The New England Fishery Management Council made the right call last week in backing a request from the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition asking whether a one-year interim reprieve on what loom as apocalyptic catch limits for Gloucester’s and the region’s groundfish industry can be extended for another year.
And it’s encouraging to learn that John Bullard, NOAA’s first-year Northeast regional administrator, is at least considering that option as well.
For NOAA and the Department of Commerce must consider that limit cuts of 70 percent or more for Gulf of Maine cod and other stocks — triggered, in large part, by provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act — would essentially shutdown the cod and other fisheries, with fishermen lacking the allowable quota to make even a single day trip worthwhile.
Simply put, if our own federal government is considering any type of move that would virtually shut down an entire industry, it had better be absolutely certain that an such industry poses either such a threat to public safety or, conceivably, the environment, that it would pose a public hazard to allow it to continue. And commercial fishing, of course, falls far, far short of any such risk.
The seafood coalition’s proposal raises the issue that the interim limits in place for the current year — hardly a fishermen’s carte blanche, given that it already cuts the allowable cod catch by 22 percent from 2011 — could be extended through the 2013 groundfishing year, which begins next May 1. And there is a great deal of context to that.
An extension of the interim limits would continue to rein in fishermen from the 2011 numbers — even though those landings under NOAA’s job-killing catch share quota system could hardly be seen as overfishing. And, more importantly, it would give both the industry, NOAA officials, the regional council and federal and state lawmakers time to either verify or refute the stunningly grim assessments for Gulf of Maine cod, yellowtail founder and other species that, given NOAA’s data-gathering techniques, are simply not viewed as credible.
Indeed, with NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco bowing out in February — and hopefully taking her agenda-driven science methodology with her — a one-year delay in setting any industry-threatening catch limits would also give Bullard and other NOAA officials the chance to carry out more thorough stock assessments on a cooperative basis alongside New England fishermen. That should clarify any credibility issues with the assessment data used to set limits for 2014, and might finally help to building bridges between the industry and its federal regulators that are long, long overdue.
In that vein, extending the interim catch mandates for the New England groundfishing industry – already a federally recognized economic “disaster” thanks to Lubchenco and her disastrous catch-share system — poses a true opportunity for NOAA to build a legitimate working relationship with fishermen and New England’s fishing communities. And it should do so without causing any more significant harm to the stocks even if NOAA’s shaky data is proven correct.
That’s well worth pursuing on all fronts.