By Richard Gaines
For the region's commercial fishing fleets centered in New Bedford and Gloucester, the next year promises more of the same — a crazy quilt of closed grounds in different seasons and further reductions in days at sea, under interim regulations released yesterday.
But harder times for the hard-pressed fleets are anticipated, with a further 18 percent reduction in the number of days at sea among the new mandates.
Describing them as "more of the same, only more so," political and industry representatives in both ports condemned the rules, which won't become final until after 30 days after formal publication in the Federal Register.
The Pew Environmental Trust, which rarely sides with the industry, did so yesterday.
"This interim rule will not solve our problems, and may well cost many of the region's fishermen their livelihoods," Pew's Peter Baker said in a prepared statement. "The time for a new approach has come."
Brian Rothschild, a professor of marine science and technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said he found the approach an the outgrowth of dubious science and condemned it for ensuring bycatch, the forced discard of species fishermen are not allowed to take.
Especially harsh was U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who has watched in frustration as the fleets of her state have sold out or moved south to Gloucester and other ports.
The interim rules are designed to lead the industry into 2010, when a new approach to fishery management — harvesting collectives working on hard catch limits — is scheduled for introduction.
The short-term crackdown was expected since the release last summer of the results of a comprehensive assessment of 19 groundfish stocks. It suggested the recovery of the entire North Atlantic biosystem was progressing more slowly than hoped, or sought by the federal law.
Although some stocks, especially cod, were found to be rebounding well, other species, notably flatfish in the waters worked by the big boats from New Bedford, were not.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires the National Marine Fishery Service to implement interim measures by next May to shore up the recovery program now at about its mid-way point toward the 2014 deadline for successful full recovery of the ecosystem centered in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.
Among the world's seas' richest, the grounds of the North Atlantic have been fished both from Europe and the ports of the New World since the 14th and 15 centuries and were nearly denuded in the decades after World War II when factory ships arrived from Europe to overwhelm family-owned vessels of New England.
Patricia Kurkul, the National Marine Fishery Services's regional administrator, shrugged off the pleas of the industry-government New England Fisheries Management Council, which is backed by the industry, to change the approach. The council also urged that the fleets be given a "total allowable catch" and be allowed to fish until 2010 when a total allowable catch system is scheduled for introduction combined with the "sector" concept that resembles harvesting cooperatives.
But Kurkul opted to further reduce days at sea, now only 42 year, by 18 percent, and extend differential counting over vast areas. Those regulations charge permit-holders two days for one spent fishing, and prohibit taking certain species in areas that have long been the wellspring of the New Bedford dragger fleet.
By extending the boundaries in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank in which a day's fishing counts as two, the rules intend to discourage and limit work. Between differential counting and reduced days at sea, many boats would be limited to 20 days of work.
"The proposed interim measures are disastrous," said Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who described them as imposing "another layer of inefficiency" on the groundfish industry.
The Gloucester fleet fishes primarily in the Gulf of Maine, close enough for the smaller boats, 45 to 65 feet long, to get out and back in less than 24 hours. The regulations make few changes in where the Gloucester boats can fish or in the time allowed — after the 18 percent cut in the days at sea is absorbed.
The impact on the New Bedford fleet is expected to be more extreme.
For the more than 100 larger draggers fishing out of New Bedford on trips of a week or more, the proposed rules close a huge swath of water along the south side of New England from New Jersey into Georges Bank, located 100 miles east of Cape Cod.
It will cut the nation's largest fishing port at the knees, according to Carlos Raphael, one of New Bedford's major fleet owners.
Raphael, who owns 28 draggers and 12 scallopers, a lucrative New Bedford specialization, said the ban on taking flounder from the Great South Channel, and the extension of differential two-for-one counting of days at sea will mean radical cuts in jobs.
Raphael said he would lay off 250 of the 380 people who work for him on May 1, the date the National Marine Fisheries Service rules would take effect. He also said the interim rules will drive up the cost of fishing.
The reduced days at sea will add to the demand for the lease of permits even as the days in the permits themselves will be halved, leading to what Raphael described as a "double-whammy" — more demand and less supply.
"You don't have to be a brain scientist," said Raphael, who invested earnings as a fish broker into his first boat in 1981. "Pat Kurkul doesn't understand this. You can't make a business decision and go to a financial lender" under the uncertainty of such conditions.
"There will be no dragger fleet" by 2014, the target date for the recovery of the stocks, Raphael predicted.
Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, said she was disappointed that the National Marine Fisheries Service did not follow the recommendation of the management council, to institute a catch based bridge to the start of the sector era in 2010.
"Instead," Odell said in an e-mail, "the interim rule is focused on tools that have only prove to be inefficient and economically disastrous."
"Regrettably," said Sen. Snow, "onerous federal regulations have long plagued the groundfishing industry in New England. Now, this proposal to slash the remaining days-at-sea ... would decimate the fishery, particularly here in Maine.
"As ranking member of the Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee," Snow said she was "appalled and profoundly troubled that the agency would even consider the draconian measures contained in this proposed regulation, much less actually present them as a viable solution to the current crisis in the groundfishing industry."
"It's overkill," said Vito Calomo, executive director of the Massachusetts Fishery Recovery Commission. "You make a 10-minute tow and make your trip limit. There comes a point when you can't make it any more."
Richard Gaines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org