The Northeast groundfishing industry faced the music Tuesday — and it was a dirge.
NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard informed members of Congress Tuesday that he was filing in the Federal Register catch limits and the overall fishing regime for the new fishing year starting today and carrying through 2015. And the briefing confirmed devastating cuts in the stocks on which the fleet of about 450 boats have depended.
Boats primarily from Gloucester, New Hampshire and Maine that fished for Gulf of Maine cod found their allocations cut by 78 percent, and many fishermen — including Joe Orlando, one of Gloucester’s best known and most vocal captains — said their businesses were rendered non-viable.
“Want to buy a boat?” said Orlando, who fishes from the 70-foot vessel Padre Pio. “I put it up for sale. I have no choice.”
Larger off-shore boats, some from Maine and Gloucester but primarily from New Bedford and Pt. Judith, R.I. that fish Georges Bank cod and yellowtail will be allowed to land about one third of their previous allocation.
But after years of incremental reductions and new systems of operation for the fleet, the new cuts are expected to leave much of coastal New England without commercial fishing. Exceptions will be Gloucester and New Bedford, the regional centers from which fishermen will fish on, but in a much more limited fashion.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester described the cuts Tuesday as “the greatest threat we’ve seen to the survival of groundfishing in New England, and risk the total collapse of a fishery that has endured for hundreds of years.”
“Today,” he added, “NOAA has responded to a declared disaster by creating a crisis.”
State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, said in a statement the action demonstrated the “contempt” in which NOAA holds the fishermen. She called the final rule “a death sentence” for the industry.
Congressman John Tierney said the action was “extremely upsetting as fishermen throughout the area struggle to stay in business.”
Gov. Deval Patrick said he was “very concerned about the impact these groundfish cuts will have on our fishing industry...I appreciate NOAA’s offer to work with the fishing industry to lessen the impact of these cuts,” he added.
Given to members of Congress at noon, Bullard’s decision contained no major surprises — there was no 11th hour call from the White House, to which Gov. Deval Patrick appealed last week with a call to Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama. The president has never commented publicly about the crisis in the fishing industry, declared a disaster last November by the acting commerce secretary.
Obama took no active role in the failed effort to get disaster relief for the Northeast groundfishing industry last year and his $8.6 billion budget proposal for the Commerce Department contained no funding for disaster relief or boat backs.
“We know that for some fishing communities that have relied heavily on cod, haddock and flounder, the next several years are going to be a struggle,” said Bullard in a prepared statement issued from NOAA’s Northeast regional headquarters in Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park. “We’ve done everything we can to include measures that may help soften the blow of quota cuts, but it’s going to take a collective effort to find more ways to keep both the fishery and the businesses that support it viable while these stocks recover.”
The extremity of the cuts will likely be a death knell for the small boat-based New Hampshire commercial fishing industry. “There’s not a fisherman in New Hampshire who has a viable fishing business,” said Ellen Goethel, who helps to manage that state’s only two sectors under NOAA’s three-year-old catch share system.
In the Port of Gloucester, where commercial fishing began in the 17th century, many fishermen indicated they, too, were made non-viable.
Orlando spoke to the Times during a rally in Boston Monday called by the Northeast Seafood Coalition which drew the two U.S. senators, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Tierney and other members of the congressional delegation and many other elected officials. All had pleaded for a reprieve from cuts that Bullard said he was compelled by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to make, based on an unpublished legal memo from NOAA Chief Counsel Lois Schiffer, but also based on his own belief that the reductions were responsible stewardship.
The cuts in cod and yellowtail were derived from stock assessments whose accuracy and scientific methodologies have been disputed by fishermen who have reported a surge in the number of yellowtail in shore and on Georges.
The catch limit on Georges Bank yellowtail, 500 metric tons, was less than half what the New England Fishery Management Council recommended, but comported with the recommendation of the joint U.S. Canada management body. The council wish for 1,150 metric tons “is inconsistent with scientific advice ... and twice the quota level recommended during joint discussions with Canada.”
“‘No’ means ‘find another way,’” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who got the news of the final numbers while meeting in New Bedford with Mayor John Mitchell and Rick Sullivan, Gov. Deval Patrick’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs. Kirk said it was now up to the state and municipalities to forge policy reaction that saves as much of the industry as possible.
Ferrante, who grew up the daughter of a Gloucester fisherman, was more pointed.
“Rather than take the true advice of the New England Fisheries Management Council, the New England states and Congress and go forward with a second Interim Rule, NOAA instead to chose deliver a ‘death’ sentence to an industry, a way of life, and local economies and communities up and down the New England coast,” Ferrante wrote in an email. “I cannot say that I am surprised, but today, we dig our in and fight harder.”
“Since the NOAA bureaucracy has refused to take the path of rebuilding stocks while protecting the capacity to harvest them, the only recourse to achieve these goals now lies with the President and the Congress,” Tarr added.
The Federal Register filing also includes, for the first time, reductions that will impact the recreational sector, increasing the size limit on haddock from 18 to 21 inches.
The filing includes a 15 percent increase in white hake, the decision to end dockside monitoring, and lowering the size limit for many stocks to encourage the landing of smaller fish in hopes that more of the reproducers will remain, to spark a revival of the stocks. The council last week approved a trio of actions that together represented formal recognition that climate change — reflected in dramatically warmer water temperatures — had fundamentally altered the ecosystem.
“In the coming days, I will continue to demand action from House Republicans, the Department of Commerce and the White House,” said Tierney. “The cuts may have been finalized but there are still short and long term solutions that can be put in place. We need to provide disaster assistance funding immediately and work to reform Magnuson Stevens to provide relief, flexibility and fairness for our fishermen.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.