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January 26, 2013

Regional NOAA head won't ease limits

Claiming his hands are tied legally, NOAA regional administrator John Bullard has rejected a nearly unanimous request by the New England Regional Fishery Management Council to give the inshore cod fishery centered on Gloucester a second year of interim relief from extreme cuts in landings.

But Massachusetts federal lawmakers — including Sens. John Kerry and Elizabeth Warren and Congressman John Tierney — disagree with his interpretation of the governing Magnuson-Stevens Act and are already calling on him to reconsider his stand.

Without the relief sought by the council — and first proposed by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition — catch limits on Gulf of Maine cod could be reduced by between 76.8 and 82.6 percent, delivering perhaps the coup de grace to the nation’s oldest fishery, which traces to 1623 when boats from Dorchester, England, began working the cod rich waters to the east of Gloucester.

The Northeast groundfishery was declared an economic “disaster” in September by Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, based on the socio-economics in the regional industry and on the prospects for the coming fishing year. Also, after the past Congress deleted $150 million from a Hurricane Sandy relief bill last month, no replacement legislation has been filed.

The interim action on Gulf of Maine cod for the 2012 fishing cycle, which ends April 30, reduced landing limits by 22 percent compared to the prior year, and the seafood coalition — later backed by the regional council — had hoped to extend that limit rate for another year, in part while questions are answered regarding the assessments.

But the interim action traces to language in the 2006 re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and Bullard said that the law allows only one year of “interim” emergency action.

His letter, dated Thursday, also cites “advice” from NOAA’s general counsel — Lois Schiffer — and sets up a showdown with the council, which holds a three-day meeting next week in Portsmouth, N.H. and voted 16-1 in December to request a second year of interim relief for the inshore groundfishermen, mostly locally owned day boats in Gloucester and other ports from Maine to Cape Cod.

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