It's always good to have a plan. Sometimes it's even better to have a backup plan.

The New England Fishery Management Council has one of each for its recommendations to NOAA Fisheries on recreational Gulf of Maine cod and haddock bag limits for the 2018 fishing season.

Now the council is waiting on the Massachusetts' Division of Marine Fisheries before it decides which recommendation to forward to federal fishery regulators.

In late January, the council voted to recommend NOAA Fisheries implement a "status quo" management policy for 2018 Gulf of Maine cod and haddock that would prohibit possession of any cod by recreational fishermen.

The recommendation, which was supported by the council's recreational advisory panel and its groundfish committee, also set a 12-fish bag limit and 17-inch minimum size for haddock in federal waters and two seasonal closures — March 1 to April 14 and Sept. 17 to Oct. 31.

But here is the rub:

Last year, the state DMF implemented a policy that allowed private recreational anglers to keep one cod from each fishing trip in state waters and those recreational landings must be accounted for in determining whether federal regulators are able to hit their overall mortality targets and catch limits.

Too many cod grabbed in out of state waters could push the fishery past those targets. 

For the 2018 fishing season, which begins May 1, the council approved annual catch limits of 220 metric tons of Gulf of Maine cod and 3,358 metric tons of Gulf of Maine haddock for the recreational fishery that still must be approved by NOAA Fisheries.

The limiting factor in the recreational fishery, according to the council, is the cod ACL.

"Analysis indicate that recreational fishermen will not come near harvesting the full Gulf of Maine haddock (ACL)," the council stated. "The overwhelming challenge in this fishery is catching haddock while avoiding cod."

Which brings us to the backup plan:

If Massachusetts continues to allow the one-cod limit, the council will recommend that NOAA Fisheries reduce the haddock bag limit to 10 fish while retaining a 17-inch minimum size for for-hire fleets fishing in federal waters. It also would recommend the same two haddock seasonal closures.

For private anglers, the backup option would recommend a 12-fish haddock bag limit and 17-inch minimum size. But private anglers also would face three seasonal closures — March 1 to April 14, May 1-31 and Sept. 17 to Oct. 31.

The council may have to wait some time before deciding which recommendation to present to NOAA Fisheries, as Massachusetts plans to seek public comment on the issue.

DMF Director David Pierce on Wednesday said in an email that DMF staff is in the midst of drafting a request for public comment on the bag limit issue. The state will want to analyze those comments before deciding how to proceed.

At the same meetings in late January in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the council also voted to recommend that NOAA Fisheries adopt a 10-fish bag limit for Georges Bank cod for private, charter and party boat anglers. The minimum size also would increase to 24 inches from 22 inches.

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

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