GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 30, 2012

State fish deputy seeks cod crackdown

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The state's deputy director of marine fisheries has urged NOAA's cod crisis response team to crack down on inshore gillnetting and schemes used by offshore trawlers to get at the stocks in Stellwagen Bank and other nearby waters.

David Pierce, who first made public a series of chronic private complaints by dayboat fishermen of cod-poaching off-shore trawlers working schools on Stellwagen, noted those reports in a letter a month later, dated Feb. 29.

The letter was obtained by the Times earlier this week.

Pierce expressed skepticism at the freedom from government oversight granted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to sectors, or fishermen's cooperatives, as incentives to join in the trading of catch shares and quota under the fishery's now 2-year-old management system.

Pierce wrote at length to Sam Rauch, who is heading a NOAA cod crisis response team that's preparing a series of directives brought on by a dire assessment of Gulf of Maine cod stocks in 2011.

Pierce's letter served as the informal agenda for a reportedly contentious secret meeting of the state's marine fisheries hierarchy held at the Division of Marine Fisheries Laboratory on Emerson Avenue on Monday, with around three dozen fishermen and officers of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition and the other industry groups.

The meeting produced no tangible outcomes but was described to the Times as an airing of ideas.

"DMF held a meeting in Gloucester at our office on Monday afternoon to bring some of those fishermen together to help us understand how they are solving their problems and dealing with diverse interests within and between sectors," said a spokesman for the division. "This was an open meeting, and all were welcome to attend and participate."

Mayor Carolyn Kirk, however, was not notified of the meeting, she said Thursday, nor were other local officials close to the fishing industry.

Pierce's letter advised Rauch to take a variety of steps to protect spawning and pre-spawning cod stocks in the interim action which NOAA is preparing to govern the groundfishing industry in the 2012 fishing year that begins May 1.

Among his themes was that the liberties granted to sector members to fish where and when they wanted for the most part exposed spawning cod to rapacious fishing.

"There is no protection for spawning cod in May in the many spawning areas of Massachusetts Bay south of ... Marblehead, where sector vessels are exempt from the May Rolling Closure Area, including most of the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary," Pierce wrote.

Pierce, who holds the Massachusetts seat on NOAA's regional fishery management council, cautioned NOAA not to grant sectors exemptions from limits on the number of gillnets that common pool boats are allowed to drop. Gillnets are fixed gear that involve monofiliment mesh of various sizes hanging from floats, which are left overnight, often for days.

Gloucester's fleet is made up of rough equal parts of trawlers and gillnetters, with about 30 gillnet boats now active.

Pierce recommended either limiting the number of gillnets a boat could use or alternatively barring gillnetting in less than 30 fathoms — or 180 feet — of water in May and June and October through December when cod are spawning.

"This suggestion definitely will spark anger and some serious discussion," he wrote.

Later, Pierce said, "We believe that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) risks going too far in providing the industry with freedom and flexibility" — watchwords in the effort to sell the sector and catch share approach to New England groundfishermen by officials form NMFS' parent NOAA and its allies in the Environmental Defense Fund.

As for persistent reports of offshore trip boats cruising into and out of Stellwagen, Pierce said the penchant was encouraged by the lack of restrictions on the leasing of catch shares by the larger offshore vessels from the smaller, independent, inshore vessels.

Pierce said a proposal by Conservation Law Foundation to bar nighttime dragging inside the 100-fathom line was "good because it is a strong disincentive for large vessels to fish inshore, such as on Stellwagen Bank."

But Pierce said the idea was flawed because it would still allow large vessels to fish inshore during the day, then move offshore at night.

At the same Feb. 1 meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council which debated the cod problem, Pierce raised months of undocumented complaints by dayboat fishermen about offshore boats trawling the shallows of Stellwagen where years of restraint helped bring the cod back from dangerous levels.

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