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New NOAA limits on fishing pared, but will sting

$17m revenue loss foreseen for region

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / April 7, 2009
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The new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued restrictions yesterday on New England fishermen that are expected to cut the region's fishing revenue by $17.4 million.

The decision was a compromise that took into account the ongoing economic crisis. NOAA had first proposed rules that would have meant a 20 percent cut in revenue, but lowered it to a 9 percent reduction.

The hope, said new NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco, was to ease the financial burden on fishermen while allowing fishery officials to focus on restructuring by next year the way many fishermen work.

"[It's] a good compromise and she listened to fishermen to do something a little less Draconian," said Jim Odlin, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council who fished for 25 years.

"Still, it's a pretty severe cut," he said.

Environmentalists applauded the new rules, which will include a reduction in the number of days fishermen can fish by around 18 percent, and place tighter restrictions on keeping Southern New England winter flounder, and Northern windowpane flounder and ocean pout. Fishermen in southern New England will be particularly affected because they will lose two allocated fishing days for every day they fish in an expanded area below Cape Cod.

But there was also good news for the fishing industry: NOAA fisheries will allow fishermen to go after healthy haddock populations more aggressively, lengthening the haddock fishing season from three to nine months in one area and allowing fishermen to catch smaller fish. The federal government also decided not to expand certain restrictions in the Gulf of Maine.

Still, Lubchenco said the cuts would be painful, and NOAA officials are now examining their budget for ways to help fishermen financially.

If populations of New England's fabled cod, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling fish known as groundfish were rebuilt, she said, fishermen could harvest three times the amount being fished now.

"We are in this difficult point today because of a collective failure to end overfishing in New England," Lubchenco said during a telephone press conference yesterday. It was her first major decision since taking over NOAA in mid-March.

Almost two decades of fishing restrictions on New England fishermen have resulted in many fishing stocks beginning to bounce back, but some not fast enough to meet federal rebuilding deadlines. Twelve stocks of 19 groundfish stocks are considered overfished, according to NOAA fisheries.

The New England Fishery Management Council, which helps set fishing rules in the region, is working on a new way of managing fisheries by giving groups of fishermen a yearly fishing quota, but allowing them to figure out among themselves how much they each catch. Two such voluntary "sectors" exist on the Cape today, and the council is working to expand it to 17 new groups in New England.

Today, the council uses a suite of indirect methods - such as limiting how many days fishermen can fish, and placing swaths of the sea off limits - to conserve fish.

But such efforts have not been enough to end overfishing.

Lubchenco called the new rules a bridge to a new way of managing fisheries next year, and environmentalists agreed.

"The ball is back in the council's court," said Peter Shelley, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation. He said NOAA gave the council some "breathing room" to solve New England's overfishing by developing sectors.

Under the new rule, revenue from the average groundfish trip would be reduced about 16 percent in Massachusetts, according to NOAA fisheries.

The Northeast Seafood Coalition called that an enormous burden on fishermen.

US Representative Barney Frank said the rule is a step in the right direction, but added: "I remain concerned that there continue to be areas where two fishing days are counted as one. This poses a threat to fishermen's safety as smaller vessels may look for fishing opportunities further out to sea."

Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com