing year and to extend fishing opportunities for fishermen.

In a posting on the Conservation Law Foundation website. responding to CLF’s senior attorney Peter Shelley, Stolpe wrote that “there are approximately a million metric tons – that’s 2.2 billion pounds – of three species of catchable and marketable fish ‘available’ off our Northeast. “These three species – Acadian redfish, spiny dogfish and haddock – could sustainably support the entire out-of-work groundfish industry, and then some.”

In an email Friday, Stolpe added that “anything that gets spiny dogfish caught is a good thing.

”Ditto for redfish,” he added, “and it’s nice to see that (NOAA Fisheries) recognizes that the harvests of both species can be increased without damaging other stocks.

”Kudos to John Bullard for recognizing that fish should be caught (sustainably, of course) and for acting on that recognition,” Stolpe added. “Why did it have to wait until he was in charge in the Northeast before NOAA/NMFS acted to implement these simple management measures that will provide much-needed opportunities for fishermen who have faced a steady decline in their ability to fish for what seems like forever.”

As recently as 2008, with the publication of a complete benchmark assessment of the 20 stocks in the Northeast groundfish complex, the region seemed primed to achieve a stable and fruitful biomass of the Northwest Atlantic ecosystem. But in November 2011, with a benchmark assessment of (inshore) Gulf of Maine cod, and continuing with updated assessments of stocks on Georges Bank (offshore) the status of the ecosystem seemed to be much weaker than scientists and fishermen believed.

A 22 percent cut in inshore cod landings for 2012 was an emergency reprieve, and, on Dec. 20 at a special meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council in Wakefield, catch limits for 2013 (which begins May 1) and the fishery are expected to face economic trauma. The possibility that there may not be a direct inshore cod fishery next year has been broached.

Bullard’s efforts to give fishermen options marks his second important action that has brought praise from the industry.

Overruling his bureaucracy, Bullard, named as regional chief in June, announced a decision in September to shift a shutdown of the inshore gillnet fishery from October and November to February and March. The shutdown is aimed at reducing harbor porpoise losses in bycatch.

Immediate losses to three dozen vessels working out of ports from New Hampshire to along the Massachusetts Bay had been projected to be $2.6 million, half that from the revenues of Gloucester-based boats, according to an economic analysis presented at the end of July by the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry organization.

The move in closure dates to next year should ease the economic impact on a fleet at the center of a systemic fisheries failure, declared by the Commerce Department, by allowing gillnetters access to pollock. Pollock typically come through the inshore waters of Massachusetts Bay, including Stellwagen Bank and the Gulf of Maine, in the autumn, said Richard Burgess, president of the fishing cooperative Sector III, a group of 36 Gloucester-based gillnetters.

“This is going to allow us to catch a larger proportion of our pollock quota,” said Richard Burgess, who operates a gillnet fishing business from Gloucester. “(Bullard) listened to the fishermen who know there are more harbor porpoises around in February and March.”

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