Secretary of Commerce Proposes Even Stricter Groundfish Rules


Concerned about severe overfishing of key stocks in the waters off New England, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce on Tuesday stepped in to propose strict emergency measures to curtail overfishing this spring. The proposal supersedes measures enacted by the New England Fishery Management Council, the regional regulatory body that has struggled over the last year to meet a federal deadline for developing a sound plan to save the troubled fishery.

Fish stocks like cod, yellowtail flounder and other groundfish are in a state of decline in southern New England, Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine. The emergency measure is intended to protect 19 species of fish throughout the region.

This winter the council, which is charged with reducing overfishing, met repeatedly to develop a plan before a May 1 deadline for compliance with the Congressional mandate under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The council met in Portland last month and voted to reduce the average days at sea from 50 to 46, after accomplishing nothing at Hyannis meeting last November. Massachusetts fisheries managers imposed their own restrictions on the catching of cod, a prized fish and the Massachusetts state fish.

Tuesday's action by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez calls for reducing even further the number of days a year a fisherman can pursue cod. Under the proposed action, the average fisherman will be limited to 36 days. The limits will affect boats south of Martha's Vineyard, around Cape Cod to the Gulf of Maine and including Georges Bank.

The last time the secretary of commerce stepped in to control overfishing in this region was 12 years ago, when large areas of Georges Bank were closed. This is the first time the secretary has taken emergency action to protect groundfish in Vineyard waters.

The emergency measure includes additional restrictions specific to the Gulf of Maine where limited stocks of cod still reside. Recreational fishermen in those waters will face a new minimum size of 24 inches instead of 22.

" . . . If the secretary finds that an emergency or overfishing exists, or that interim measures are needed to reduce overfishing for any fishery, he may promulgate emergency measures to address overfishing," declared a report issued this week.

The report also states: "An analysis of groundfish stock status was conducted in 2005. Results indicated that fishing rates on seven stocks are higher than called for at this point in the plan's gradual rate reduction schedule. Measures announced today, in conjunction with the council's actions, are intended to get these rates down.

"To come into full compliance with the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, as amended by the Sustainable Fisheries Act, substantial reductions . . . are necessary for several of these stocks to reduce overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks."

Last August, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported a precipitous drop in cod in the waters of Georges Bank, with the lowest landings ever. Codfish stocks on the bank declined 23 per cent from 2001 to 2004. Yellowtail flounder in waters around southern New England were also in significant decline.

Fishermen have until March 9 to comment on the latest proposal. The new restrictions are expected to be adopted in April and be in place by the May 1 deadline.

The fisheries service has also issued a 195-page environmental assessment, explaining why the emergency action is being taken and its impact on fishermen. The report reflects the concerns of the scientific community about the state of the fisheries: analysts refer to a study on the detrimental impact fishing gear has had over time on habitat. "This study determined that repeated use of trawls/dredges reduce the bottom habitat complexity," the report states in part.

The report acknowledges that the emergency action will likely have a greater impact on the small fishing boat fleet in the region than on the larger boats.

David Pierce, a deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said one component of the plan may help fishermen acquire more days at sea but would undermine conservation measures. Mr. Pierce sits on the New England council and has actively been involved in refining regulations with an eye toward meeting the May 1 deadline.

Under the proposal fishermen will be able to lease days at sea from each other. Mr. Pierce said that a fisherman who is facing a significant drop in his days at sea can turn around and lease days at sea from others who do not plan to fish this year. "There are many days at sea out there that can be leased," Mr. Pierce said. He asked: "Does the days at sea leasing reduce the effectiveness of the measure? I don't think we will get the necessary reduction in fishing mortality."

The 112-page proposed rule from the secretary of commerce is available on the Internet at