Council to set quota for groundfish stocks

File photo/Fishermen say commercial quotas for cod still don't match what they're seeing on the water.

The nadir for fishing for Gulf of Maine cod arrived in 2014, when NOAA Fisheries slashed quota by 77% and implemented emergency area closures that particularly singed the Gloucester small-boat, day fleet.

Nine days later, the New England Fishery Management Council cut cod quota by another 75 percent for the 2015 fishing season and the decline and fall of Gulf of Maine cod was on.

The closures and withering cuts added fuel to the debate over the precision of the science federal fishery regulators use to count fish and highlighted the cavernous divide between what National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries scientists say their science reflects and what fishermen say they see on the water.

In some ways, those battles still are being fought. Groundfishermen continue to say they see far more cod in their time on the water than is remotely represented in NOAA Fisheries' science and modeling — both of which they still find suspect.

And, said longtime fisherman Joe Orlando, cod remains the most important linchpin stock in the groundfishery.

"Without Gulf of Maine cod, the fishery is going to shut down," Orlando said at last week's city Fisheries Commission meeting. "The whole system is falling apart."

The issues will return to the fore next Wednesday, Dec. 4, when the New England Fishery Management Council is scheduled to discuss a host of groundfish matters. 

The council is set to meet for three days beginning Tuesday, Dec. 3, in Newport, Rhode Island. Its agenda includes setting 2020-2022 fishing-year specifications for 15 groundfish stocks and fishing stakeholders expect the final numbers to include quota reductions for both Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod.

"It looks like it's going to be a mixed bag," Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition said. "While we expect reductions in Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod, we also expect increases for stocks such as plaice, witch flounder and Gulf of Maine haddock. Gulf of Maine haddock could go up significantly."

But, according to fishing stakeholders, a sizable increase in haddock quota could evolve into a double-edged fishing knife: To get to the haddock, you have to go through the cod, likely creating a bycatch issue.

"The reductions in cod will further restrict the ability of the fleet to catch other stocks," Odell said.

"You can have all the haddock in the world, but you can't go catch them because of the cod," said city Fisheries Commission Chairman Mark Ring.

The council also is expected to take final action on setting the 2020 total allowable catches for three Georges Bank stocks — eastern Georges Bank cod, eastern Georges Bank haddock and Georges Bank yellowtail flounder — the U.S shares with Canada.

The council is not scheduled to take action on the pivotal Amendment 23, which ultimately will set groundfish monitoring levels. It is, however, scheduled to hear a progress report on the monitoring amendment.

The council is expected to vote on the full range of monitoring alternatives at its January meeting in Portsmourth, New Hampshire. 

The alternatives, along with the draft environmental impact statement and analysis, are expected to go out for public comment next March or April, with final passage most likely at the council's June meeting.

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

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