Saltwater recreational anglers are a hearty crew. Over the years they have seen their catches dwindle and their opportunities diminish. However, most would never expect a closure of the cod and haddock fishery.
But come Sept. 1, it will be illegal to keep any cod or haddock caught in the Gulf of Maine. If you want to get fillets in your freezer, you best do it now.
The new regulations, which came into place May 1, caught many recreational anglers by surprise, and has many charter and party boat captains wondering what’s next.
The reason? According to National Marine Fisheries Service, in 2013 the recreational sector exceeded its quota of Gulf of Maine cod by 145 percent and its quota of Gulf of Maine haddock by an unbelievable 246 percent.
Unbelievable is the appropriate adjective, because most anglers and captains aren’t buying it.
Capt. Barry Gibson of East Boothbay chairs the New England Fisheries Management Council’s Recreational Advisory Panel. He is also the New England regional director for the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a national nonprofit based in New Jersey that represents recreational saltwater fishermen and the sport fishing industry.
Gibson was the editor of Salt Water Sportsman for 23 years, and is a charter captain of more than 40 years. He represents anglers from Cape Cod to Maine on the advisory panel. He is a passionate advocate for saltwater angling.
“There are a lot of charter boat and party boat captains on the panel, and they were shocked to hear about this,” said Gibson.
The panel, after listening to NMFS scientists and data, generally is able to craft and approve recreational saltwater angling regulations that accommodate NMFS recommendations and science. However, on this they could not come close to an agreement on how to swallow this bitter pill.
“The council couldn’t come up with a solution, and NMFS was the one that came up with the limit and the regulations. This was not approved by the recreational council,” said Gibson.
At issue is the recreational data catch itself, which is generally based on a few recreational trips and projected over the course of the season. According to Gibson, the projections were made on trips taken in March and April, a far cry from prime time for offshore anglers in the Gulf of Maine, and were not representative of the catch.
According to the federal Magnuson-Stevenson Act, fisheries management decisions must be made on the best available science and this was all that they had.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. NMFS is in the midst of a benchmark assessment for haddock stocks in the Gulf of Maine. The midsummer survey could provide the science needed to amend the restrictive haddock regulations.
“They think they will find more haddock than they thought. From what we are hearing, the preliminary research shows more,” said Gibson.
That would be good news for both anglers and captains, as there are more than 100 charter and party boats from Cape Cod to Maine that have been impacted by the harsh regulations.
“My phone rings all day long with captains wondering what’s going on,” said Gibson. “I have been told they will look at the haddock assessment and will do everything in their power to change the regulations.”
Any change though, will only affect the haddock regulations. But cod is king for these anglers.
“Codfish drives these businesses, haddock is a distant second,” said Gibson. “If these regs don’t change, this will be the death knell for party charters.”
For groundfish anglers, September is a fantastic month of fishing cooler days and feistier fish. For commercial boat owners, it’s their time to earn a living.
“Most of these guys, they work all June, July and August just to pay the bills,” said Gibson, “Come September, that’s when you make a profit. If they can’t fish in September, their profits are wiped out.”
“What’s the sense of continuing, just to break even?” asks Gibson, who adds the loss of these businesss will have a ripple economic effect.
“I hope that the assessment is good, and NMFS does something that reflects that so everyone can benefit.”
Mark Latti is a registered Maine guide and the landowner relations/Recreational access coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.