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.