A scientific meeting Friday in Boston to recommend 2013 catch limits of depleted Georges Bank yellowtail flounder heard a surprise, impassioned plea from New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell not to cut the catch. Reading from a letter co-written the day before with Mayor Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester, Mitchell said, “If implemented the forecasted cuts would deal a crippling blow to the groundfish and scallop industries and eliminate hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs.”
The flounder, a valuable fish on its own, is also a major by-catch in the scallop industry that has made New Bedford the richest port in the United States. A curtailment of yellowtail fishing could force dramatic scalloping shut-downs, and when the New England Fisheries Management Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration earlier this month announced possible severe cuts, the Massachusetts congressional delegation called for disaster relief for fishermen.
Friday, after the council’s statistical and scientific committee presented assessment data at the Seaport Hotel showing that the biomass of yellowtail flounder remains low after a crash in 1995, Mitchell contended that the science remains too uncertain to potentially “wreak havoc on traditional fishing communities.” He added that the calls for disaster relief is “not the immediate answer. They’re more like reparations, more akin to telling someone whose house is on fire, ‘Here’s some more insurance,’ instead of giving them a hose to put out the fire itself.”
The scientists themselves struggled mightily with an almost impossible task. This year’s yellowtail catch limit is 1,150 metric tons. The current science suggested that a cut down to 200 metric tons would create a low probability of overfishing, and a strong chance for the stock to increase. A catch of 400 to 500 metric tons had a higher risk of overfishing but still a chance for some stock rebuilding. But with remaining uncertainties in the data, the committee agreed to allow by-catch, as long as the total yellowtail flounder catch does not exceed the 2012’. That could result in status quo.
The possibility of status quo left Jud Crawford, science policy manager for the Pew Environment Group’s Northeast Fisheries Program, concerned that politics crept too much into a science proceeding. “The mayor was well intentioned, but his words were directed at the wrong people. We need to know what the science is, but the discussion ventured too far outside science. Everyone is sympathetic to fishermen but it is a huge mistake to talk here about management decisions and socioeconomics. It threatens to corrupt the process.”
John Bullard, the new regional administrator for NOAA who is himself a former mayor New Bedford, said, “I was in Scituate last night listening to 75 fishermen saying they’re not sure if they can last another six weeks. The were very easy to understand and very hard to hear. This meeting, it’s very difficult for people to understand the science. It’s two different worlds.”
The coming weeks will tell if Bullard can help bring those two worlds any closer together.