By Richard Gaines
---- — NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard described himself Thursday as open-minded about a legal theory that would give the inshore fishing fleet a second year of lesser constriction in landing Gulf of Maine cod than it faces when the New England Fishery Management Council meets today to make hard choices across the whole spectrum of groundfish.
But Bullard stopped short of endorsing the theory, aimed at extending the current, less-draconian interim limits to a second year, should it be legally validated, adding that the idea of “trading tomorrow for today” was not an easy sell.
The theory was put into circulation Monday by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, in a letter to fishery council chief C. M. “Rip” Cunningham.
The coalition theory was based on an interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act for building a second year of relief — “reducing” rather than “ending” overfishing — while a plan to bring the stock to maximum sustainable yield is crafted.
“I’m not going to opine on whether you can squeeze another year out of (the Magnuson regulations),” Bullard said in a Thursday interview at the Times. “We’re willing to take a look at this at the meeting.”
Bullard did not hint at how he might vote today when the council convenes in Wakefield. As the regional administrator based in Gloucester, he is also one of 18 members. But he also represents NOAA which needs not adopt the catch limits or policies made by the council if they are deemed unsupportable by the will of Congress.
A federal district court and U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this year underscored the deference that NOAA is afforded in interpreting congressional intent.
The task of setting catch limits in a fishery that was declared an economic “disaster” by the acting U.S. Commerce secretary in September was isolated from other deliberations before the three-day November meeting. And even now, the council will be facing the adoption of a range of limits on the landings of Gulf of Maine cod pending the completion and vetting of a new benchmark assessment of the mainstay of the inshore fleet.
The final catch limits are to be determined based on the assessment at the council’s January meeting.
The coalition proposal would avoid the 2013 fishing year reckoning on Gulf of Maine cod that was an explicit part of an emergency interim measure innovated by Samuel D. Rauch III, the acting assistant administrator of fisheries, and adopted by the council. The interim limits allowed the fleet to work with a 22 percent reduction in landings, while a new management plan to end overfishing of the most important inshore stock was developed.
In rolling out the initial theory for the 2012 interim emergency action, Rauch wrote that the one year grace must “make a substantial reduction in overfishing and must at a minimum not further deteriorate the stock.
“Additionally, any action (based on the wording of the statute) cannot exceed one year in duration,” he wrote to the council.
The coalition memorandum reasons otherwise.
“It is critical to understand that the Magnuson-Stevens Act does not in any manner preclude the agency from implementing a second interim measure immediately following the first,” the coalition wrote, while also proposing interim measures to minimize the reduced catch limits on Gulf of Maine haddock and winter flounder.
The coalition also urged the council to hold to a 1,150 metric ton limit on Georges Bank yellowtail, a quantity far in excess of the 215 metric tons that the U.S. and Canada settled on under the two nations’ joint management of the waters bounding the border line through Georges.
Bullard reiterated his opposition Thursday to that proposal. He said that Canada would trade some of its allocation of yellowtail for some U.S. haddock and backed the need to honor the transboundary agreement and its allocations, asserting the U.S had more to gain in the long run by remaining subject to the international agreement with Canada.
The fishery faces possible shutdown of the directed Gulf of Maine cod fishery, with cuts on top of the 2012 cuts of 22 percent of more than 70 percent .
Across the mixed stocks, the council is expected to approve severe cuts, with the industry already in a downward spiral and hoping that Congress approves a $100 million disaster assistance package now integrated into a $60 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster assistance bill and pending before the current lame duck session of the 112th Congress.
According to preliminary numbers from the New England Fishery Management Council’s executive committee, the total allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod — linchpin stock of the inshore fleet — is projected to face a 72 percent cut from the current year, while the catch limit for the Georges Bank cod, the core target of the larger offshore trip boats, is projected to be trimmed by 70 percent.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x34764, or at email@example.com.