GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 27, 2012

NOAA backs off gillnet closure

Plan aimed toward saving porpoises

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — Overruling his bureaucracy, NOAA regional administrator John Bullard on Wednesday announced a decision to shift to February and March a shutdown of the inshore gillnet fishery that was aimed at reducing harbor porpoise losses in bycatch.

The shutdown was to start Oct. 1 and last through November.

Immediate losses to three dozen vessels working out of ports from New Hampshire to along the Massachusetts Bay were projected to be $2.6 million, half that from the revenues of Gloucester-based boats, according to an economic analysis presented at the end of July by the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry organization.

The move in closure dates to next year should ease the economic impact on a fleet at the center of a systemic fisheries failure, declared days ago by the Commerce Department, by allowing gillnetters access to pollock. Pollock typically come through the inshore waters of Massachusetts Bay, including Stellwagen Bank and the Gulf of Maine, in the autumn, said Richard Burgess, president of the fishing cooperative Sector III, a group of 36 Gloucester-based gillnetters.

“This is going to allow us to catch a larger proportion of our pollock quota,” said Burgess. “(Bullard) listened to the fishermen who know there are more harbor porpoises around in February and March than October and November.”

Bullard reversed his own detailed, written position of Sept. 6, which was based on the research and recommendation of the Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team. Theteam includes government scientists, fishermen, academics and environmental organizations.

The reversal grants the fishing industry, which had congressional support, most of its argument and accepts its alternative plan to protect harbor porpoises.

The fishing industry agreed to modernize and expand the use of pingers, which project a pinging sound audible to porpoises to warn them of the nets that are their undoing.

Bullard, however, refused to reduce the size of the area from which the gillnets will be barred to give the porpoises safe travel.

Bullard made his decision this week to shift the closure from fall to begin in late winter based on observer data that proved conclusively the case that industry had been making — that fewer porpoises were taken in the autumn months when fishing effort was higher than in the late winter, early spring months, NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said in a telephone interview.

He announced the shift at the New England Fishery Management Council meeting in Plymouth on Wednesday afternoon.

Following a contentious meeting in Gloucester last Friday with representatives of the Northeast Seafood Coalition and the congressional delegation, Mooney-Seus said Bullard asked the NOAA Science Center to determine if there was a scientific basis for granting the coalition its way.

What the science center presented him with was observer data showing that from 2007 through 2012, there were 32 fewer harbor porpoises caught in gillnets in the fall period than the spring.

That data is at odds with assertions in a letter Bullard wrote to Jackie Odell, the coalition’s executive director, as recently as Sept. 6. In that letter Bullard wrote that NOAA had found “a negligible conservation gain for harbor porpoises” by pushing the consequence closure back to the March through April period.

At the meeting in Gloucester last week, industry representatives insisted that as long as there was a “negligible” conservation benefit to the porpoises, Bullard had the justification and the authority to grant the industry its wishes.

In a fishery suffering a government-certified disaster, Bullard’s announcement was applauded by industry, especially the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which had undertaken a protracted lobbying effort to make the case that the October-November shutdown, recommended by the agency’s Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team as a “consequence” for the purported taking of too many harbor porpoises in gillnetters’ floating and weighted netting, would cause unnecessarily economic harm to the fleet and fail to provide commensurate protection for the porpoises.

Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.