Getting off the ground


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
June 20, 2010

One word could sum up New England's groundfish fisheries in recent years: disappointing.

Actually, lots of words could describe how fishermen and seafood distributors in the region feel about the status of Northeast cod, haddock and Atlantic pollock stocks — and, more pointedly, how they're managed — but few would be printable.

There have, however, been some developments to buoy spirits of late, if only a little. The main piece of good news is that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is considering a dramatic increase in the pollock quota, from the current limit of 6 million pounds to as high as 35 million pounds. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) urged NMFS to consider the limit's impact on fishermen.

An emergency change is in the works, Pingree said. Preliminary analysis of new stock reports shows that fishermen's continued reports of healthy pollock populations — contradictions of the official stance — weren't a tall tale.

"[NMFS] agreed to go back and look at the science and they are finding what many fishermen have known — the limits they had set on pollock were way too low and they should be increased," said Pingree.

The key here is not necessarily an increase in supplies of pollock, which doesn't command top dollar for fishermen and isn't a menu maker due either to its name or the drab color of its flesh. No, what this means is fishermen can hit the water with greater confidence and reduced fear that accidental catches of pollock won't put them out of work. The way the current structure is set up, once a pollock quota for a certain fishing sector is reached, fishing for all species would be shut down for the remainder of the season.

"I've talked to fishermen in Maine who say one good tow could use up their entire pollock quota and then they'd have to tie up for the rest of the year," added Pingree.

A lot of the boats that fish New England waters were hesitant to take such a chance and some sat out the bulk of May, took their mandatory 21-day stretch off the water and sat out, hoping for some help. It looks like it will arrive.

Additionally, the daily catch limit (or trip limit) for skate was upped this week. In fact, it's been more than doubled from 1,900 to 5,000 pounds per boat per day (albeit well below levels of the past). Once more, a review of more current scientific data allowed the move to happen.

Again, like pollock, skate is not always a target fish for boats, which are usually out for cod and haddock. It is, however, one less impediment for a fleet that's one of the most restricted anywhere. Some species of skate, once considered a trash fish best suited for bait, are tasty fish at a price that's historically been less than USD 2 a pound for skin-on wings.

What this all proves is that NMFS is adhering to the best and latest science, and isn't afraid of changing its rules mid-season, if that is in fact the best course of action for all stakeholders. These changes weren't made to appease fishermen or the seafood industry; they were just and necessary.

"We made a commitment to the fishing industry to be as flexible as possible when new science is made available that affects management decisions," said NMFS Northeast Regional Administrator Patricia Kurkul. "We hope these actions demonstrate that we are dedicated to rebuilding the resource and enabling fishermen to continue fishing."

New England fish supplies aren't what they once were, but signs point to a recovery and that overseers of the resource are amenable to change, if change is warranted. Responsible management, after all, is the foundation for a sustainable fishery.

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