The New England Fishery Management Council dispensed with the suspense on Monday when it announced its September meeting, initially set for Gloucester, will be conducted online via webinar.

The three-day meeting, scheduled for Sept. 29 to  Oct. 1, is expected to include the council's final action on the highly contentious measure — Amendment 23 — to establish future monitoring levels for sector-based vessels in the Northeast multispecies groundfish fishery. The council hopes to post the remainder of the agenda by the end of this week.

The September meeting was scheduled for the Beauport Hotel Gloucester on Commercial Street. But that was before the dawning of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent indoor and outdoor gathering restrictions that have forced all but one of the council's public meetings and hearings online.

The current Massachusetts indoor gathering restrictions call for no more than eight individuals per 1,000 square feet of space, with the gathering not to exceed 25 individuals in any single enclosed space.

Those restrictions would have limited an in-person meeting to the council's 18 voting members, a handful of non-voting members and legal counsel. The public and even some council staff presenters would have been forced to participate via online webinar.

Also, some members and stakeholders would have traveled to the Gloucester meeting from out of state, subjecting them to travel quarantine restrictions as well.

"It was a hard, hard decision," Janice Plante, council spokeswoman, said on Tuesday. "As Chairman John Quinn told the members, this is for the safety of everyone involved."

In the past five months, the council's solitary in-person meeting occurred last Wednesday, when it conducted the final public hearing for comment on Amendment 23 under a tent in the parking lot of a Wakefield hotel.

The al fresco public hearing, replete with masks and appropriate social distancing, included about 25 participants and council staff. It required detailed safety and logistical preparations. The preparations for a full council meeting would have been even more arduous.

The council has been working on the monitoring amendment for more than two years, with the goal of improving catch accountability, maximizing the value of collected data and minimizing costs.

The council has chosen as its preferred alternative to set monitoring levels at 100%, which means sector-based groundfish vessels would have to pay for an at-sea monitor — at a cost of about $700 per day  — every time they left the dock. Commercial fishermen at the public hearing last Wednesday said having to accept a monitor on every trip simply would result in the economic destruction of the traditional fishery.

 Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

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