GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 8, 2013

NOAA head explains stock stands

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard said Thursday fishermen’s testimony he’s heard that the inshore waters are teeming with yellowtail has made him concerned about proposed draconian catch limits for the species of flounder.

If the Gulf of Maine yellowtail stock is as strong as fishermen insist, the proposed cut in landings — to less than 50 percent of the 1,159 metric tons for the year ending April 30 — would make yellowtail a fish that must but could not be avoided, and thus emerge as another and unnecessary impediment to the survival of the inshore fleet, as it already faces a 77 percent cut in the allowable catch in its primary target, the iconic cod.

Yellowtail, cod, haddock, hake, and other flounders are found in close proximity, making up the Northeast multi-species groundfishery, and low allocations of prevalent stocks create the nightmare for fishermen who must stop work once they’ve come to their limit on any single stock.

While conceding that he’s heard enough to be concerned about yellowtail emerging as choke stock for the inshore fleet, however, Bullard dug in Thursday against the same argument made about Gulf of Maine Cod, which is facing a 77 percent cut in the allowable catch for the 2013 fishing year beginning May 1.

Bullard incurred the ire of inshore fishermen in January when he issued a written decision declining to allow the inshore fleet a second consecutive year of “interim” action on the fish on which the oldest port in America was built — Gulf of Maine cod. The interim action decision — a first in the more than 30 year history of the Magnuson-Stevens Act — was predicated on the law’s allowing a reduction rather than the elimination of perceived overfishing for one year.

It held that the cut in Gulf of Maine cod for the 2012 fishing year to only 22 percent less than the catch allowed in 2011.

And Bullard has been urged by the council, the congressional delegation and the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, to authorize a second interim action.

But Bullard said that while he also believes the second year was not allowed by law, remaining soft on the rebuilding of cod was bad environmental stewardship.

In an interview at the Times, Bullard said the telling figure was that the fleet caught only 54 percent of the allowed catch in 2012, and reasoned from that statistic that there is a dearth of inshore cod, a situation that warrants serious action to reverse.

“This,” he said, “is the reason that’s not the legal reason” for not giving the industry a second year of interim relief from the extreme controls on cod landings.

“Even if Lois Schiffer (general counsel at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) said I could do it, I wouldn’t,” he said.

In rejecting the requests for a second interim action to loosen limits on in shore cod, Bullard cited legal advice from Schiffer but NOAA has refused to make that legal brief public claiming it was privileged.

Bullard added that “our goal is to rebuild the fishery” and there is every sign that the cod are not present in numbers in the Gulf of Maine that warrant giving the industry the freedom to target them.

Bullard did acknowledge concern about pulse fishing for Gulf of Maine cod by boats that are taking advantage of the catch share commodity trading system by leasing quota and pouncing on schools of cod as they gather intermittently on Stellwagen Bank. Until the start of catch share trading in 2010, Gulf of Maine cod was rebuilding rapidly in a system based on limited access to the grounds known as “days-at-sea” and trip limits, with boats not allowed to take more than 800 pounds a trip.

Those limitations discouraged all but the small day boat fleet from the revitalizing stock of Gulf of Maine cod. Beginning in 2010 the stocks have been allocated — divided among all qualified permit holders with their allocation based on the catch history on their permits, but catch share trading allowed permit-holders to chose to sit home and lease out their allocations to colleagues with big draggers, boats that traditionally worked offshore in Georges Bank.

These big boat operators could accumulate huge shares of Gulf of Maine cod and then attack pulses of them close to shore on the way in from or out to Georges.

“Big boat, little boat — yes, that’s a problem,” said Bullard. “I can’t remember a listening session when that wasn’t brought up passionately to me.”

In office less a year, Bullard said he wasn’t sure whether he had the power to implement emergency trip limits on Gulf of Maine cod.

NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said Gulf of Maine cod was “overfished and overfishing is occurring.”

Most recent survey catches are at or near lowest values in their time series, and industry may not catch quota,” she added. Available information points to a low stock concentrated in western Gulf. Vulnerability of stock is increased. Important to note the fact that fishermen aren’t catching their quota supports science that says this stock is in bad shape.

“Since the mid-1990s the distribution of cod has become increasingly concentrated in the western part of the Gulf, with a gradual loss of cod from the coastal and central Gulf,” she said.

If anything, the vitality of the stock of Georges Bank cod is even worse than the Gulf of Maine stock, but in January the New England Fishery Management Council voted a 61 percent cut in off shore landings, a more modest cut than the 77 percent recommended for inshore cod. From tagging experiments, the stocks are known to intermingle blurring the distinction.

The 53 percent cut in Gulf of Maine yellowtail landings, to 548 metric tons in 2013, recommended by the New England Fishery Management Council was based on an updated stock assessment by the NOAA Science center that most fishermen instantaneously disputed at the January council meeting.

Bullard has not yet acted on the recommendations.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.