– By KEVIN MILLER

Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON – New England groundfishing vessels that did not catch their full allotment last year will be allowed to carry over a portion of that quota into 2013 in order to help the industry weather austere catch limits set by federal regulators.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials signaled Thursday that they are considering other options to help the fleet, including using federal funds to help fishermen pay for at-sea catch monitoring.

John Bullard, NOAA’s northeastern regional administrator, said up to 10 percent of unused quotas on most species can be carried over from last year to the 2013 fishing season. The maximum carry-over for Gulf of Maine cod will only be 2 percent, however, because stocks are so depleted.

The decision will give fishermen additional flexibility, allowing them to fish when prices are high and to avoid fishing in bad weather.

“By allowing carry-over we further promote safety at sea and help to mitigate some of the economic impact on the fishing industry of anticipated significant catch limit cuts while still continuing to protect fish stocks,” Bullard said in a statement. “Even with the carryover added to the 2013 quota, we still have sufficient buffers in place to ensure that catches stay below overfishing limits.”

Some fishermen in Maine did not catch their full allotments of groundfish in 2012, despite the already-reduced quotas. So fishermen as well as members of New England’s congressional delegations had asked NOAA to allow them to apply a portion of the unused quota to 2013.

Last month, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to slash the quota for cod caught in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent and by 55 percent for Georges Bank cod. The reductions were necessary, regulators and scientists said, because the fish stocks were more depleted than expected. Groundfish includes species such as cod, haddock and flounder.

Thirteen members of Congress from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire recently sent a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce officials requesting a carry over and money to help fishermen pay for the catch monitors who must accompany fishing boats.

“NOAA Fisheries must seriously consider the impact of further burdening our fishermen with at-sea monitoring costs and dedicate the resources necessary to continue to cover these costs,” the members wrote.

Bullard said Thursday that the agency would analyze what percentage of monitoring costs could be paid with federal funds next year. He also said the agency is looking at other ways to be flexible, including changes in net-mesh size for certain species and allowing fishermen access to some areas now closed to fishing.

Groundfishing was once the economic backbone of coastal Maine and New England. In 1990, an estimated 350 vessels hauled in more than 15 million pounds of Atlantic cod in Maine alone. Today, fewer than 50 fishing vessels remain in Maine.

The cod catch for 2011 was just 750,000 pounds and the total value for all groundfish that year was just $5.7 million, compared to $334.6 million for lobster.

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

[email protected]

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC