The new fishing year begins in May and federal regulators are seeking public comments for proposed catch limits for the region’s groundfish industry. The proposed regulations, particularly for Georges Bank cod, have southern New England fishermen worried.
The proposed rules include catch quotas for 20 groundfish species, including cod, haddock, and flounder. Jennifer Goebel, public affairs officer for the regional office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said quotas are based on stock assessments.
“This year the stock assessment for the Gulf of Maine cod showed a slight increase and so we were able to make some increases on that,” she said.
But the cod from Georges Bank, a popular fishing spot for Rhode Island fishermen, is severely depleted. Goebel said regulators are proposing a 62 percent cut from what fishermen were able to catch last year.
“And when you couple that with cuts from previous years, we are talking about a great deal of trouble for the industry,” said Goebel. “The catch limits have gone down by more than 90 percent in the last couple of years.”
Goebel said fishermen still have a good amount of haddock, redfish and pollock to catch. The challenge will be to avoid catching depleted stocks of the Georges Bank cod while they’re out fishing.
“Obviously the industry sees one thing and the agency sees something different,” said Fred Mattera, vice president of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation. He said fishermen don’t disagree they need to rebuild stocks and prevent overfishing, but they take issue with how fish are counted.
“And that’s what’s difficult because it’s causing tremendous economic hardship,” said Mattera. “But we continue to work towards improving the science, improving the stock assessments.”
The reduced catch quotas will also have an impact on consumers, adds Daniel Salerno, who oversees the state’s groundfish sector.
“There’s going to be less locally caught product available,” said Salerno. “Now we’re probably going to see more imported products or alternative products, maybe farm-raised or what have you.”
Salerno said it’ll have a ripple effect in the local economy, too. Fewer fishermen at sea means fewer jobs and less fuel to buy. But he thinks Rhode Island fishermen will be able to withstand fishing cuts in the iconic cod by fishing other species.
The proposed fishing regulations also include revisions to an at-sea monitoring program required of the groundfish industry. NOAA is proposing to reduce monitoring levels at sea from 24 percent to 14 percent.
Fishermen will soon have to pay for at-sea monitors, who collect data on catch, bycatch and fish thrown back to sea. Goebel said regulators will still be able to get the information they need with the adjustments they've made.
But advocates from the environmental group Oceana disagree, calling the proposed reduction bad for the future of the groundfish fishery.