By Richard Gaines
Of all the prized groundfish, no species may be stronger today than haddock, according to data from the National Oceanic an Atmospheric Administration.
Now fully rebuilt, NOAA figures show, stocks of the little cousin of the cod are so large that haddock is the poster fish for underfishing — its mass effectively protected by the efforts of fishermen to avoid catching other fish that swim with haddock in the mix of stocks still aggressively protected.
A report by NOAA Fisheries shows that only 13 percent of the 53 million metric tons of haddock available in Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine have been landed midway through the fishing year, which began May 1.
At that pace, by April 30 when the groundfish year ends, nearly three quarters of the authorized haddock catch will still be swimming.
Yet, the Gloucester-New Bedford based herring industry is facing an early shutdown because of a miniscule regulatory limit placed on haddock landed as bycatch — fish accidentally hauled up with fishermen's targeted species. And the potential shutdown is based on outdated and invalid assumption about the infrequency of government observers on the two ports' 10 herring boats, industry leaders say.
When only about 20 percent of the herring trips were staffed by observers who produced bycatch tallies, regulators set the bycatch limit for haddock at 0.02 percent of the total allowable catch for the Gulf of Maine and Georges, the unpredictable and swirling Times Square-like intersection of routes in the Western Atlantic that the U.S. shares with Canada.
But since the haddock bycatch limits were set, observers are now assigned to most trips, and herring catch limits were reduced by 40 percent.
So, without an emergency action by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, which has been formally sought by Rep. Barney Frank, the herring industry faces what the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has called "unnecessary hardships."
An industry executive put the potential losses at $22 million.
Frank's Nov. 30 letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, which cited the report from the deliberative commission which was created to deal with fisheries issues that stretch across regional boundaries, requests yet another emergency order — an act by the secretary in response to a unforeseen economic crisis to add fish to be caught so long as the action does not jeopardize restoration timetables.
Already this fall, the secretary has been asked to affirm an economic crisis in the entire groundfish complex and allow additional fishing still below the overfishing threshold. And there is a related economic crisis in the skate fishery, brought about by decisions by federal regulators to cut back on trip limits from 20,000 pounds to 500 pounds, despite trawl survey data showing the strong stocks of the flat, shark-like bottom dwellers prized by French palates and a valuable export.
The formal request for liberalized skate catch limits was said by Frank's office to be imminent.
Locke, meanwhile, was said to be awaiting a report from government scientists about the over-arching request for additional groundfish across the 19 stock New England fishery, which has been put under hard federal catch limits, and under the new catch share regulatory system.
According to the report a Locke prepared by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the School of Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, the mix of conservative, hard catch limits and catch shares have combined to keep "more than half the fleet of 253 vessels from ... landings of any finfish," while the assets of the fishery — equity through permits — have been concentrated in a small number of hands.
Brady Schofield, president of the Northern Pelagic Group LLC, a New Bedford company, wrote to Gov. Deval Patrick that the shutdown of the herring fishery based on the miniscule haddock bycatch allowance could cost the industry 26,000 metric tons of herring.
Writing on behalf of Gloucester's Cape Seafoods and Irish Venture/LLC, Schofield said the industry based in Gloucester and New Bedford together employ 200 people in businesses representing $75 million in investment.
"Simply put," Schofield wrote to the governor, "our ability to access nearly 75 percent of the Atlantic sea herring (150 million pounds) is held hostage by an allowable haddock bycatch cap — or "choke" — of 182,000 pounds."
He described the situation as "a travesty because the haddock fishery itself is catching less than 10 percent of its total allowable catch."
The letter was written before NOAA Fisheries released the six-month catch reports showing 13 percent caught of the total allowed.
There was no immediate response by Locke to queries from the Times for comment on Frank's most recent request for an emergency allocation in response to an economic crisis.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.