Feds tighten cod fishing rules in face of new evidence

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 10, 2014….Responding to scientific evidence of a “historically low” cod population in the Gulf of Maine, federal fishing regulators on Monday announced rolling closures, through May, of areas where cod are known to congregate and spawn.

The emergency action by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to stop the overfishing of cod comes as the industry struggles to operate within reduced catch limits on groundfish.

Regulators said cod stock is only 3 percent to 4 percent of levels necessary for the population to be sustained, its lowest point in the 40 years that cod populations have been monitored.

Alleviating some of the hurt for commercial fishermen was the simultaneous announcement that catch limits on haddock in the Gulf of Maine would be doubled to 1.3 million pounds as the population has rebounded since 2012.

Regulators say they hope to avoid a cod stock collapse and complete fishery closure.

“All I can say is our charge in this action is protect cod and the actions of closing areas are based on where cod hang out. If it’s not fair, it’s because it’s designed to protect areas where the cod hang out based on information provided by fishermen themselves,” said John Bullard, Greater Atlantic regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The new rules, which will be published in the federal register Thursday and be in place until at least the start of the new fishing year on May 1, also prohibit all recreational cod fishing, and limit how much cod can be caught in open, unmanaged waters to 200 pounds per trip.

“The emergency and interim measures announced today by NOAA Fisheries will be severely damaging to a ground fishery that is already struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. That ground fishery certainly depends on healthy cod stocks, but it also depends on New England’s fishing families and fishing infrastructure, particularly the inshore fleet, being able to carry on against the overwhelming threats posed by the measures released today,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, of Gloucester, said in a statement.

State officials have frequently questioned the science relied on by NOAA to draft its catch limits, and Tarr called for a “collaborative research effort” to determine the “actual condition” of the cod stock with input from fisherman.

Tarr also called for measures to protect the region’s shore-side fishing facilities, and financial assistance for fishermen.

Vessels that fish for groundfish in the Gulf of Maine will be prohibited from fishing in any other management areas on the same trip to better account for cod caught in the gulf.

Matt Mullin, northeast regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the EDF supported the time and area closures to cod fishing, but questioned the catch limits.

“Avoiding cod is absolutely necessary right now, it’s just how you achieve that outcome is what’s in question,” Mullin said, calling for catch monitoring technology to be installed on every vessel to better account for what’s being pulled from the ocean.

Mullin said catch limits put fishermen in difficult positions of having to throw back fish that might exceed established quotas. “Any pound over 200 they’re going to be forced to throw back. Why force the fishermen to throw dead fish overboard when the resilience of the stock is so threatened?” Mullin said.

Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, of Gloucester, said the fishermen she represents are frustrated that NOAA and federal fishing regulators continue to change the rules. She said they don’t listen to the suggestions of fishermen who share their goal of protecting the stocks and have proposed alternatives to limit daily catches and protect spawning grounds.

“This is basically death by a thousand cuts. They might as well just come out and say their closing the fishery,” Ferrante said. “It’s about time that management start listening to the folks that have been out there every day. They have common goals. No fisherman wants to catch the last fish.”

Ferrante said she hoped Governor-elect Charlie Baker, who promised on the campaign trail to be an advocate for the fishing industry, would lead a multi-state effort to work with federal regulators and fishermen to devise a system under which both fish and fishermen can thrive.

Ferrante also suggested that groundfish stocks may be healthier than the government believes, but Mullin said, “Improving the science is an effort that’s worthwhile, but I think to question or undermine the science is offering false hope.”

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