NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comment on a proposed rule that would limit the number of permits and the amount of groundfish allocation one individual or entity could own in the Northeast multispecies groundfish fishery.

According to NOAA Fisheries, the rule is designed “to promote diversity in the groundfish fishery and enhance sector management” by preventing excessive consolidation in the fishery by capping the number of limited access permits and the amount of a sector’s annual catch entitlement any one entity may own.

The final proposed rule, which the NEFMC submitted to NOAA in August, would limit any ownership entity from possessing more than 5 percent of all limited access groundfish permits in the fishery.

Currently, there are approximately 1,373 limited access permits operating in the fishery, so a 5 percent cap would limit any single ownership entity to owning approximately 69 permits.

“As of May 1, 2014, the most permits held by any entity is 55,” NOAA Fisheries said in the publication of the proposed rule. “Therefore, if approved, this alternative is unlikely to restrict any entity.”

The New England Fishery Management Council began work on the rule, also known as Amendment 18, in 2011.

“Subsequently, the stock status for many groundfish stocks declined and the associated annual catch limits were significantly reduced,” according to NOAA Fisheries’ summary of the proposed rule that was published Tuesday in the Federal Register. “As a result, some groundfish fishermen were concerned that implementing an accumulation limit could be problematic if it reduced flexibility and prevented them from obtaining additional quota necessary to maintain viable fishing operations.”

The fear, according to the NEFMC and NOAA Fisheries, is that the rebuilding of groundfish stocks — along with the associated increases in quota — may produce “further consolidation and decreased diversity if vessels are able to earn above-market rates of return and have an opportunity to acquire more permits.”

There are many, however within the fishing community who believe that improved stock assessments — based on improved science — would result in higher groundfish quotas that would have a much more positive impact on fleet diversity.

They also question the exact definition of “fleet diversity.”

“We don’t believe that that term was ever truly defined through the five years that they’ve been working on this amendment,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition. “We’re still not exactly sure what that means.”

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

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