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April 19, 2011

Feds lift limits on fish stocks

As the first year of New England groundfishing in commodity-based catch share trading draws to a conclusion, the federal fisheries service has announced liberalized catch limits for many stocks in the second year under Amendment 16, which begins May 1.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, slated for nomination to be ambassador to China, made the announcement of the increased catch limits Monday instead of NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco, who has typically made similar announcements since the start of the Obama administration.

Locke who become a lightning rod for industry anger by rejecting pleas from Gov. Deval Patrick for higher catch limits in January, tis time described fishing as "vital to our coastal communities, their economies and the men and women who work on the water to bring heatlhy seafood to our tables."

He said catch limits on 12 of the 20 stocks in the groundfish complex would be higher in fishing year 2011 that begins 11 days from today.

The benefit from the higher limits, however, is far from certain since, according to government statistics, the fleet is not close to catching the generally lesser volumes allowed in the fishing year drawing to an end.

Through April 9 — 94.2 percent of the 2010 fishing season, which ends April 30 — New England fishermen had landed more than 80 percent of only three stocks, and more than 75.2 percent of just five stocks.

Conversely, no more than 60 percent of the total allowable catch had been landed in 11 of the stocks.

"Gross underfishing is one of the major resource problems to which we've been looking to the government for solution," said Brian Rothschild, the industry advocate and professor of marine science at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. "The magnitude of the underfishing tells you there are problems within the regulatory system that are not being addressed."

The reasons for the underfishing are disputed, but most industry critics of government policies cite the existence of so-called "choke" species on nearly all the mixed groundfish permits.

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