Thirteen years ago, federal fishery regulators put a 12-inch limit on the size of rollers on the Otter Trawlers in an effort to deter the big offshore boats from barreling through the structured bottoms of Stellwagen Bank, harming habitat and taking fish from the inshore waters where dayboats are constrained to stay by their size.
But since 1999, according to unconfirmed reports brought public last week by David Pierce, the deputy state director of marine fisheries, the offshore trawlers have developed technology or techniques for using modified 10-inch rollers on their trawl spreads in ways that allow them to encroach effectively on the inshore grounds.
"I have raised it as an issue to be investigated," said Pierce in a telephone interview Friday, describing his information as "rumors."
Pierce, who represents Massachusetts on the New England Fishery Management Council, noted the potential problem twice last week in different fisheries meetings.
The first was an informal discussion in Gloucester with members and officers of New England catch share sectors, the groundfishing cooperatives that form the core of NOAA's controversial catch share management system. The second was a formal meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council's Groundfish Oversight Committee in Providence on Thursday.
A member of the Groundfish Committee and inshore trawl fisherman, David Goethel said that Pierce reported the problem.
"He's been told that it exists," Goethel told the Times, but cautioned that evidence and precise details of how the big boats have figured out how to circumvent the intent of the council had yet to be produced.
Pierce also raised the issue at the meeting held at the Division of Marine Fisheries laboratory in Gloucester last Monday. About 30 to 40 sector members and officers, including leaders of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, attended that meeting. The discussion reportedly sparked angry exchanges with representatives of trawl and gillnet sectors.
There, Pierce, was said to have advised coalition members that "the issue had to be addressed" because officials of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary had been made aware of the problem. Habitat destruction within Stellwagen would be "an unacceptable problem," said Goethel, but he cautioned that for now there is no proof the modified 10-inch gear exists.
If it does and is being used, it is "incredibly shortsighted," he said.
The Groundfish Committee researched the intent of the council's decision in 1999 to limit the size of rollers to 12 inches for roller and "rockhopper" gear — which, as the word implies, allows the trawl hardware to bounce over structures such as outcrops and boulders. In its package for the Thursday meeting in Providence, the panel also republished the notes from the 1999 debate.
"The council proposes this measure in response to requests from inshore fishermen ... to achieve some measure of separation between offshore vessels and inshore vessels in the Western Gulf of Maine," the notes indicate. "The basis for this measure is that when inshore areas are closed, smaller vessels are unable to fish offshore, but when the inshore areas are open, larger mobile gear vessels can fish inshore, putting the smaller vessels at a disadvantage.
"The limit on roller and rockhoppeer gear will effectively limit the ability of mobile gear vessels from fishing in the hard bottom areas inshore where cod and other species aggregate," the notes state.
The Gulf of Maine cod crisis — based on a dire, 2010 benchmark assessment of the inshore stock — brought a new emphasis on the tensions between the big offshore and dayboats, with the claims noted by Pierce that the offshore boat were gaming the catch share system by fishing inshore waters with leased shares. The large boats have also reportedly been towing inside the border of the Gulf of Maine, but hauling back outside in the Georges Bank and technically landing Georges Bank cod, which costs less on the catch share market.
After months of unconfirmed reports, Pierce put the complaints on the record during a marathon meeting of the council dedicated to discussing the economic, ecological and scientific problem of the new inshore cod assessment which showed a stock not recovering quickly; a 2007 assessment that had inshore cod surging back vigorously.
Headed by Sam Rauch, the acting administrator for fisheries, NOAA has had "cod crisis team" working on the interim catch limit and other measures for the 2012 fishing season beginning May 1. Rauch has said informally NOAA could allow catch limits to be reduced by no more than 22 percent, even though the assessment would dictate a cut of as much as 90 percent.
In his letter and earlier at the February council meeting, Pierce noted that small boats were leasing their catch shares to offshore boats.
"We need to address the transfer from small to larger boats," Pierce said.
Nearly two years into the new catch share regimen, the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry group, wrote last week to governors of New England's five ocean states and New York and New Jersey urging them to coordinate a joint request for a "fisheries failure."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.