By Richard Gaines
---- — The Northeast commercial groundfishery — centered in Gloucester and New Bedford, and drawing boats from ports between Maine and North Carolina — is facing an economic abyss in 2013, based on the first hard but unofficial calculations of catch limit cuts that loom beginning next May 1.
According to preliminary numbers from the New England Fishery Management Council’s executive committee, the total allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod — linchpin stock of the inshore fleet — is projected to face a 72 percent cut from the current year, while the catch limit for the Georges Bank cod, the core target of the larger offshore trip boats, is projected to be trimmed by 70 percent.
All of the cuts would be from the allowable catch from the current fishing year, which began this past May 1 and runs through next April 30. The Gulf of Maine cod catch limit was already cut by 22 percent under interim limits put in place following a dire but controversial cod assessment announced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2011.
In addition, the allowable catch for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder is projected to be cut by 51 percent for 2013, allowable landings of Cape Cod/Gulf of Maine yellowtail could be down by 45 percent, and the catch limits for American plaice — what shoppers and mongers call “sole” — are projected as being cut by 69 percent, according to the council figures obtained by the Times.
Additional, related body blows to the industry include an expected two-month closure of inshore gillnetting in the fall to protect harbor porpoises, an uncertain effort to protect Atlantic sturgeon, which was listed as threatened by vote of the New England Fishery Management Council in February, and a shift from the government to the fishermen to cover the cost of at-sea monitors, required under the catch share commodification program that was instituted in May 2010.
Those costs are estimated at $650 a day, falling more heavily on the smallest boats.
The dire calculations and discrete conservation actions came to light at Thursday’s meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council’s Groundfish Committee in Portsmouth, N.H., but were first made at a Monday meeting of the council’s Executive Committee.
While promising to provide all available help, NOAA Fisheries’ acting administrator Sam Rauch and Council Chairman C.M. “Rip” Cunningham Jr. issued a written statement Thursday conceding “... there is unlikely to be any solution to fully mitigate the challenges in 2013.”
The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, said in a statement the time has come for radical approaches to fisheries management “or else there will be no groundfishery” left.
“Everything has to be on the table -- science, management and the law,” the coalition statement indicated.
That statement is in stark contrast to the sentiments expressed last November in a letter that was written partially at the coalition’s Gloucester office and signed by many fishermen working in sectors organized by the coalition, which argued for a regulatory status quo.
Between then and now, however, scientific assessments have merged to describe an ecosystem slipping backward despite ever more rigorous constrictions on fishing, and the installment of a catch share management system within Northeast groundfishery. “There are much larger forces at work in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank than just controlling fishing mortality or preventing overfishing on an instantaneous basis,” the Seafood Coalition’s statement read. “It’s time for NOAA, managers and Congress to openly acknowledge that low productivity of fish stocks is outside the control of the law or fisheries management, and we can no longer continue to destroy fishing communities in an effort to control the uncontrollable.
“It is not only unfair to hold fishermen fully and exclusively accountable to the natural cycles of complex natural ecosystems,but it is irresponsible to continue in this manner.”
NOAA, its regional fishery management council, which has advisory authority over the New England states, industry and conservation interests have been engaged in a set of rolling crisis management meetings and workshops since last November, when the first blast of bad news emerged in the form of discouraging benchmark assessment of inshore cod. The report contradicted a three-year-old benchmark assessment that had pointed optimistically to the future.
NOAA found a legal rationale within the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to hold the contraction of the cod fishery to only 22 percent this year, while the council rewrote its recovery plan for the fish to eliminate alleged overfishing.
The extra early opening discussions this week about the overall problems for the 2013 fishing years reflects the sense of an impending Armadegeddon in the nation’s North Atlantic waters.
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Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org