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Fishing industry said to be on rebound

Catch quota key, says US regulator

From left, speakers representing various New England fishery organizations and councils at yesterday’s congressional hearing on Beacon Hill, were: Stephen P. Welch, Paul Diodati, Colin McAllister Cunningham, Jr., and Dr. Steve Cadrin. From left, speakers representing various New England fishery organizations and councils at yesterday’s congressional hearing on Beacon Hill, were: Stephen P. Welch, Paul Diodati, Colin McAllister Cunningham, Jr., and Dr. Steve Cadrin. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 4, 2011

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A year after strict federal rules took effect to limit the catch of local fishermen, the nation’s top fisheries regulator testified at a congressional hearing on Beacon Hill yesterday that fish stocks are rebounding after years of decline and that the economically depressed fishing industry is showing signs of a comeback.

But local members of Congress who attended the hearing blamed the regulations for increasing the hardships of Massachusetts fishermen and urged the federal government to modify the requirements and do more to help those who can no longer afford to go to sea.

In her testimony, Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator, said: “Glimmers of hope are now finally emerging in the fishery after decades of problems. I believe we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a very long tunnel.’’

As signs of progress in an industry that supports some 77,000 jobs in Massachusetts, Lubchenco told the packed State House hearing that last year fishermen fished within the requirements of 18 of the 20 stocks with catch limits. She said because of years of effort to replenish the region’s fish, catch levels this year increased for 12 of 20 groundfish, bottom-dwelling fish such as cod and flounder.

She said new policies have enabled local fishermen “to fish smarter by more effectively avoiding weaker stocks and by capturing a higher percentage of the allowable catch.’’

Lubchenco also said they are catching higher-value fish and throwing less of their catch overboard, citing as an example Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, 9 percent of which were discarded in 2010, compared with 31 percent in 2009.

“Adhering to catch limits and reducing discards will hasten rebuilding, yielding increased quotas more quickly,’’ she said.

Under the new system, most fishermen are divided into groups called sectors, which are given a share of the annual quota of bottom-dwelling fish. That quota is then divided among the fishermen.

The rules were approved by the New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service to help fishermen cope with years of cuts in fish catches, intended to blunt the damage of overfishing.

Previous policies had attempted to control overfishing by limiting the number of days fishermen could cast their nets. The sector approach was meant to give fishing communities more flexibility, allowing, for example, fishermen to lease their allotments to others while stocks recovered enough for them to afford to go to sea.

Lubchenco cited successes such as a group of small boat fisherman in Rhode Island marketing their catch directly to restaurants. She said New England fishermen earned 16 percent more per pound of groundfish this year than last year; those in Portland, Maine, earned 25 percent more in revenues; and those in New Bedford saw their revenue increase by more than 20 percent.

“These initial numbers are encouraging,’’ she said.

But US Representative Barney Frank accused Lubchenco of selectively choosing data to make the new policies appear less damaging.

“Your testimony cherry-picks what’s good and leaves out what’s not,’’ he said, pointing out the fishing industry’s overall revenue had actually fallen this fishing year by 2 percent.

He described NOAA as hostile to the region’s fishermen, comparing her administration of the agency to how the US Drug Enforcement Administration treats drug dealers.

“It’s an adversarial relationship,’’ which has created a lack of trust between fishermen and the agency, he said.

US Senator John F. Kerry - a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee who called the hearing - said he was concerned about the increasing concentration of groundfish gross revenues among the top-earning vessels. He said that last year 80 percent of the gross revenues resulted from only 20 percent of active boats.

“This clearly threatens the future of small-boat fishing in Massachusetts, which has been a way of life for generations of families,’’ Kerry said. “I want you to know that their way of life will not end on my watch.’’

He urged Lubchenco to declare the region’s fishing industry an economic disaster to allow for federal support of local fishermen.

But she pointed out that a disaster proclamation would not automatically trigger financial assistance. She said the agency is waiting for Governor Deval Patrick to provide a detailed request for assistance, based on specific regions that need support.

US Senator Scott Brown accused the agency of overzealous enforcement that “has decimated the industry,’’ and US Representative John F. Tierney said there was a “lack of transparency.’’

Tierney asked Lubchenco about alleged abuses of power in the agency that led the US Department of Commerce to return more than $600,000 in what had been deemed unnecessary fines to local fishermen. He asked whether anyone had been punished.

She said she could not answer the question because of privacy laws.

But she did say, “I can tell you the people involved have been held accountable, and we have dealt with them.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.