WASHINGTON – The few fishermen who still ply New England’s waters for cod, haddock and other groundfish are bracing for a double dose of bad news this week.
The first arrived Monday when, as anticipated, the U.S. Senate approved a $60 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill that contained no federal aid for the northeastern groundfishery or several other fisheries that face “economic disasters.”
The second wave could arrive Wednesday or Thursday if federal regulators, as expected, slash already reduced catch limits by another 70 percent to 80 percent to protect fish populations that scientists now say are much smaller than previously thought.
The prospect is fanning tension between fishermen, scientists and regulators who are struggling to rebuild fisheries that are central to New England’s history and economy.
“In the short term, fishing communities will suffer from the reductions,” said Maggie Raymond, executive director of Associated Fishermen of Maine, a trade association of 25 active fishing vessels plus supporting industries. “If the collective goal is to rebuild stocks … then if we don’t start looking at the causes of the problem, we are not going to find a solution.”
As recently as 1990, an estimated 350 Maine-based vessels, supporting thousands of offshore and onshore jobs, spent at least part of their time hunting groundfish.
Those vessels hauled in more than 15 million pounds of Atlantic cod alone that year, and millions more pounds of other bottom-dwelling species, according to statistics from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Cod and other fish species then plummeted, due in no small part to overfishing. The result was ever-tightening catch limits.
By 2011, the 40 to 45 vessels remaining in Maine hauled in just 750,000 pounds of cod. The 5 million total pounds of groundfish landed in Maine that year were valued at roughly $5.7 million, compared with a lobster catch valued at $334.6 million.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce designated the northeastern groundfishery an “economic disaster,” opening the door for emergency federal funds to help support the industry, research programs or management practices.
But Congress has yet to appropriate the money. And any hope of securing funds through the Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill died in the House after budget hawks stripped unrelated disaster programs from the bill, which passed in the Senate on Monday.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers from New England and Alaska — another state with a certified fishery disaster — vowed to return with another request or pursue other options. The process could take weeks or months.
“It’s one thing to get a disaster declaration on paper. It is another thing to be able to provide the relief,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “And I certainly intend to push until that relief is provided, not only for the families in Alaska, but for those that have been impacted by fisheries disasters throughout the country.”
Fishermen are bracing for much starker news from the New England Fishery Management Council later this week. The council’s scientific advisory council is proposing an 81 percent cut in the Gulf of Maine cod catch and cuts of 60 percent to 70 percent for other species, based on dire stock assessments.
Last week, the Northeast region’s top regulator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, John Bullard, told The Associated Press that the cuts “will have devastating impacts on the fleet, and on families, and on ports,” but “reality is here and we have to face it.”
Vincent Balzano, a fisherman from Saco who serves on the council, said the biggest problem is that no one has figured out why many groundfish species have been slow to recover despite stringent catch limits.
The industry will have to adapt by shifting to healthier species with larger catch limits, such as redfish and pollock. But he said there won’t be enough fish to support the existing fleet.
“When you are looking at an 80 percent reduction (in catch), it would be very difficult to maintain the same number of participants,” Balzano said.
But if anyone can adapt, it’s fishermen, he said.
“We have a lot of hard-working, resilient and innovative people,” he said. “Bad news is nothing new to us.”
The cuts will not be felt uniformly throughout the industry. The most austere catch limits will affect near-shore vessels. Species farther out in the Gulf of Maine or on Georges Bank — reachable only with multi-day trips — are in better shape.
James Odlin, whose Atlantic Trawlers Fishing operates five boats out of Maine and Massachusetts, said his group won’t be affected as much as those that fish closer to shore.
But Odlin, who recently completed several terms on the New England Fishery Management Council, said he has “very little faith” in the science suggesting that the fish stocks are in dire condition.
“I don’t know why we should believe the science when three years ago they said the stocks were rebuilding,” Odlin said.
Ben Martens, manager of the Port Clyde fishing sector and executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said people are upset and worried about how they will fare under the impending cuts. But they know that something must be done.
“The stocks aren’t there, based on what they are seeing,” Martens said. “Right now, they are very concerned about what has happened to the stocks.”
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
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