By Richard Gaines
---- — NOAA’s top regional administrator says he will “consider” applying a legal precedent presented by the Northeast Seafood Coalition that would allow for comparatively minor cuts in Gulf of Maine cod and haddock landings next year rather than the draconian cuts that would otherwise go into effect based on discouraging stock assessments.
The New England Fishery Management Council approved the proposal from the Gloucester-based coalition at its special meeting Wednesday in Wakefield. The move came in conjunction with a decision to defer setting catch limits for the groundfishery until the regularly scheduled January meeting – a time frae tha would benefit from a benchmark Gulf of Maine stock assessment and the vetting of it by the council’s Science and Statistical Committee.
The coalition wrote last Monday to the council laying out a legal theory derived from an interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by NOAA last year that became the basis of a one-year interim emergency action on inshore cod that kept the reduction in landings to 22 percent.
The stock assessments and updates would routinely have dropped landings by 70 percent and for 2013, and an Armageddon scenario, as many fishermen and council members noted during an emotional and tense meeting Wednesday.
According to the coalition, the region’s largest industry group, which is based in Gloucester, the Magnuson-Stevens Act contains language that allows NOAA to adopt a second interim emergency measure for Gulf of Maine cod, and also for haddock, based on the promise of further reducing though not ending alleged “overfishing” of the stocks. Those stocks are the primary source of landings and income for the region’s day boats, which are based primarily in Gloucester but also are found in smaller ports all along the east facing coast of New England.
Gloucester-based NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard, whose offices in Blackburn Industrial Park regulate fisheries from Maine through the Carolinas, told the Times that “we will certainly consider the action the council recommended.”
Bullard spoke at length at the council meeting, describing the agonizing problems the industry faces as it seeks to survive while waiting for the stocks to revive. The council also reduced the minimum size of many stocks based on the theory that the move would reduce the waste of sending undersized fish back to die.
Allowing the interim actions would effectively give the council a year for sharpened science and perhaps a less pessimistic picture of the state of the stocks until a reckoning in 2014.
The votes came after Council President C.M. “Rip” Cunningham ruled out of order a motion, drafted Tuesday by the Groundfish Committee, to adopt a 10 percent across the board cut in in- and off-shore stocks.
The council also sent to Bullard a 1,150-metric-ton catch limit on Georges Bank Yellowtail, which he has repeatedly said he would not approve. That quantity is far in excess of the 215 metric tons that was negotiated with Canada.
The two nations jointly manage the waters on either side of the border that divides Georges Bank. A 215-ton quota would effectively make yellowtail a “bycatch” only fishery.
Bullard told the Times in an interview last week that he believed Canada would be willing to give the U.S. boats some of its yellowtail in exchange for some of the U.S. allocation of haddock by the joint transboundry commission.
The combination of actions and counter-tacts leave most of the groundfishery in a state of profound uncertainty, its future in grave doubt after its launch in Gloucester in 1623 when a small band of fishing entrepreneurs arrived from Dorchester, England. The first fishing camp here failed, but from the 18th century — for more than 300 years — fishing for cod and other groundfish centered in Gloucester and has been the economic anchor of this port and smaller ports to the north and south.
Cuts of the magnitude that might await the fleet could mean that no more than a handful of owners would come to dominate a consolidated industry after the marginal businesses — the day boaters — give up due to a lack of enough allocated fish to allow for a functional business. Facing that problem, the catch share commodity market that was instituted for the groundfishery in 2010 would allow them to sell their permits or lease their quota.
The acting secretary of commerce in September declared the fishery a disaster, qualifying the industry for disaster funding. A $100 million disaster assistance measure was drafted and fused to the the $60 billion Superstorm Sandy disaster assistance bill now before the lame duck 112th Congress.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.