PORTLAND — The groundfishing season started May 1, but Brian Pearce and his fishing boat, the Gretchen Marie, have yet to leave Portland Harbor.

He said new fishing regulations are to blame. With a quota of fish for the year that represents less than a month of full-time work, Pearce, of North Yarmouth, said he’s in no rush to use it up.

“I am in limbo right now,” he said.

Pearce is among hundreds of New England fishermen who are coping with sweeping changes prompted by new rules to protect groundfish from overfishing.

Starting May 1, most fishermen began fishing in cooperatives, called sectors, that are assigned portions of stiff new quotas for haddock, pollock, flounder and other groundfish. If a sector exceeds the limit on any one species, it must stop fishing for all types of fish.

After just two weeks with the system, fishermen say the new software they must use to file their reports isn’t working. Fish exchanges are reporting a sharp decline in landings, and sector managers say they are encountering confusion.

The regulators tell a different story. The Northeast Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service says it’s too early to see any trends, but preliminary information indicates no major problems.

“We feel things are generally going pretty smoothly,” said Maggie Mooney-Seus, spokeswoman for the regional office.

In the first week of May, the number of fishing trips dropped, from 342 last year to 297 this year, according to the fisheries service. At the same time, a survey of fish auctions indicated that landings increased 5 percent.

But some fish auctions are reporting a major decrease in the catch. Landings at the Portland Fish Exchange have dropped from 150,000 pounds of groundfish per week in 2009 to 6,500 pounds in the past two weeks.

The Gloucester Seafood Display Auction in Massachusetts reported landings from boats that take day trips have dropped 80 percent, from 150,000 pounds a week last year to about 30,000 pounds.

“It is pretty devastating to the small-boat fleet,” said Larry Ciulla, owner of Gloucester Seafood.

Ironically, the drop in landings has driven up the price of fish — making it a good time for fishermen to head out, said Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange.

But some fishermen say they are afraid to go out and reach their quotas on several species, such as pollock, which have been set so low that fishermen will quickly be forced to stop all fishing.

Those concerns were the focus of a meeting between 13 members of New England’s congressional delegation and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on Wednesday. Delegation members asked for emergency quota increases, but the agency has announced no changes.

Fishermen who are going out say they are plagued by glitches in the software they use to file their reports with regulators.

Cindy Smith, manager of the Port Clyde sector, which has about 30 fishermen, said only two fishermen have gone out since May 1. One had to return to port because his vessel monitoring system wasn’t working. The second called her at 4:30 a.m. Thursday because he couldn’t get the monitoring system to confirm receipt of his pre-trip report, clearing him to leave.

“The guys are completely confused,” Smith said.

Hired two days before the new system took effect, Smith said she has been scrambling to keep fishermen educated about the facts because there is a lot of misinformation.

Rob Odlin of Scarborough opted not to join a sector. He is now competing with other non-sector fishermen in a pool that has been allotted a small percentage of the quota. That means Odlin is limited to 91,200 pounds of groundfish, compared with the 300,000 pounds he caught last year.

He has gone out groundfishing once since April 11, and made enough to cover his expenses with a little profit. He is planning another trip Sunday, but said, “I am going broke.”

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]