By Times Staff
Gloucester Daily Times
---- — NOAA officials, saying they want to provide relief to fishermen dealing with a federally declared “economic disaster” and 2013 fishing year cuts of up to 78 percent in their landing limits, have formally launched proposals to open portions of previously closed fishing areas in the waters off Cape Cod and Nantucket.
But the proposal — which is now open to public comment — comes with some strings attached, notably a requirement that any fishermen accessing newly opened areas cover the cost of on-board monitors who must accompany every fishing trip inside those regions.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its proposal Tuesday to open some areas to groundfish fishing that have been off limits for nearly 20 years.
NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said Tuesday that the areas that would be opened under the change would includes parts — but not all — of Areas I and II and the Nantucket Light Ship area.
Mooney-Seus said NOAA will be taking comments on all sides of the issue for the next “month or so,” then will look to address any issues and move forward.
“The goal is to get this done as fast as we can this year,” said Mooney-Seus.
She and NOAA officials, including Gloucester-based Northeast Regional Administrator John Bullard, emphasized that the openings would affect only portions of the closed areas, while Mooney-Seus said closures on another key area — the inshore Western Gulf of Maine off the Maine coast — will not be eased at the request of both commercial and recreational fishermen.
“That’s to protect spawning cod,” she said.
The need to explore opening new areas — which will grant fishermen access to groundfish stocks that NOAA officials see as healthier — comes in the wake of limits that took effect May 1 and that cut limit for landing many groundfish stocks by more than 50 percent, including a 78 percent cut in the limits on Gulf of Maine cod.
The new limits have driven several Gloucester fishermen’s boats to the sidelines as they already approach their limits for the full year, which runs through next April 30. And fishermen throughout the region have raised serious questions about the credibility of the science that led to the limits, with state Attorney General Martha Coakley filing a lawsuit challenging both NOAA’s claim it is using the “best available science” and that the agency has failed to abide by its own Magnuson-Stevens Act in its manner of setting fishery policy and catch limits.
In a prepared statement, however, NOAA regional chief Bullard said the agency has been working for months to lessen the effects of the cuts on fishermen and fishing communities — including increasing quotas and approving use of various gear and fishing methods to help fishermen better target healthy groundfish and other stocks prior to today’s announcement.
“We’ve been working with fishermen, state managers and others to find creative ways to help fishermen identify sustainable fishing opportunities this year,” said Bullard, who heads up NOAA fishery policy setting and enforcement from Maine through the Carolinas out of his office in Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park.
“Today’s action is another step in our overall effort to help transition fishing effort to healthy, more abundant fish stocks, while we work to rebuild cod and other stocks in poor condition and protect important habitats that are crucial for the overall health of our marine ecosystems,” he said.
At the same time, however, NOAA is proposing to open portions of the newly accessible areas while requiring monitors on all fishing trips to gather data on fish caught and possible interactions with whales, harbor porpoise, and other animals.
“Fishing vessel operators wanting access to these areas will be required to cover the cost of monitoring,” the NOAA announcement indicated.