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July 16, 2013

NOAA chief defends openings from two sides

BOSTON — A NOAA plan to allow some New England fishermen back into some fishing grounds where they’ve long been banned is so objectionable to environmentalists that two groups sued to kill it months before it was officially released.

And after the proposal was unveiled through Gloucester-based NOAA Northeast Administrator John Bullard last week, Gloucester’s own fishermen and their backers said the plan would be no help to them because the opening grounds are too far afield to be accessible for the day-boat fleet that is already grappling with a federally recognized “economic disaster.”

But none of the criticism surprises Bullard, who heads up NOAA’s regulation of fisheries from Maine to the Carolinas out of his office in Glocester’s Blackburn Industrial Park. And he says it doesn’t mean the proposal to reopen 3,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean can’t work.

“We recognize it’s probably not going to make anyone happy,” Bullard said. But, he added, “We think it’s a responsible way to make abundant stocks accessible to people.”

The plan, released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the Times, Friday, July 5), is not yet in effect, pending a period of public comment.

It was devised after a December vote by regional regulators that gave fishermen permission to ask to work sections of previously forbidden fishing grounds. It details where fishermen can ask for access and the conditions under which it could be granted.

The closed areas, located in the Gulf of Maine and to the south and east of Cape Cod in Georges Bank and off Nantucket, were off-limits as far back as 1994 to fishermen who target bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and haddock. Regulators shut down the grounds to protect the fish and their nurseries.

But fishermen argued last year that the closures became obsolete in 2010 when regulators decided to instead try to protect groundfish with tough catch quotas. They argued that with huge cuts in those quotas coming in 2013, it made sense to reopen at least some sections of the closed areas so fishermen could harvest the healthy fish species reportedly there, such as redfish and haddock.

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