Finding gillnet boats guilty of killing too many harbor porpoises, NOAA Fisheries on Thursday said that, as a consequence, it was putting about 2,130 square miles of prime fishing grounds north, west and south of Gloucester off limits for fixed-gear boats during the months of October and November this year.
The decision came as a shock to the gillnetters, who make up about half of Gloucester's commercial fleet.
Gloucester-based gillnetters have been leasing safety "pingers" from the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund and fixing them to their gear to drive off seals, whales and porpoises.
"We've got 100 percent compliance on pingers due to the Preservation Fund," said Richard Burgess, president of Sector 3, a non-profit organization of 32 gillnet boats based in Gloucester.
The National Oceanic and Atmospherice Administration's Protected Resource Division said that, overall, only 41 percent of the boats that drop gillnets in the Gulf of Maine were using pingers last year.
The industry has been battered by a variety of regulatory actions starting with a rough 50 percent cut in catch limits mandated by Amendment 16 two years ago and right up to the recent 22 percent reduction in the amount Gulf of Maine cod that can be landed in the 2012 fishing year beginning May 1, a result of a 2011 benchmark assessment that contradicted the previous benchmark assessment from three years earlier.
Burgess said the cooperative of 32 boats "will be wiped out financially, the first sector to collapse due to restrictions from harbor porpoises that are totally unwarranted."
"Our heads are spinning now," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition. "Someone needs to put the brakes on."
Odell added that it was not clear whether the findings represented actual or projected porpoise deaths.
In a formal notification statement Thursday, the Protected Resource Division said, "We have determined that the bycatch rate for the Coastal Gulf of Maine Consequence Closure Area has exceeded the target rate" for harbor porpoise mortality of one per 71,117 pounds of fish.