A large number of big commercial trawlers — 70 feet or more in length — from Gloucester and Boston have been drawn this week to the nearby inshore grounds of Middle Bank in pursuit of the season’s first pulse of cod, combing areas that are the usual domain of smaller, independent day boats from multiple ports, several sources told the Times Wednesday.
The reports were confirmed by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, vessel monitoring section.
“Over the past 72 hours (3 days), there have been 8 vessels of 70 feet or larger with possible fishing activity in the vicinity of Middle Bank,” said NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus.
The majority of the big trawlers — described by eyewitnesses as continuing to fish as of Wednesday — was said to be registered members of Sector 2, the fishing cooperative made up of more than 40 Gloucester-based boats. Most of them are of a size that limits their range to day-boat fishing, but Sector 2 also includes six big “trip” boats, which have the scale to allow them to work the offshore grounds of Georges Bank.
The Sector 2 manager said he had no information about the whereabouts of his boats, but said that, at times, they have worked inshore.
The cod the big boats were chasing on the inshore grounds was described to the Times as a relatively small pulse, but the first of the season.
Middle Bank, a shallow section of Stellwagen Bank, is less than an hour’s steam from Gloucester, Boston and the small ports along Massachusetts Bay, and the primary locale for dayboat fishing for cod primarily.
But since the advent in May 2010 of catch share fishing, predicated on the trading of allocated fishing rights between gear types and boat sizes — allowed to members of sectors or fishing cooperatives — the taking of inshore cod by offshore boats has been a persistent theme and complaint by dayboat fishermen that the only available source of their harvest and income has been subject to plunder by boats of a much larger scale.
A critical element in the pulse fishing for cod on Stellwagen was the elimination of daily catch limits for boats which entered sectors; these boats were given allocations and encouraged to catch as much as they were allowed at any time. The efficiency of the new system was one of its prime selling points.
But inshore fishermen watching the big boats trawl out sized gear across Middle Bank’s shallow sandy bottom have argued the need to re-establish daily catch limits.
The trajectory of the rebuilding of inshore or Gulf of Maine cod took an acute downward turn in early 2012, with the disappointing and surprising findings of a benchmark assessment leading to a 22 percent cut in allowable landings this year and a potentially catastrophic restriction on landings beginning May 1, 2013. With that, the possibility that the rebuilding of the inshore cod stock has been interrupted by big boat trawler activity has been broached publicly in official circles.
David Pierce, the deputy director of marine fisheries in Massachusetts, aired this concern during the February meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council in Portsmouth, N.H. Speaking as a member of the council, NOAA’s regional policy making, advisory panel, Pierce described multiple schemes — made legal or viable in the unrestricted catch share trading system activated in May 2010 — that have put enormous pressure on the cod stocks on Stellwagen Bank and in other inshore fishing grounds.
Fishermen-members of the 17 sectors or nonprofit cooperative businesses are allowed to trade and lease their allocations in the 19 groundfish stocks between one another — including between the smaller inshore to larger offshore boats and across various gear types.
Because NOAA approved the catch share trading regimen and restructuring of the industry into sectors without restrictions on the trading or accumulation of catch shares, Pierce and a growing consensus believes it is watching a classic market consolidation that will leave a handful of the best capitalized businesses in control of the Northeast groundfishery – the nation’s oldest continuous fishery, and — since last month’s formal declaration by NOAA — an industry confronting economic disaster.
The failure is due in large measure reduced catch limits, a result of congressional amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act which mandate rebuilding overfished stocks within a 10 year timetable and hard catch limits. The disappointing assessment of inshore cod that contradicted a three-year-old benchmark assessment and a broader update of off shore stocks completed a Perfect Storm of travails for a fishery that had been assumed to be on the right track after decades of sacrifice.
“We need to address the transfer from small to larger boats,” said Pierce, who argued that the system worked to tilt the playing field in favor of the best capitalized and major corporations, while further limiting the opportunity for smaller, independent boats to stay economically afloat.
His sentiment is imbedded in a growing consensus among stakeholders of the need for accumulation caps and measures to ensure fleet diversity.
David Levielle, Sector 2 manager, said he had no information about the whereabouts of the sector’s boats. But he said as a general rule, his sector’s “big boats” spend 95 percent of their time “outside” meaning working on Georges.
“Have they been on Middle Bank? I’m sure (they have),” Levielle added.
But he also added that there are only six trip boats left in Gloucester and only about 40 in the entire regional groundfishing fleet.
“The perception is that the big boats are killing the little boats,” he said in a telephone interview. “The opposite is true.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.