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N.E. fishing officials set new ground rules

Plan encourages fleet to form cooperatives

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009
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New England fishing officials, hoping to revive the region’s imperiled cod and flounder populations and its distressed fishing industry, yesterday overhauled the way many fishermen will do their jobs.

The new system probably will replace a complex scheme that regulates fishermen’s catch through strict limits on how many fish they can bring to port and how many days they are allowed to venture out to sea - a number that has dwindled to 20 days a year for many fishermen.

Instead, groups of fishermen would be able to form cooperatives that would be allotted a total amount of fish to catch each year. Then fishermen in each cooperative, or “sector,’’ would work out among themselves how to divvy up this quota.

The idea is to give fishermen more flexibility, allowing them to avoid dangerous weather and end the practice of throwing dead fish overboard if they catch more than permitted. There are already two sectors operating on Cape Cod, and the new rules, set to take effect next May, would create 17 more in New England for sea captains who go after cod, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling species.

“It’s a real step in the right direction,’’ said Patricia Kurkul, regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service. “I see sustainable fisheries and fishermen in a better position to make business decisions without the restrictions’’ they are now under.

The effort, of which many fishermen remain skeptical, is the nation’s most ambitious attempt to reign in overfishing by giving groups of fishermen more of a stake in the health of fish stocks. And while voluntary, the program could push most of the region’s estimated 600 operating boats into cooperatives. Yesterday, on the last day of a three-day meeting in Portland, Maine, the New England Fishery Management Council halved the number of days fishermen who choose not to join cooperatives can go to sea.

“We are being forced into sectors,’’ said Joe Orlando, a Gloucester fish captain for 35 years. He said he is joining a sector because staying out of one means being even more restricted. “There is not enough fish to go around, and a lot of people are going to [leave the business]. We don’t want this.’’

Other concerns were raised at the meeting, including how closely fishermen would be monitored to prevent cheating, and what previous year’s catches would serve as the baseline for commercial and recreational fishing quotas. One of the most contentious items was deciding whether nonsector fishermen would get a collective catch quota, which would mean that they would have to stop fishing for the rest of the year if the total number of fish caught exceeds the allowed catch. The council, in a 9-8 vote, decided to start these hard quotas in three years.

The waters off New England were once so thick with cod that colonial fishermen bragged that they could lower a basket into the water and pull it up full of fish. But generations of heavy fishing and boats that have gotten increasingly efficient at finding fish have resulted in too many boats chasing too few fish.

To solve the problem, fishing managers over the last 20 years have placed a web of restrictions on fishermen, centered on how many days they can fish. Yet while some fish populations are doing better, most have not been restored to levels that scientists say will sustain fishing long term, and that the law requires. Today only red fish and haddock are in robust shape, and 12 species off New England are considered overfished.

“The twofold challenge fishing managers have never been able to meet is figuring out how many fish are actually being killed and then controlling the catch,’’ said Peter Shelley, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group based in Boston.

NOAA has set aside $16.7 million this year to help the New England fleet make the transition to a sector system. An estimated $18 million is requested in next year’s budget, in part to develop monitoring systems and document catches. Yet Shelley and other supporters of the sector plan say the fishing industry will eventually have to pay for its own management.

Some opponents of the sector plan said it involves dividing up a public resource and privatizing it. That, they said, will keep out new fishermen.

“The ocean resource belongs to everyone,’’ said Angela Sanfilippo of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association. “This is an ownership issue.’’

Supporters say that the cooperatives will not own fish populations, and that their yearly quotas can change.

“Done correctly, this is the last best chance we have to have a viable New England fishery and rebuild the stocks,’’ said Peter Baker, director of the Pew Environment Group’s End Overfishing in New England campaign, which has pushed hard for the cooperatives.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

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