Fishing group asks Baker to fight 'crippling' monitor measure

Joseph Prezioso/File photo/NOAA fisheries observer Victoria Oriole inspects the catch and collects data on weight and numbers of fish caught by Capt. Al Cottone on a 2018 trip. Fishery managers are expected to take a final vote at month's end on an industry amendment that may call for 100% monitoring.

The Northeast Seafood Coalition is trying to enlist Gov. Charlie Baker in its campaign against the monitoring measure that it charges has the "strong potential" to financially cripple the state's commercial groundfish industry.

The Gloucester-based coalition sent Baker a letter last Friday laying out its case that Amendment 23 — which will set future monitoring levels for sector-based, Northeast commercial groundfish vessels —  is highly flawed and should be withdrawn by the New England Fishery Management Council.

The council, which has been developing the monitoring measure for more than two years, is scheduled to take final action on it next Wednesday during the middle day of its three-day meeting that will be conducted via webinar.

"The letter is really a cry for leadership," NSC Executive Director Jackie Odell said Tuesday. "We're looking for leadership on this issue. We're looking for attention on this issue."

The measure before the council includes four alternatives for monitoring coverage: 25% of all trips; 50% of all trips; 75% of all trips and 100% of all trips. The cost of the monitoring, estimated at about $700 per day per vessel, ultimately will be borne by the fishermen.

The council has chosen 100% as its preferred alternative, which the council estimated in its draft environmental impact statement will cost fishermen an additional $6.4 million annually.

It is also the preferred alternative of many environmental groups, such as Oceana and the Conservation Law Foundation, that have been strongly lobbying for monitors aboard every commercial groundfish trip as a means of rebuilding stocks and providing more catch accountability.

"The council continues to pursue an action that in its present form will impose costs to fishermen that will far exceed any true benefits to their businesses," Odell wrote in the letter. "This action will re-engineer the fleet. In the commonwealth, this will have devastating impacts on the ports of Gloucester, Boston, New Bedford, Scituate and surrounding coastal communities."

Massachusetts, the letter pointed out, annually leads the Northeast in groundfish landings and revenues despite eroding catch quota. According to the council's own Amendment 23 presentation, the fleet of active Northeast groundfish vessels totaled 299 in 2012. In 2018, the active fleet had shrunk to 179 boats.

"Of the 179, only 113 of these vessels were recorded as active in the state of Massachusetts in 2018," the letter stated. "This has further declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

The coalition reiterated its criticism of the draft environmental impact statement that accompanies the measure, saying it fails to provide evidence that "the proposed changes in monitoring coverage targets will significantly improve groundfish stock assessments and management performance."

It also states that the draft environmental impact statement never makes the case "that under-reported catch is a widespread or substantial problem" within the groundfish industry.

"Regrettably, it has now fallen upon managers to arbitrarily decide on a coverage level that has the strong potential to destroy the commonwealth's commercial groundfish fishery," the letter stated.

Odell said fishing stakeholders have been working with leaders in fishing communities such as Gloucester and New Bedford, as well as with state and federal elected officials to sound the alarm on the dangers of the amendment to the very existence of what's left of the Northeast commercial groundfish fleet.

"This issue really couldn't have come up at a worse time," Odell said Tuesday. "Everybody is dealing with so many issues related to the pandemic. But we need people to recognize the critical importance of what is happening and what could happen." 

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

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