New England fishing regulators Thursday delayed voting on a series of significant cuts to fishermen’s 2013 allowable catch in groundfishing stocks after repeated and emotional warnings that the reductions would finish off an industry already grappling with a federally recognized economic “disaster.”
The New England Fishery Management Council voted 15-2 to put off deciding on new catch limits for various bottom-dwelling groundfish species until their next meeting, scheduled for the end of January.
Fishery scientists say some species are recovering far too slowly, meaning drastic cuts in catch are needed to meet the law’s mandates to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks. But fishermen and industry groups – including the Gloucester-based Northeast Coalition — have questioned the science on which the proposed cuts are based, and have said that cuts of up to 74 percent in landings for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder and a total of 90 percent for Gulf of Maine cod would further devastate the industry.
Before the vote, fishermen criticized fishery science they say vastly underestimated the health of fish stocks and repeatedly told the council the possible cuts would obliterate the remnants of the centuries-old industry.
Gloucester fisherman Mark Carroll said he’d nearly lost everything struggling under onerous fishery penalties and restrictions.
“I say if you’re going to take 1 damn percent (more), shut the whole damn thing down!” he yelled, shortly before storming out of the room to applause and shouts of support. “I’m dead here, you’re kicking my ... teeth out!”
In pushing back any final decision to January, the council backed a Northeast Seafood Coalition letter urging that the council and NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service look into whether the Magnuson-Stevens Act would allow for extending current interim limits that, with a 22 percent cut in Gulf of Maine cod landings, for example, would still reel in any alleged overfishing but would allow the industry to function.
“It is critical to understand that the Magnuson-Stevens Act does not in any manner preclude the agency from implementing a second interim measure immediately following the first,” the coalition wrote, and the council opted Thursday to ask NOAA Fisheries whether that interpretation was valid.
The decision to delay voting on the cuts came after the head of the council, Rip Cunningham, killed a measure that could have eased them, saying it wouldn’t meet federal requirements to stop overfishing and rebuild stocks. That proposal set 2013 catch limits for each of the troubled species at 10 percent below their projected 2012 catch.
Council member John Quinn said there’s so much uncertainty about the science, that taking more time for analysis makes sense.
“Some may call it punting, some may call it avoiding a tough decision,” he said. “I call it making sure we have every last piece of data and every last opportunity to make this decision that’s going to potentially have some cataclysmic impacts on families and regions.”
Carlos Rafael, who owns a large-scale fleet of groundfish boats in New Bedford, said he’s “100 percent” behind the delay because so much is at stake.
“You’ve got to make sure you did everything you could in your powers to make sure the right decision is coming down,” he said.