GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 2, 2012

Lawmakers push 'emergency' hike in fish limit

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

In a letter to Commerce Secretary John Bryson, Massachusetts' U.S. senators and four representatives Tuesday asked for an emergency increase in the size of the Georges Bank yellowtail flounder catch limit, which has been pared by more than 50 percent based on an update of the 2008 benchmark assessment showing a shrinkage in the biomass of the prized flatfish.

The industry was facing a cut in the total allowable catch of Georges Bank yellowtail as high as 80 percent before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Monday it would allow groundfishing boats to land yellowtail not caught as bycatch for the scallop boats.

Even with the excess bycatch from the scallop fishery, the groundfishing fleet working offshore faces a 61 percent cut, which could make yellowtail a "choke" stock and bar landings of other stocks once the yellowtail limit were reached.

Signed by Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown and Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank, Stephen Lynch and William Keating, the letter went out to Bryson at the opening of the third year of a regulatory system that promised conservation and prosperity but so far has produced mysterious scientific evidence of widespread losses in biomass across much of the groundfishery and consolidation of the fleet.

Urged on by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, the New England Fishery Management Council opted to launch a commodities market "catch share" fishery in May 2010, just as the industry faced statutory catch limits and impending 10-year deadlines for reconstruction of weakened stocks.

The congressional delegation also urged Bryson to "begin forming a joint agency working group similar to that convened to address the recent crisis in the reductions of Gulf of Maine cod," and said the National Marine Fisheries Service should "explore every option available to maximize the allowable catch of Georges Bank yellowtail stocks."

The letter also raised suspicion that NOAA's stock data based in large part on trawl surveys has become skewed via the replacement of the former survey vessel, Albatross, by a new $54 million research vessel, the Henry B. Bigelow.

"While there may be a biological reason or some other cause for this decrease," the delegation wrote, "it is imperative that fishermen fully embrace and trust the collection methods that determine how a fish stock is managed and allocated, and we urge you to implement side-by-side trawl survey tows with a commercial vessel to compare data and provide a more reliable assessment of this species."

Suspicions about NOAA's trawl vessels' ability to match the efficacy of commercial trawlers traces back to what is known as Trawlgate — an episode a decade ago in which the trawl gear used by the Albatross was not balanced creating rigging that would undercatch.

Two gear designers who worked on aspects of the new trawl gear for the Bigelow, Tor Bendiksen of Reidar's Manufacturing in Fairhaven and Bob Taber of Trawlworks Inc. in Narragansett, R.I., gave interviews in 2010, the first year of the Bigelow's work, indicating that while the trawl gear was like that used in the commercial fleet, the size of the Bigelow and its 3,000 horsepower were capable of producing distorted results.

Bryson has not responded to a series of entreaties, including one from Gov. Deval Patrick in November 2011 that was supported by the congressional delegation, which submitted a pair of scientific studies showing that the catch share regimen undertaken had brought the industry to its knees.

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