By Richard Gaines
---- — The New England Fishery Management Council has voted to recommend giving commercial groundfishermen access to parts of five areas that have been closed to them for many years.
The federal Commerce Department must approve the votes, taken at the special Dec. 20 meeting, but John Bullard, regional administrator for the Commerce’s National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, announced his support for limited openings. Such openings would give the commercial fleet, facing a declared economic disaster, some hope for relief from the hardships to come in the fishing year beginning May 1.
At the same special meeting last month, the council deferred setting catch limits on the groundfish complex for the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank until its regularly scheduled January 2013 meeting in Portsmouth, N.H. By then, an extraordinary benchmark assessment of inshore cod will be available.
The five closed areas include two near Gloucester: the Western Gulf of Maine closed area, a thin rectangular section of water about 10 miles wide running from near Provincetown to opposite Portland, Maine, and about 12 miles east of Gloucester; and Caches Ledge, a rock outcrop about 30 miles north-northeast of Gloucester. The others are in Georges Bank.
The council, which faced opposition from conservation groups on opening the closed areas, agreed to allow sectors, the fishing cooperatives whose members chose to join to partake of the catch share commodity trading system, to request exemptions from the longstanding prohibitions on fishing in the year-round closed areas on a limited basis.
The recreational fishing industry, which has continued to fish with hooks in the closed areas, joined Oceana, the Pew Environment Group and Conservation Law Foundation in opposing giving the commercial boats access to the closed areas.
One commercial/charter fisherman argued in a letter to the council that opening the closed areas would give ammunition to the conservation groups that favor creating marine-protected areas, areas closed to all fishing by statute. Outgoing NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has been an advocate of marine-protected areas, which have proliferated on the West Coast.
Under the language adopted by the council, commercial fishing would be allowed in only those parts of the closed areas that were shut to foster better spawning recruitment. Sections set side for habitat restoration would remain off limits to the commercial fleet.
The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the largest commercial industry group, argued that the closed areas are an outdated relic of the effort control system, and are inconsistent with the idea of hard catch limits and an allocated fishery. Does it matter, coalition members and representatives said, whether fish were taken from inside or outside the closed areas, if the principle of conservation is to control the total catch?
The request to open closed areas to commercial fishing came days before the NOAA Science Center issued a report on the 2011 fishing year that contained the revelation that only 41 percent of allocated fish were landed in 2011.
The catch share trading system and choke species were identified as causes of the underfishing phenomenon within a system that is facing severe cutbacks in 2013 due to widespread overfishing of some stocks, especially flatfish and cod.
The council has been working for a number of years on an omnibus habitat amendment to the groundfish management plan, and some at the December council meeting urged putting off the decision to open portions of the closed areas until it could be made in the context of the overriding amendment.
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3456, or firstname.lastname@example.org.