Fishermen face 80 percent cut on yellowtail quota
BOSTON—An 80 percent cut to the catch of yellowtail flounder in prime New England fishing grounds is set to deal a vicious blow to a fishing industry already edging toward ruin.
The cut on yellowtail in Georges Bank, combined with major problems with other species, left regional fishery managers pondering Thursday whether to ask the U.S. commerce secretary to declare a federal disaster for the fishery, although they took no immediate action.
The Georges Bank fishing grounds, located to the east and southeast of Cape Cod, are frequented by larger, offshore vessels with the greater range to reach it. Last year, U.S. groundfish fishermen on Georges Bank were allotted about 1,140 metric tons of yellowtail. This year, they're getting about 218 metric tons, effective May 1.
The cut comes after the most recent research showed diminishing numbers of yellowtail and the U.S. saw its portion of the stock, which it shares with Canada, shrink to its lowest level.
Yellowtail are not among the region's most valuable fish. But the low catch limits on them prevent fishermen from chasing the more valuable or abundant fish they swim among.
New Bedford fisherman Carlos Rafael said it's a devastating cut that will keep him away from abundant winter flounder stocks.
Rafael, who owns three dozen boats that target bottom-dwelling groundfish, said his operation is large enough to keep going, even though he says he'll like have to shut down 20 of his boats. But smaller operations? "No way in hell they will survive," he said.
Vito Giacalone, a fisherman and policy analyst with the Northeast Seafood Coalition, a Gloucester-based industry group, said the New England industry could lose 30 million pounds of fish this year, which accounts for more than half the value of the fishery.
The coming yellowtail cut got a bit lost amid a series of other problems and crises, Giacalone said.
For instance, cuts in the catch of cod in Gulf of Maine -- 22 percent this year, with a far larger cut pending next year -- are threatening to wipe out the industry from Provincetown to Maine. Also, some fishermen in the Gulf of Maine are being shut out of key fishing grounds for two months, starting in October, to protect harbor porpoises.
"Things are falling apart all around us on the regulatory level," Giacalone said.
On Thursday, members of the New England Fishery Management Council considered asking U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson to determine whether a disaster declaration was warranted, before deciding on further internal discussions.
The council did vote Thursday to form a group that will focus on the yellowtail problem, including studying modifications to the sharing agreement with Canada.
As recently as 2004, the U.S. share of the yellowtail in Georges Bank was 76 percent.
Tom Nies, an analyst for the council, said the division of the stock was once based more heavily on how much each country caught there. Now, he said, it's based largely on the percentage of yellowtail that scientific survey vessels find actually swimming in each country's section of Georges Bank.
That's led the U.S. percentage to fall to just 49 percent this year.
Combine that with research showing lower numbers of yellowtail, and the subsequent cuts to protect the population, and you have the massive May 1 cut.
Rafael said while the cuts directly affect yellowtail in George Bank, other regions will feel it because larger boats like his will divert their fishing to other areas to avoid yellowtail.
Jackie Odell, of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said the scope of the yellowtail cut will prove "unbelievably profound" in an industry already struggling to avoid collapse.
"We're always in kind of crisis mode," she said. "But this is everything coming at the industry at once."