By Richard Gaines
WAKEFIELD — Big offshore draggers using their own and acquired catch share allocations have worked inside Stellwagen Bank for the past year — where they'd not been seen before — depleting a rebuilding stock of Gulf of Maine cod.
That was the testimony Tuesday from more than a dozen charter boat captains during a day-long meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council's Recreational advisory panel meeting held at a hotel complex in Wakefield.
A federal fisheries analyst also confirmed the presence, though not the impact, of the Stellwagen draggers.
Additional new fishing pressure on inshore cod stocks has come through boats operated by members of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association longlining in Stellwagen, some charter skippers also told the panel.
The advisory panel reports to the council's Groundfish Committee, which will be involved in deliberations into 2013 to develop a new rebuilding program for the most important fish stock for the recreational sector and the inshore commercial fleet based in Gloucester and found in small ports along the entire coast of New England.
"This is the most troubling situation that I've ever had to deal with," said Capt. Barry Gibson of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, chairman of the Recreational Advisory Panel and who served on the council for nine years through 1995. "Ninety-foot boats (in Stellwagen) and no trip limits."
The boats were identified as hailing from New Bedford, Gloucester and Maine.
"There is some evidence that the big vessels moved inshore," Tom Nies, a federal fisheries analyst, told the meeting.
The catch share regimen introduced in May 2010 for members of commercial fishing cooperatives called sectors replaced the previous system based on days-at-sea and trip limits, with allocations of stocks that can be accumulated — acquired or leased — and no upper limit.
Three years after a benchmark assessment found inshore cod surging toward restoration, another benchmark assessment made public late last year undercut the optimism — and put the fishery into crisis management mode.
A 22 percent cut in the allocation for the fishing year that began May 1 was considered a reprieve while the federal government, starting with the council, decides on a new rebuilding plan that is expected to be more severe.
"I've seen as many as 20 huge draggers operating in Stellwagen," said Capt. Tom DePersia of Marshfield, who serves on the advisory panel.
"It's very clear draggers went out to the bank and scraped it clean," added Capt. Bruce Sweet of Boston.
"What the draggers are doing is like clear-cutting the land," said Capt. Mark Carlson of Pembroke.
Tuesday's allegations were not the first made involving big boats on Stellwagen. The Times began hearing complaints last summer, but the issue exploded into the limelight during the February council meeting with the testimony of member David Pierce, deputy director of marine fisheries for Massachusetts.
"Sector vessels are in a position to fish in the Gulf of Maine with no catch limits," Pierce said, "and so they can and do have (harmful) impact."
Ed Barrett — president of Sector 10, made up mostly of inshore dayboats — echoed the complaint.
"What's going on is an indictment of the catch share plan," he added at the council meeting.
The advisory panel approved a motion asking for catch reports for the past three years on Stellwagen.
It also urged the Groundfish Committee to look into "localized depletion" on the bank, which begins a few miles southeast of Gloucester and is framed by the borders of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. It also urged some form of zoning that would keep the big draggers off the bank.
Gov. Deval Patrick, based on scientific studies, last November urged Commerce Secretary John Bryson to acknowledge that the catch share system had produced a fisheries failure and provide emergency aid. There has been no response.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or email@example.com.