, Gloucester, MA

October 24, 2010

Report shows room for hikes in fish limits

By Times Staff

A state university report in response to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke's call for the New England fishing industry and fishing communities to make their case for "emergency" boosts in groundfish stock limits has found scientific data to support increases in fishermen's annual allowable catch.

The report marks the first definitive step in the state's and communities' effort to make the case for higher catch limits that would free up the tight federal regulatory clamps that have kept many Gloucester and New England fishing boats on shore for much of the summer out of fear they would quickly use up their full allocations for the new fishing year, which began May 1.

As reported in the Times, statistics from the first quarter of the new fishing year showed that the fleet has landed only 8.6 percent of the 95,257.6 metric tons of mixed groundfish that was allocated for the year.

The new report, outlined Friday in New Bedford at a Mayor's Oceans and Fisheries Council meeting hosted by New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, was developed by Steve Cadrin, Kevin Stokesbury, Dan Georgianna, Emily Keiley, and Cate O'Keefe of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology, together with David Pierce of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

UMass-Dartmouth's marine studies program is led by marine scientist Brian Rothschild, who is also credited with providing assistance in the report. Rothschild and the UMass-Dartmouth program have previously outlined independent data that contradicts that used by the government through NOAA trawling surveys.

The new report finds that increased ACLs (allowable catch limits) can be scientifically justified.

"In summary, scientific information is available to support increased Annual Catch Limits (ACLs) for New England groundfish that do not undermine conservation mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act," the report indicates.

"A review of scientific analyses used to derive ACLs finds that several decisions favored relatively low ACLs," the report summarized, "and scientifically valid alternatives may be available for:

Direct estimates of (fish mortality projections.)

Alternative stock assessment models;

Smaller uncertainty buffers;

Revised rebuilding objectives."

"Alternative scientific decisions would support increases in ACLs for all New England groundfish stocks, with substantial increases for 'choke stocks' such as Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, Georges Bank cod, Gulf of Maine cod, Gulf of Maine winter flounder, and southern New England winter flounder," the report states. "Increased ACLs for 'choke stocks' are expected to allow the fleet to achieve more of their allocation of other stocks, thereby substantially increasing mixed-stock economic yield."

The release of the report comes on the heels of promises made by Locke in an Oct. 14 response to a letter from Gov. Deval Patrick and to issues raised by Congressman Barney Frank, whose district includes New Bedford.

"I am prepared to issue an emergency regulation to revise catch limits whenever there is both sufficient economic and sound scientific data available to meet those requirements," Locke wrote. "You have graciously offered to provide scientific and economic information that could support the exercise of the emergency rule authority in response to the current situation in New England."

Locke also promised to request $15 million from Congress to improve scientific counts of fish populations, including new "cooperative research" programs between fishermen and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Locke's promise also repudiates earlier actions by NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco, who had cut back funding for "cooperative research" in her fiscal 2011 NOAA budget, and had not included any financial support for new, SONAR-related technology its backers say can deliver more accurate and timely assessments of the health of various fish stocks.

Locke has not set a specific deadline for New England fishing interests or lawmakers to make their case for an emergency raising of the allowable catch limits.

But, over the last week, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Gov. Patrick have both expressed confidence that the state and its fishing communities will clearly be able to justify relief.

"We are going to put our heads together and work to collect the data — job loss, income loss, asset value loss — on different types of assets for the industry, including shoreside business impacts," Kirk said. "We have to tell a very compelling story for the economic hardships we're seeing."