GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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December 20, 2012

NOAA region chief hedges on interim limits

NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard described himself Thursday as open-minded about a legal theory that would give the inshore fishing fleet a second year of lesser constriction in landing Gulf of Maine cod than it faces when the New England Fishery Management Council meets today to make hard choices across the whole spectrum of groundfish.

But Bullard stopped short of endorsing the theory, aimed at extending the current, less-draconian interim limits to a second year, should it be legally validated, adding that the idea of “trading tomorrow for today” was not an easy sell.

The theory was put into circulation Monday by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, in a letter to fishery council chief C. M. “Rip” Cunningham.

The coalition theory was based on an interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act for building a second year of relief — “reducing” rather than “ending” overfishing — while a plan to bring the stock to maximum sustainable yield is crafted.

“I’m not going to opine on whether you can squeeze another year out of (the Magnuson regulations),” Bullard said in a Thursday interview at the Times. “We’re willing to take a look at this at the meeting.”

Bullard did not hint at how he might vote today when the council convenes in Wakefield. As the regional administrator based in Gloucester, he is also one of 18 members. But he also represents NOAA which needs not adopt the catch limits or policies made by the council if they are deemed unsupportable by the will of Congress.

A federal district court and U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this year underscored the deference that NOAA is afforded in interpreting congressional intent.

The task of setting catch limits in a fishery that was declared an economic “disaster” by the acting U.S. Commerce secretary in September was isolated from other deliberations before the three-day November meeting. And even now, the council will be facing the adoption of a range of limits on the landings of Gulf of Maine cod pending the completion and vetting of a new benchmark assessment of the mainstay of the inshore fleet.

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