The federal Secretary of Commerce has officially approved a six-fold increase in the catch limit of pollock — a key stock and staple of the New England fishery.
Secretary Gary Locke — who last month stood by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco and resisted urgings by a cadre of congressional lawmakers to hike a number of catch limits viewed as being unnecessarily low — confirmed Wednesday he was raising the limit on pollock from six to 36 million pounds.
But the move also comes months after the government, in its initial allocations, had cut the allowable pollock catch by 67 percent from the poundage landed by the New England fleet in 2008 — leaving fishermen with a limit this year that Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, said at the time "stands to break the system."
Giacalone and the working fleet have insisted for months that NOAA Fisheries' trawl survey and the data on which the initial limits were based were seriously flawed, and that pollock remain plentiful.
Regulators predicted the increase last month, saying new science had showed pollock was far healthier than first believed.
One fishing industry group — the Cape Cod Hook Fishermen's Association, a focus of lawsuit and questions surrounding its alleged favored treatment by regulators — actually announced the pollock boost on its Web site and reacted to it, even though NOAA officials denied it had been finalized.
Tom Dempsey, a policy analyst at Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, told the online industry news service SavingSeafood.org the revisions announced by Locke late Wednesday may be "the best news anyone has heard out here in a long while."
"Most sector fishermen say, 'This is going to allow me to stay on the water this year,'" Dempsey said, referring to the fishermen's "sectors," or cooperatives, set up under the new catch-share regulatory and economic format.
But commercial fishermen and industry backers around New England had mixed reviews about the new limits — first announced to a gathering of Gloucester fishermen and supporters by Gov. Deval Patrick, who relayed the news after checking his electronic digital personal assistant during a gathering at Cruiseport Gloucester on Wednesday.
Comments among fishermen there were that, without across-the-board increases, the boats would soon exhaust other so-called "choke stock" allocations, and be shut down under rules mapped out by Congress' 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Their concerns were echoed in large part by industry congressional backers, including Sen. John Kerry.
"Without corresponding increases in the remaining 'choke stocks' our fishermen may not be able to significantly increase fishing this season," Kerry said in a prepared statement.