Finding gillnet boats guilty of killing too many harbor porpoises, NOAA Fisheries on Thursday said that, as a consequence, it was putting about 2,130 square miles of prime fishing grounds north, west and south of Gloucester off limits for fixed-gear boats during the months of October and November this year.
The decision came as a shock to the gillnetters, who make up about half of Gloucester's commercial fleet.
Gloucester-based gillnetters have been leasing safety "pingers" from the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund and fixing them to their gear to drive off seals, whales and porpoises.
"We've got 100 percent compliance on pingers due to the Preservation Fund," said Richard Burgess, president of Sector 3, a non-profit organization of 32 gillnet boats based in Gloucester.
The National Oceanic and Atmospherice Administration's Protected Resource Division said that, overall, only 41 percent of the boats that drop gillnets in the Gulf of Maine were using pingers last year.
The industry has been battered by a variety of regulatory actions starting with a rough 50 percent cut in catch limits mandated by Amendment 16 two years ago and right up to the recent 22 percent reduction in the amount Gulf of Maine cod that can be landed in the 2012 fishing year beginning May 1, a result of a 2011 benchmark assessment that contradicted the previous benchmark assessment from three years earlier.
Burgess said the cooperative of 32 boats "will be wiped out financially, the first sector to collapse due to restrictions from harbor porpoises that are totally unwarranted."
"Our heads are spinning now," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition. "Someone needs to put the brakes on."
Odell added that it was not clear whether the findings represented actual or projected porpoise deaths.
In a formal notification statement Thursday, the 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.
The plan was to monitor the catch for two seasons before considering action, but because the bycatch of porpoises was so extreme in the region around Gloucester, the division statement indicated, control measures were needed immediately.
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.
"In 2010, the take reduction team updated their plan, identified areas of historic high bycatch, established triggers that if exceeded would result in implementation of 'consequence' seasonal closures that would be put in place as an incentive for fishermen to use pingers and use them correctly," Mooney-Seus said. "The coastal Gulf of Maine closure announced today is one of those consequence seasonal closures."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-238-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.