GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 19, 2012

Fishing '13 cuts seen at up to 74%

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — The region’s largest industry group today urged the federal government to adopt a series of emergency interim catch limits for Gulf of Maine cod and other groundfish stocks for 2013 to avoid dooming the industry, already the subject of a disaster declaration, to “life-altering losses.”

The proposal by the Northeast Seafood Coalition was sent to the chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council in advance of a special meeting scheduled for Wakefield on Thursday to set catch limits for the fishing year that begins May 1, 2013.

Under the proposal, potential cuts in allowable landings could include a 46-percent reduction in Gulf of Maine haddock, a cut of 74 percent in Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, a 30 percent cut in Cape Cod and Gulf of Maine yellowtail, and a 27 percent cut in witch flounder.

The letter by coalition executive director Jackie Odell to council Chairman C.M. “Rip” Cunningham indicates that, without emergency action — a series of interim catch limits that buys a year’s time for the fleet based largely in Gloucester but also spread in ports from Maine to New York — the industry would not survive the impending catch limits for 2013 projected by the council.

The draconian cuts on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting are predicated on acceding to general mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to immediately end overfishing. The projected landing limits, a function of amendments made to the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006 mandate hard catch controls and strict rebuilding timelines for overfished stocks.

Referring to notices permit holders were sent last week by NOAA Fisheries that gave individual estimates of quotas, Odell wrote that “these letters reflect a travesty of science and management for this fishery.”

She described the impending catch limit decisions as “a disaster on top of a disaster.”

Her letter urged NOAA to repeat the interim emergency action that kept the reductions in Gulf of Maine landings to a cut of 22 percent for 2012, and apply the same legal framework to other stocks whose landings would be radically reduced in 2013, creating a mine field of choke stocks that some fishermen say would effectively immobilize the fleet.

The groundfishing industry has been in economic free fall since the 2010 with the onset of catch share fishing by members of cooperatives or sectors.

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, who last week announced her decision to leave at the end of February, told NOAA subordinates she had ended overfishing and restored the economic vitality of the industry. Yet figures show that gross revenues dropped 38 percent in 2011, and the industry is projected to show compounded losses for 2012 of an additional 29 percent, according to estimates released today by the New England Fishery Management Council.

The lame duck session of the 112th Congress has until the end of 2012 to act on a $60 billion disaster assistance bill keyed to losses due to superstorm Sandy, and including $100 million for the five coastal New England states with groundfishing ports and New York.

But Odell wrote that, even with the disaster assistance, which is far from assured, “we need to accept the reality that the current process is just not working.”

“We need to step back out of the weeds and look at the bigger picture,” she wrote. “There are critical elements of the science, management and law that all need to be fixed.”.

The council need not — and is not necessarily expected to — approve the projected cuts. It could make a range of decisions, but the options released today reflect starting point likelihoods in debate that is certain to be heated, protracted and scientifically dense.

The 2013 crisis has been building for about a year, since word leaked in November 2011 of the results of a benchmark assessment of Gulf of Maine cod, erasing the optimistic projections of imminent restoration of the iconic and most essential inshore groundfish stock. Discouraging updates of previous assessments of the offshore stocks on Georges Bank, including cod, soon followed.

Although Gov. Deval Patrick last November requested a disaster declaration — quickly joined by the governors of New Hampshire and Maine, and more recently the governors of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York — federal fisheries officials did not act to acknowledge the disaster until September, making appropriates of disaster relief much iffier in the compressed time frame of Congress. Compounding the pressures on the fleet are a number of separate drags on economic viability.

The first is an impending shift from NOAA to the industry of the obligation to underwrite the cost of at-sea monitors, an essential element in catch share fishing, which allocates or guarantees each boat a set volume of each fish and encourages trading and fishing when conditions and prices are optimal.

Monitors cost an estimated $650 a day, a burden that would fall most heavily on small boats with limited allocations.

The approximately 35 gillnet boats which make up about half of the Gloucester fleet is due to be forced to remain in port for a two month period in late winter to reduce the losses of harbor porpoises.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.