By Richard Gaines
The 2012 fishing cycle dawns today, less than a week after the other shoe has dropped on the New England groundfishery.
The first shoe was the 22 percent in the allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod, a fishery based in Gloucester, which will be followed by even more extreme measures in coming years, after a benchmark stock assessment last year overturned optimistic findings from a 2007 stock assessment.
The other shoe, outlined last week, is an 80 percent cut in the allowable catch of Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, a fishery based in New Bedford, after an updated assessment.
Together, the constrictions threaten to strangle the oldest industry in America, one which began in Gloucester in 1623 and has continued unabated ever since, albeit in a constantly evolving form.
"An 80 percent cut in yellowtail is a bigger crisis for the draggers of New Bedford than Gulf of Maine cod is for Gloucester," said Richie Canastra, owner of the region's dominant fish auction, which is based in New Bedford, and treasurer of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which is the region's largest industry group and based in Gloucester.
"We're set for a disaster for the industry," he added in a telephone interview.
Canastra said he doubts the accuracy of the trawl survey on which the yellowtail catch limit was based.
"It all comes back to NOAA research vessel Bigelow," which took over from the Albatross three years ago, he said. "Yesterday, a dragger came in to port (New Bedford) with 40,000 pounds of yellowtail."
The trawl surveys, which are done in the spring and fall, have become an increasingly dominant element in the formula used to determine the vitality of stocks. Since 2004, the ratio of weight given to the survey versus the catch reports of the fleet has tilted toward the trawl survey.
In 2004, Canastra said, the Georges Bank yellowtail assessment formula weighed catch to survey at a 40 to 60 ratio.
The ratio has been regularly weighted more heavily toward the survey until last year — the year on which the 80 percent cut in the catch is based. It was 10 to 90, with the landings counting for the smaller percentage and the trawl survey counting for the 90 percent.
With the new fishing year beginning today — May 1 — Secretary of Commerce John Bryson has been holding without comment or action a request by Gov. Deval Patrick for a fishery disaster declaration since November.
The Northeast Seafood Coalition has written to the governors of the five New England coastal states and the governors of New York and New Jersey urging them to submit a unified request for a fishery disaster declaration.
The cutbacks also come as the groundfishery begins its third year under catch share management, a system of commodification that encourages trading in catch shares and has become the signature fisheries innovation of the Obama administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under administrator Jane Lubchenco.
The port cities of Gloucester and New Bedford, along with fishing interests from Maine to North Carolina, have challenged the legality of the catch share regimen in a case that is now before the First District Court of Appeals in Boston.
The Georges Bank fishing grounds, 17,000 square miles of ocean bottom southeast of Cape Ann and about 100 miles east of Cape Cod, are frequented by larger, offshore vessels with the greater range to reach it. Last year, U.S. groundfish fishermen on Georges Bank were allotted about 1,140 metric tons of yellowtail. This year, they're getting about 218 metric tons, effective today.
The cut comes after the most recent research showed diminishing numbers of yellowtail and the U.S. saw its portion of the stock, which it shares with Canada, reportedly shrink to its lowest level.
Vito Giacalone, a Gloucester fisherman and policy analyst with the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said the New England industry could lose 30 million pounds of fish this year, which accounts for more than half the value of the entire fishery.
For instance, cuts in the Gulf of Maine cod catch — 22 percent this year, with a far larger cut pending next year — are threatening to wipe out the industry from Provincetown to Maine. Also, some fishermen in the Gulf of Maine are being shut out of key fishing grounds for two months, starting in October, to protect harbor porpoises.
"Things are falling apart all around us on the regulatory level," Giacalone said.
Last Thursday, members of the New England Fishery Management Council considered asking Byrson, the U.S. Commerce secretary, to determine whether a disaster declaration was warranted, before deciding on further internal discussions.
The council did vote Thursday to form a group that will focus on the yellowtail problem, including studying modifications to the sharing agreement with Canada. As recently as 2004, the U.S. share of the yellowtail in Georges Bank was 76 percent.
Tom Nies, an analyst for the council, said the division of the stock was once based more heavily on how much each country caught there. Now, he said, it's based largely on the percentage of yellowtail that scientific survey vessels find actually swimming in each country's section of Georges Bank.
That's led the U.S. percentage to fall to just 49 percent this year.
Combine that with research showing lower numbers of yellowtail, and the subsequent cuts to protect the population, and you have the massive May 1 cut.
Carlos Rafael, who owns a fishing fleet based in New Bedford, said while the cuts directly affect yellowtail in George Bank, other regions will feel it because larger boats like his will divert their fishing to other areas to avoid yellowtail.
Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said the scope of the yellowtail cut will prove "unbelievably profound" in an industry already struggling to avoid collapse.
"We're always in kind of crisis mode," she said. "But this is everything coming at the industry at once."
Associated Press material was used in this story by Richard Gaines, who can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.