By Richard Gaines
---- — The New England Fishery Management Council voted Wednesday night to cut the Gulf of Maine cod fishery limits by 77 percent for the 2013 fishing cycle and to extend similar cuts for the 2014 and 2015, dealing a dire blow to the region’s fishing industry.
Over many hours of anguished debate at the council meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., the action was widely read as ending any direct fishing for a stock that has supported the inshore fleet since colonial times, while asphyxiating small ports and putting larger ones such as Gloucester under unprecedented duress. The council voted to cut the cod allocation for the Georges Bank grounds by 66 percent as well.
Council staff showed charts suggesting revenues from all ports, including Gloucester, as dropping by about one third. But council members and fishermen including Gloucester’s Joe Orlando and Paul Vitale scoffed at the estimates and said the fishermen doubted they would be able to fish at all.
The council opted for an acceptable biological catch of 1,550 metric tons, choosing overwhelmingly the relatively higher option presented by the council’s Science and Statistical Committee. But as Councilor Goug Grout of New Hampshire noted, the additional 300 tons to the lower recommendation by the SSC was slightly more than his state’s small cohort of boats land in a year, and either number will mark “the end of the fishery.”
The “day of reckoning,” in the words of John Bullard, NOAA’s Gloucester-based, northeast regional administrator, has been decades arriving, and was brought about by a shortage of fish, he said.
Why this should be so became a sub-theme of the day, with the phrase “regime shift” used frequently to suggest a braid of environmental and ecological alterations —including millions of lobster traps that take an unknown quantity of cod as by-catch, large volumes of herring which eat cod eggs and seals which feed on cod, as well as the various forms of global warming that emanate from and absorb into the seas.
Bullard delivered a double whammy to the fleet that has fished within its quotas consistently during the three years of the catch share policy regimen championed by outgoing NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. In her resignation email last month to subordinates, she proclaimed her mission was “accomplished,” and said she would return to academia at the end of February.
Echoing a formal opinion, Bullard began the day reiterating that there was “no legal or ecological wiggle room” allowing NOAA to take a second year of “interim” emergency action that, in 2012, held the cut in landings to 22 percent. He also acknowledged that requiring the boats to begin carrying about half the cost of at-sea monitors was a cruel burden, but said the NOAA Fisheries budget did not allow the service to continue its full subsidy.
That cost was estimated at between $3 million and $5 million, or about the same amount that would be fed back into the system by a decision earlier in the day to authorize a limited winter flounder fishery for southern New England and Middle Atlantic waters.
“I don’t see myself leaving the dock next year, I’m not sure we’re going fishing (anymore),” Orlando said.
Fellow Gloucester fisherman Vitale said that, if the fishery were cut beyond the level maintained via the “interim” relief granted by NOAA for the year ending April 30, a “complete shutdown” made more sense to him. “We did everything that was asked of us,” he said. “No one’s going to be able to buy or sell quota. the docks and the stores” will be quiet, Vitale said in opposing the new catch levels.
“(With) Gulf of Maine cod, there’s not enough to sustain the fishery. The game is over,” said Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition. He added that it was “tough to support a motion that says the best we’ve got is to collapse the fishery on the heels of a disaster.”
Councilor David Goethel, a New Hampshire groundfisherman, got no support for his motion to do just that — shut down the entire directed groundfishery.
Goethel argued that it made more sense to shut it down and dramatize the hardship in hope that NOAA and Congress recognized the crisis with disaster relief and the need to rethink the science and management of the fishery. He said a dramatic act that spared no one was preferable to “throwing 90 percent of the fishermen under the bus.”
The acting commerce secretary, Rebecca Blank, waited 11 months until last September to approve a disaster declaration for Massachusetts and the other groundfishing states, but offered no financial aid, and Congress deleted $150 million in fishery disaster funding from the $60 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster package before sending it to the White House earlier this week.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.