NEWPORT, R.I. — The group convened Wednesday morning in the lobby of the Newport Marriott and included about 20 fishermen, fishing advocates and officials from the state Department of Marine Fisheries.

The setting was casual and the goal was simple: Find some common ground between the desires of the fishermen to fish and that of the regulators to implement more cod spawning protection in the Gulf of Maine.

"It was more of a negotiation than anything else," said Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition. "It wasn't always easy."

Meeting or negotiation, it really didn't matter.

What did matter was that, when the New England Fishery Management Council voted several long hours later on area closings, it handed groundfishermen from Massachusetts and New Hampshire the first —albeit small — victory they've had in quite some time.

After defeating an initial motion that would have uniformly and concurrently instituted spawning closures in four prime fishing areas that surround Gloucester, the council opted for another series of seasonal closures that at least hold out a chance of survival to the imperiled groundfishermen.

"I think the inshore fishermen walked away feeling that, as long as we can get the quota situation straightened out, they'll have the ability to keep working and keep fishing," Giacalone said. "This at least balances the needs of the inshore fleet with the concerns about cod spawning."

Sigh of relief

The contingent of Gloucester fishermen at Wednesday's meeting breathed a sigh of relief when the council finally passed the second option, which also removes the current April closing for prime haddock fishing grounds.

"This is a lot better than what we were facing," said Joe Orlando of Gloucester. "This way, we always have someplace to fish and it gives us a shot at haddock in April, which we've been fighting for for years."

The initial closure motion would have geographically barricaded Gloucester from almost all of its prime inshore fishing areas, basically holding its dwindling small-boat fleet hostage. 

So, the second vote was a victory for harvesters and advocates in attendance, many of whom spoke out passionately against the initial motion to close the four areas near Gloucester.

Fishermen pointed out that closing the prime inshore fishing areas all at once would force fishermen —many of whom are on single-hand boats — into a more dangerous style of fishing in the more-distant open areas.

Others, such as Sector II manager Dave Leveille, criticized the initial block closures as overkill, claiming they ignore the ability of fishermen to fish for specific stocks.

'Lives in danger'

"Fishermen have proven they can stay away from cod," Leveille said. "The only thing this will do is stop them from catching their quota and put their lives in danger."

More than a dozen other fishermen and stakeholders lined up to offer testimony, with only one speaker — a representative of the Pew Trusts — speaking in support of the initial motion to close the four areas.

State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, gave perhaps the most impassioned testimony, urging the council to reconsider policies that fall in line with the emergency measures NOAA announced last week to protect Gulf of Maine cod.

"Those actions go down a very dangerous path," Tarr said. "We've got to have a plan that offers people a way to stay alive in this industry."

Tarr said the broad nature of the closures motion indicated an uncertainty —  and perhaps lack of comfort — by council members with the science being used to determine the spawning areas.

"We need an unprecedented cooperative effort in science," Tarr said. "And we need to find away to balance the harm."

NOAA Regional Administrator John K. Bullard made the motion to close the four Gloucester-centric areas, saying it most closely resembled the emergency closures NOAA already has implemented.

"You heard last Monday what the agency thought is necessary to save cod," Bullard said before the vote. "This motion most closely approximates our interim measures."

Last Monday, NOAA announced a sweeping set of closures that shuts down cod fishing in the western Gulf of Maine and severely restricts it elsewhere for the next six months and possibly longer.

Those measures also preclude fishermen from going after other groundfish species in the closed areas.

The council also voted overwhelmingly against a motion that would have barred all lobster pot gear from the closed spawning areas, instead approving a motion that calls for an analysis of the impact of lobster pot gear on cod and cod spawning.  

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT and check out his blog, Glosta Daily, on gloucestertimes.com