By Richard Gaines
U.S. Sen. John Kerry yesterday pressed federal fisheries regulators to fast-track economic relief for New England's commercial fishermen.
Among the many elements on his agenda, Kerry urged NOAA to reopen to commercial fishing a series of closed areas, including the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area, 12 miles off the tip of Cape Ann, as well as two closed areas far at sea on Georges Bank.
Kerry also urged next week's meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council to begin liberalizing the 10 percent limit on any rollover of unused quota from year to year, and to reimburse fishermen for inaccurately low quotas granted during the first year of catch share fishing, which began in New England in May 2010.
Most of Kerry's points of emphasis were also endorsed in general terms by Eric Schwaab, the assistant administrator of NOAA for fisheries.
The agenda tracks back to the Oct. 3 State House hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee that was organized by Kerry and featured NOAA testimony from Administrator Jane Lubchenco.
Although Kerry pressed council Chairman Colin "Rip" Cunningham at the State House hearing to move rapidly to free up unused quota to help fishermen struggling with limited allocations, the topic is not on the agenda for the November council meeting, which runs Tuesday through Thursday in Newport, R.I.
However, a council official gave assurances the entire Kerry agenda would be addressed.
"The council will of course respond directly to Sen. Kerry's letter and looks forward to working on the issues he identifies," council Executive Director Paul Howard wrote in an email to the Times. "Many of those outlined in his Nov. 9 letter will be discussed as the council approves the management actions it plans to address in 2012.
Consideration of the "full list" is set for Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. The council meeting is at the Newport Marriott Hotel.
A 1,100-square-mile rectangle that includes much of Jeffreys Ledge, the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area is about 13 miles wide but stretches north and south nearly 60 miles.
An essential nursery for cod and other prized groundfish, the New England Fishery Management Council closed the area to fishing in 1998 as an output control — to reduce cod catches after the stock was found to be overfished — and was set to remain closed only for three years.
But the closure was repeatedly extended during the effort control era of Amendment 13, which limited the number of days fishermen could work as a way of controlling landings.
The transition to a hard catch limit-based conservation system — mandated by Congress in the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and implemented by Amendment 16 in 2010 — rendered the closed area model somewhat obsolete, Kerry wrote to Cunningham, whose regional council is effectively an arm of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The opening of the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area, said Richard Burgess, who owns a small fleet of groundfishing boats based in Gloucester, would "allow us out of the shoebox and give us access to grounds where we haven't been allowed to go," stocks such as pollock and haddock that were not readily available before to the day boat fishermen.
A council habitat committee has been reviewing the full census of closed areas with an eye toward eventual adjustments by the council and NOAA, possibly closing new areas while opening others.
Although Kerry wrote that, based on conversations with Lubchenco, he "expects" NOAA to make a formal proposal to open closed areas at next week's council meeting.
But the sources also pointed to a letter sent to Cunningham by Schwaab two days before Kerry's letter that expressed similar hopes for fast-tracking administrative steps to relieve economic hardships engendered by a combination of statutory alterations in the fishing system. The most radical work together as a pair of pliers, squeezing fishermen.
The first, from the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, requires overfished stocks to be restored fully within a 10-year period, and now many of these are coming up on deadline.
The second, from the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson, requires shifting the conservation approach from effort controls — like limiting fishermen's days at sea — to hard catch limits together with penalties for violations.
Together, they were interpreted at NOAA and the council to mean hyper-reductions in catch limits to achieve the rebuilding targets by deadline.
Writing to the council after participating in a two-day workshop in Portland, Schwaab wrote that he saw the need to "fast track" some administrative relief measures, including giving fishermen access to closed areas and inshore rolling closures that effectively cut off inshore fishermen during the spring months.
Schwaab's letter was applauded by Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, which "has been very vocal in the need ... to remove the 'artifacts' of the old effort control system."
"This action alone will go far in improving sector operations, fishermen's businesses and preserving the structure — diversity — of the fleet," she added.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.