March 10, 2010

Council backs big changes in fish protection

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — New England's struggling fishing industry took a historic step Thursday toward privatizing fish populations in an effort to protect them.

Regional fishery managers voted in favor of a new system that will allow groups of fishermen -- called sectors -- to catch certain percentages of the ocean's cod, haddock, flounder and other groundfish, starting next year. For the past 15 years, fishermen have caught as many fish as they could under increasingly tight limits on fishing days and other rules.

''We're fundamentally changing the way we manage fish, and fishermen,'' said Terry Stockwell, a deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council.

The council voted for the new rules, known as Amendment 16, near the end of a four-day meeting at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. The vote was 14 in favor and just one against, with one abstention.

Formal approval is still needed from the National Marine Fisheries Service; the agency's leaders have been actively supporting the new approach.

The vote gives new hope to some fishermen who were limited to 39 fishing days this year and face deeper cuts next year. But industry members have deeply mixed feelings about the shift -- and even advocates called the new rules a gamble.

''How many new business ventures come without risk, especially when you're inventing something?'' said Glen Libby, a Port Clyde fisherman and a new appointee to the fishery council. ''We got nothing to lose right now.''

Libby said the new system should help sustain his fishing community by allowing boats to catch fish only when demand is high, reducing costs and maximizing their profits. ''I think we'll be OK,'' he said.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree praised the selection of Libby to the council.

''Glen's 30 years of experience in the fishing industry and his commitment to sustainability and sustainable fishing will make him a good addition,'' she said in a statement.

''Over the next few years, the council must work together to solve the fundamental problems facing the fisheries -- overcapacity, misalignment of economic incentives and a highly complex regulatory system. All council members must be up for the challenge and to be willing to work toward sustainability. Glen is a perfect candidate for the job.''

Maggie Raymond of South Berwick, co-owner of a fishing boat, said the new approach approved Thursday won't solve the core problems: too few fish and uncertain population estimates.

''We're trying to make the best out of a bad situation,'' she said. But, ''everybody who says this will end overfishing is just wrong.''

The number of active groundfish boats in Maine has dropped from about 350 to 70 in the past 15 years under the current management system, according to state estimates. Some fish populations, however, are still not recovering fast enough to meet a federal deadline in 2014.

Under the new rules, fishermen have a choice of whether to join one of 19 sectors in New England or work under day-at-sea limits. Most are expected to join sectors.

''I think it's a big step forward,'' said Peter Baker of the Pew Environment Group, a conservation organization that has been advocating for the new system for years. ''This is the first time we've seen the council say we're going to do something fundamentally different and admit that days-at-sea (limits) didn't work.''

Council members voted after debating details of the new system for two long days. Among the major issues:

nCatch shares will be based on the fishing histories of each boat in a sector, as well as estimates of each fish population.

nFishing boats belonging to sectors will have to pay for observers to monitor their catches, including what is thrown back. But the exact level of oversight -- and the cost -- will be determined later.

nFishing boats that don't join sectors will be held to overall catch limits similar to those imposed on sectors. But the limits for non-sector boats will be phased in over the first few years.

Sector management has been used in Australia and other parts of the world. New England's groundfish industry is traditionally independent, but did try a version of catch shares, or privatization, in the 1970s.

The experiment with individual quotas failed because of a lack of oversight at the time, according to fishermen and regulators.

''We fell on our nose,'' said George Lapointe, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Lapointe said the new approach, though risky, now has better controls and is a better alternative to sticking with the current rules.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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