The Northeast Seafood Coalition has submitted public comments for the proposed rules for the Northeast Fishery Management Plan that reiterate its lack of confidence in NOAA’s current system of scientific assessments for groundfish.

The comments from the Gloucester-based NSC, submitted to NOAA Fisheries before Tuesday’s deadline, question the reported status of the witch flounder stock and sets the fishing advocacy group in opposition to the proposed allowable biological catch limit of 460 metric tons for the 2016 fishing season.

“NSC expressed concern with the reported status of witch flounder during the public process,” the coalition said in its comments, which also reference the group’s “expressed concern that catch rates within the fishery are completely inconsistent with the reported stock status from the assessment.”

That concern with the methodology and accuracy of the stock assessments by the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a familiar refrain throughout the NSC comments.

“NSC has been an active participant over the years in the scientific assessments for groundfish stocks,” it said in its comments. “Direct engagement in the process, however, has made NSC leadership grow more leery of groundfish assessments.”

It pointed out that catch limits proposed in the new rule, referred to as Framework 55, are based on the results of last fall’s operational assessment update for all groundfish stocks that is fraught with “significant swings” in reported stock conditions — particularly for Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic yellowtail flounder and Georges Bank winter flounder, which are looking at catch reductions of 62 percent and 67 percent respectively for 2016.

It said the declines in 2016 catch limits for other stocks are also devastating, pointing to the proposed annual catch limit (ACL) cuts of 62 percent cut for Georges Bank cod, 53 percent for Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder, 41 percent for witch flounder and 22 percent for Cape Cod/Gulf of Maine yellowtail flounder.

“Those that have remained fishing for groundfish and trying to survive the steep ACL reductions that started in 2012 are experiencing a much healthier multi-species complex with higher levels of abundance than is being reported in the assessments,” the NSC commented.

It also pointed out that the region’s groundfishermen are spending more time running away from groundfish stocks than trying to harvest them due to the low ACLs.

“This is a profound and historic predicament for this fishery,” the NSC said, adding that it finds it “alarming that the conflicts that exist between the reported status generated by the stock assessments and fishery catchability is not being adequately addressed nor is it being taken as seriously as it merits.”

The coalition also said it continues to oppose industry-funded at-sea monitoring, but fully supports the suite of adjustments approved by the New England Fishery Management Council that will employ a wider scope of data and ultimately reduce overall groundfish vessel coverage rates from the current 24 percent to about 14 percent.

It also supports the monitoring exemption in the proposed rule for extra large where data has proven minimal-to-no groundfish bycatch has been encountered — as long as it doesn’t “inadvertently increase the coverage rate requirements for other groundfish trips.”

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

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