GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 14, 2012

New NOAA actions target busy local fishery

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

NOAA has issued a Federal Register notice that new management actions over a healthy, thriving monkfish fishery that brings more than 1,000 metric tons in Gloucester may take place anytime after May 9 — which fell last Wednesday and is given as the "control date."

These "control dates" are given to put the fishing industry on notice of the potential for changes in the rules governing a species. While scoping sessions have been held, no imminent action to alter the days at sea system with a total allowable catch is in the offing.

The monkfish fishery, which covers federal waters from Maine to North Carolina, produced $19 million in vessel income in 2011, according to Nils Stolpe, who represents the unincorporated Monkfish Defense Fund.

Cod landings produced $28 million and haddock $21 million last year, making monkfish the third most important finfish on the East Coast by ex-vessel — at the dock — prices.

In near final figures for landings in 2011 published by the National Marine Fisheries Service, 60 percent of the monkfish — about 5,100 metric tons - were landed from southern waters while 40 percent or about 3,400 metric tons were taken in northern waters. Most landings, about 4,500 metric tons, were landed in Massachusetts ports, with New Bedford landing about 1,900 metric tons and Gloucester second with 1,300 metric tons.

The management change would be a shift to a limited access permit program — otherwise known as a catch share system, which is under consideration in the northern range of the monkfish. But, in the Mid-Atlantic or southern range of the bottom dweller with a big mouth and a long tasty tail, there is little or no interest among fishermen in putting the monkfishery under catch share rules, which have been blamed for bringing an accelerated consolidation of the groundfishing fleet out of Gloucester and in other New England ports.

Mark Agger, a New York fish dealer and president of the Monkfish Defense Fund, said he believes there is less desire in the north for adding monkfish to the pre-existing allocative system

The publication of the control date on Thursday coincided with the adoption by the U.S. House of Representatives of a rider to a Commerce, Justice and Science budget that bars spending by NOAA on the development and implementation of new catch share programs.

NOAA has acknowledged that a monkfish catch share program would need to be approved by two thirds of the participants in the fishery.

NOAA created and implemented a catch share program for the Northeast groundfishery, which overlaps geographically with the monkfishery but was deemed to be not a limited access privilege program, and so was instituted May 1, 2010 without a validating referendum. The failure of the government to offer fishermen the referendum has become a central point of contention in a federal lawsuit, rejected by a district court judge, and now in front of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

Written arguments have been submitted, but oral arguments have not yet been scheduled.

Strong opposition to catch shares in the southern waters is not matched in the north, where the industry has been consolidating in two years of catch share management and the survivors and thrivers see the logic in adding an allocation of monkfish to the other allocations. But Agger said he believes the claims are exaggerated of widespread support for putting the northern range of monkfish under catch share regimen.

Among the differences between the northern and southern ranges, the boats fishing along the Mid-Atlantic fish in a directed effort for monks while in the north they are often accidentally, albeit happily, landed.

The fishery is considered healthy and stable, although it is a "data poor" stock — meaning the allowable catch is less than it would be were there more certainty from better science, according to Stolpe.

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