After two months of studying a scientific report documenting a severe decline in key stocks of fish from Georges Bank to the Gulf of Maine, the New England Fishery Management Council this week was unable to agree on new measures to protect the resource from overfishing.
The council met for three days in Hyannis to hammer out changes in the management of fish stocks in the federal waters off New England. On Tuesday the discussion centered on ways to reduce the fishing effort on groundfish stocks like cod and yellowtail flounder. On Wednesday the council voted to adopt measures to protect Atlantic herring. The meeting was held in the grand ballroom of the Four Points Sheraton.
The 25-member council heard urgent requests for more restrictions from advisers and fishermen alike, but in the end could not agree on what steps to take. The council also admitted bluntly that it would be unable to comply with its own deadline of May 2006 for implementing regulations to ensure that the groundfish stocks they are charged with managing are on track for recovery.
"We cannot meet the deadline," declared council chairman Frank Blount.
On Tuesday, Mr. Blount received a letter from William T. Hogart, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Maryland, stating: " . . . if it is not possible for the council to have the necessary measures in place by May 1, 2006, NOAA fisheries Service may have to take Secretarial action to ensure that the fishery continues to operate at acceptable mortality levels."
Made up of federally appointed state and federal fishery officials, fishermen, industry spokesmen and environmentalists, the council is charged with writing management plans for commercial fish species that have been overfished.
More than one member of the council this week expressed frustration at the group's inability to move ahead.
"I feel we are off track," said Patricia Kurkul, a council member and regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, in the final hours of the meeting on Tuesday. "We are supposed to be taking action, not talking about rewriting Amendment 13."
Amendment 13 is a set of strict fishing measures that took effect last May and are intended to reduce overfishing and eventually bring back groundfish stocks.
The council did adopt a requirement that all commercial fishermen pursuing groundfish in New England must have a satellite black box on board so they can be tracked.
Last August the National Marine Fisheries Service released a report on the status of groundfish stocks on Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine. The report showed the results of management efforts from 2001 to 2004. The report found that cod stocks on Georges Bank had dropped 22.6 per cent, despite efforts to stop overfishing. The report also issued a mandate for the council to adopt more restrictive measures to prevent overfishing.
One fisheries expert told council members this week that in order to be in compliance with the mandate to end overfishing, they must reduce the fishing effort on cod in the Gulf of Maine by 38 per cent, on yellowtail flounder in southern New England by 55 per cent and on winter flounder (gray sole) in southern New England by nine per cent.
Thomas Nies, council fisheries analyst, said provisions already in place to protect Georges Bank cod are sufficient to bring about recovery. Though cod stocks on the bank have declined for the last three years, Mr. Nies said the cod fishing effort had been reduced by half since 2001. He predicted the recovery of cod on Georges Bank in the years ahead, with harvestable cod by the year 2008.
While much of the discussion focused on ways to reduce fishing effort in the Gulf of Maine, the discussion turned at times to the state of fish stocks on Georges Bank.
Council member John Pappalardo of Chatham rebuffed any suggestion that the state of cod has improved. He said if cod are being overfished in the Gulf of Maine, and he is not seeing any cod east and south of Chatham, something is awry. "There is no cod in the channel, none," Mr. Pappalardo said.
He noted that every year fisheries experts say with certainty that the cod are coming. "So they are saying we have the first year class, 2006. But you know we heard that before. We blew through the the 1992 year class," he said.
Mr. Pappalardo said the science used to analyze fish stocks is imprecise at best. "It is a coin toss," Mr. Pappalardo said. He called for a motion to require better science and hence better projections. Council members opposed the motion.
"I am sympathetic but we'd have to change all of our targets. This is a discussion we should really have for 2008. I can not support it but I understand it," said David Pierce, a council member and deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
Paul Parker, a hook and line commercial fisherman from Chatham, urged the council to be more certain about its projections, especially for stocks that are in a state of decline. "We haven't seen it this bad," Mr. Parker said, adding: "I am sure we don't have enough to bring them back and you are saying there are enough to bring them back. You aren't doing enough to bring them back. We are going to be back here in 2008 trying to divide the scraps."
Dave Marciano, a Gloucester fisherman, spoke out against the black box requirement. He said the cost of a black box is close to $1,000 and will hurt fishermen who are already struggling to survive.
Kevin Scola of Marshfield agreed. "You have done a good job at dissecting this industry," he said.
Council member Rip Cunningham, who is also chairman of the groundfish committee, said fisheries management is too complicated. "We need to look at simplifying the management regime," he said.
The fisheries council will hold its next meeting in January in Portland, Me.