Small-mesh commercial fishermen in the whiting and other fisheries may be eligible to receive — at no cost — new net technology that has shown promise in significantly reducing bycatch of yellowtail, winter and windowpane flounder.

The project, organized by the Long Island-based Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program and funded by NOAA Fisheries, will provide 25 approved fishermen with vouchers that would cover the full $800 cost of a bycatch reduction technology called a large mesh belly panel.

"It's a concept first tested in 2004 to assist fishermen with concerns and issues to do with bycatch," said Tara McClintock, a Cornell Cooperative Extension fishery specialist. "We wanted to expand on that work in the small-mesh multispecies fishery."

McClintock said the panels, which are made of 80-centimeter mesh with 6-millimeter poly-webbing, can be inserted into traditional four-seam, bottom-trawl nets. They replace the original net's first bottom belly to create larger openings to mitigate bycatch.

She said CCE has performed multiple studies on the innovative net gear aboard industry vessels since 2010, with consistently positive results.

The first study, focused on reducing winter flounder bycatch in the small mesh fisheries of southern New England, cut the winter flounder bycatch by 87.9% "with no significant reduction in the target species."

With the assistance of funding by the New England Fishery Management Council, it also experimented with the panels to reduce windowpane flounder bycatch in the small-mesh scup fishery. That resulted in a 48% reduction of windowpane bycatch, again without significant reduction in the scup catch.

The third experiment, conducted in two phases in 2015 and funded by NOAA Fisheries, focused on reducing yellowtail flounder bycatch. The first phase, conducted on southeast Georges Bank resulted in a 72.3% reduction of Georges Bank yellowtail flounder bycatch and a 50.9% reduction in Northern windowpane flounder bycatch.

The second phase, conducted on the Cultivator Shoals and again funded by NOAA Fisheries, resulted in an 80.7% decline in yellowtail flounder catch and a 59.3% reduction in windowpane flounder bycatch. All without significant reduction in the targeted species.

McClintock said NOAA Fisheries has published a proposed rule that, if it receives final approval, could allow the use of the large mesh belly panel gear even if accountability measures are triggered in small mesh fisheries that exceed bycatch limits.

CCE is working with two gear suppliers — Superior Trawl in Point Judith, Rhode Island, and Reidar's Manufacturing in New Bedford — to retrofit the belly panels into existing small mesh nets. Other partnering gear suppliers and net builders also will be considered on the basis of expedience and convenience, McClintock said.

"If they want it installed in an existing net, they would need to bring it to the net builders," she said. "The gear can also be provided as a kit if they want to install the belly panel themselves."

To apply for a voucher, qualified small mesh fishermen with valid federal permits can contact McClintock at taf4@cornell.edu or at 631-740-6486 to fill out an application with vessel and contact information. CCE also requests that participating fishermen complete monthly surveys by email or phone to document the gear's performance.

The vouchers will be given out on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"There's no hard deadline, but we'd really like everybody to have them by the end of April in time for the new fishing season," McClintock said.

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

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