With drastic cuts to the commercial cod and haddock fishery mandated at the end of January, many recreational groundfish anglers are wondering, “Are we next?”
It seems recreational anglers have gained a reprieve, if only for now. The New England Fisheries Management Council’s Recreational Advisory Panel last month approved recreational cod and haddock bag limits for the 2013 season, and they are thankfully similar to 2012. While they still need federal approval, that should be forthcoming.
Captain Barry Gibson of Boothbay Harbor, a charter captain for more than 40 years, chairs the advisory panel. Gibson is certainly no stranger to recreational angling. He was the editor of Salt Water Sportsman for 23 years, and is vice president of the Northeast Charterboat Captains Association. He still writes for a variety of publications, appears perodically on television and is a passionate advocate for saltwater angling.
As chairman of the Recreational Advisory Panel, Gibson was intricately involved with the proposed 2013 bag limits. Before discussing bag limits, the panel listened to a presentation by National Marine Fisheries Service’s bioeconomists, which discussed different scenarios concerning cod and haddock regulations.
“We were expecting a big cutback,” said Gibson, who was surprised by the recommendation by the bioeconomists. “They basically said given the size of the Gulf of Maine cod stock and the declining recreational effort over the past few years, their conclusion was that we wouldn’t have to cut back or do anything different in order to stay under our allocation.”
The allocation is a portion of the overall cod catch (recreational and commercial) that is dedicated to recreational anglers by the New England Fisheries Management Council.
Under the approved proposed regulations, anglers will still be able to keep nine cod, and the minimum length limit will remain at 19 inches, the same as 2012.
But if you want to keep haddock this year, they will have to be a little bit bigger.
“Haddock stocks are in really tough shape,” said Gibson. The panel was told that if they kept the size limit at the current limit of 19 inches, anglers would only have been able to keep two or three fish. But if they increased the minimum size limit, they could keep the unlimited bag limit.
“Even though people don’t catch unlimited numbers of haddock, the perception of no bag limit is very important to the party charter boats,” said Gibson. “The bottom line is that the data showed that very few trips in 2012 caught more than 5 to 10 haddock.”
The panel increased the size limit on haddock to 21 inches and kept the unlimited bag limit. Said Gibson, “That is what everyone (on the committee) seemed to want.”
The 2013 proposed cod and haddock regulations are good news for Maine’s charter boats. Severe restrictions on groundfish would hamper a captain’s ability to attract customers.
“They were afraid that if the bag limit dropped to four or five fish, they wouldn’t be able to sell their trips,” said Gibson, who said there are six to eight party charter boats and another 30 smaller charter boats that go groundfishing.
“We are talking 40 small businesses. This was a godsend for these guys because if it goes to three or four fish, no one is going to pay the fees,” explained Gibson, “and the guys with the charter boats can’t really lower their prices to reflect smaller bag limits because of fuel prices and other fixed costs.”
Yet even though the recreational cod and haddock fishery seems to have dodged a bullet by avoiding draconian regulations, the fact persists that cod and haddock stocks are dwindling, and anglers should not expect the high catch rates they may have enjoyed even just a few years ago.
“This (similar size and bag limits) is great news for the recreational sector,” said Gibson, “However, this doesn’t mean that the recreational folks are going to go out and have great catches of cod in 2013. They are still going to be tough to find, and there still are going to be some trips that are going to be less than what they had hoped for.”
Still, anglers are optimists where the glass is generally not half, but at least three-quarters full, and once again they will be looking forward to an ice chest full of cod and haddock fillets when they head out this summer.
Mark Latti is a Registered Maine Guide, and the Landowner Relations/ Recreational Access Coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.