GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 2, 2013

Lawmakers press NOAA to 'suspend' May 1 quota cuts

By RICHARD GAINES
Staff Writer

---- — Citing widespread evidence of an abundance of important commercial in shore fish stocks and a scientific study that found flaws in the modeling methods used by the government to set catch limits, a contingent of state lawmakers led by Senate President Therese Murray are urging NOAA’s top fisheries official to allow the fleet reasonable access to stocks while new studies are conducted into the vitality of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, both of Gloucester, were among the 24 signers of a letter sent Monday and released to the Times this morning addressed to Samuel D. Rauch III, the acting administer of fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The lawmakers emphasized to Rauch that a compelling legal case exists for the government to institute a second year of interim catch limits on Gulf of Maine cod, now in line for a 77 percent cut in landings based on a decision by Regional Administrator John Bullard and supported by a legal brief by the general counsel for NOAA that has been withheld from the public.

A delegation from Congress, the New England Fisheries Regional Council and the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition have all argued to Bullard in writing that the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows a second year of interim measures which would reduce but not eliminate overfishing,

Behind the letter, the authors wrote, was evidence in data supplied by the NOAA Fisheries Social Science Branch, reported by the Times in recent days, and reports by Gloucester’s two major auction houses of a “notable concentrations” of cod on Stellwagen Bank and “plentiful yellowtail flounder” landed by boats from Gloucester’s inshore fleet.

In addition, the state lawmakers cited a report published in January by scientists at the University of Washington that “documented that the current abundance modeling methods used to establish catch limits are ineffective at maximizing sustainable harvests.

“The report indicates that reaching the abundance levels developed by current models fails to effective cause maximum sustainable yield for 82 percent of the stocks examined.”

Murray, Tarr, Ferrante and their colleagues wrote that “in the contexty of large and growing discrepancies between stock assessments and the abundance reflected in harvester observations and landings and the pervasive inaccuracies documented by the University of Washington, the impending irreparable damage that would be caused by planned reducdtions in catch limits on species such as Gulf of Maine cod is unwarranted and indefensible.”

The letter asks Rauch to suspend the impending 77 percent cut in landings of in shore cod, implement an imterim action to reduce but not end overfishing of cod and haddock from inshore waters, complete an interim stock assessment to reconcile current observations with government assessments and develop new limits on landings based on the scientific observations.

The 77 percent cut in cod landings and a drastic cut in landings of yellowtail flounder, along with range of reductions on the mix of groundfish in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, are due to take effect May 1 under existing plans and are widely believed to immobilize if not destroy the fishing industry based around Gloucester and New Bedford.

Bullard has said he, too, has doubts about the stock assessment of yellowtail, but believes the inshore cod to be depleted and that the 77 percent cut in landings is warranted.

The reduced allowable catch would likely end a directed cod fishery and possibly bar boats from fishing due to the risk of taking unallowable quantities of cod that would bring penalties from the government.

The Times has reported that fishermen have found a modest influx of cod and an abundance of yellowtail on Stellwagen Bank, not far from Gloucester.

The NOAA Science Center reported landings of cod in excess of 20,000 pounds a day on five days during February and early March.

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Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3474, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.