PORTLAND, Maine—A year after adopting a radical new system for regulating New England fisheries, federal officials announced Monday they're increasing limits on 12 out of 20 groundfish stocks when the new season begins May 1.
Higher catch limits will be a relief for fishermen who saw across-the-board restrictions on all species last year, when fishermen were first allowed to join "sectors" with specific allotments. This year, the number of fishermen participating in sector management has grown 10 percent.
For the new season, bigger catch limits for 11 stocks including Georges Bank cod (20 percent) and Gulf of Maine cod (6 percent) follow some success in ongoing efforts to rebuild stocks, federal regulators said. Higher limits on the 12th, Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, were negotiated with Canada.
Eric Schwaab, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said preliminary information from the first year of sector management is encouraging.
"However even with the higher catch limits in this new fishing year we understand these are still difficult times for many in the industry," he said.
The new sector management system has received mixed reviews, with some fishermen praising the system while others criticize the rules as overly complex.
This year, about half of New England's commercial fishermen will use the sector system, while the remainder will face restrictions on the number of days at sea.
Hank Soule, manager of the Sustainable Harvest Sector off the Maine coast, said the new system seems to be advancing the stated goals of conservation, while focusing attention on underutilized fish species and giving fishermen the flexibility to trade their allocations.
But David Osier, a South Bristol-based owner of five fishing boats, said the rules of his sector add another layer of complexity upon fishermen besieged by constantly changing rules and regulations.
"Now you've got to call an observer before you start a trip. You've got to log in with your computer and send daily trip reports back to the sector manager. You have to let them know when you're coming in, so they can send in a dockside monitor to watch you unload," he said. "It's taking the fun out of it."
For the new season, the National Marine Fisheries approved two new fishing sectors for Maine, bringing the total number of sector management plans to 19. It also delayed for two years the requirement for the fishing industry to cover the costs of dockside monitoring in those sector management areas.
The agency also approved 16 requests giving sector fishermen more flexibility to use different types of fishing gear and to fish in areas where days-at-sea vessels are restricted, as well as approving four state-specific bank sectors that allow small-scale fishermen to acquire higher fishing allocations.
All of those changes come too late for Craig Pendleton of Saco. A year ago, he sold his boat and got out of the fishing business after spending 40 years on the water.
"It killed me to get out. I'd been fishing since I was 9 years old. I'd put my entire career into it, but it got to the point where the rules were beyond frustrating, they were making me angry," Pendleton said Monday. "I stayed in as long as I could."