PORTLAND — More than 100 fishermen turned out for a public hearing at the Holiday Inn by the Bay on Monday night to express opposition to a proposed federal rule that would reduce quotas on Atlantic bluefin tuna catches.

Fishermen and a representative for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, argued that the rule would penalize fishermen by automatically subtracting 160 tons from what they will be allowed to catch along the Eastern Seaboard in 2011.

That amount is an attempt by regulators to account for the bluefin tuna that are caught inadvertently by other fishermen, especially longliners. Those fish must be thrown overboard and left to die in the ocean.

With a cap of 858 tons this year, “this fishery is headed for a train wreck,” said Chris Weiner, of Ogunquit, who hunts bluefin tuna with a harpoon off Perkins Cove. “You see a lot of scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service trying to paint a bleak picture, but everyone knows there is a lot of bluefin tuna out there.”

Globally, bluefin tuna have been heavily overfished. The fish are highly prized, especially in Japan, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the market. One fish can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.

Margo Schulze-Haugen, spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said a final public hearing will be held tonight in Fairhaven, Mass., before the period for public comment closes Thursday.

Schulze-Haugen said the rule change is expected to take effect June 14.

Snowe’s representative, Portland City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, read a statement from the senator describing the proposed rule as “overly cautious.”

“This is a challenging economic climate for Maine’s tuna fishermen with the skyrocketing costs of diesel, uncertainty surrounding international markets given the nuclear disaster in Japan, and finally an implausible petition to actually list the bluefin tuna on the endangered species list,” Snowe said in the statement.

Snowe, who serves on the Senate’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee, called the rule change unfair.

She urged the fisheries service to adopt allocation quotas that would maximize, not reduce, the bluefin tuna fishery. “Simply reducing the catch does little to help our tuna fishermen now or in the future,” she said.

Robert Fitzpatrick, a Maine tuna dealer, asked for a show of hands from anyone who supported the rule change. Only three people, out of more than 100, raised their hands.

Richard Ruals, director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, asked the audience what will happen this summer to New England’s bluefin tuna charter fishing boats if the quota is met.

“Suppose we have to shut down in August. All these boats will have to be tied to the docks,” Ruals said.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]