March 12, 2010

Groundfish fleet faces further cuts

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, January 28, 2008....The Maine fishing boat, Cap'n Mark, unloads its catch of fish at the fish auction facility in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Nearly all of Maine's commercial fishing fleet now fishes out of Gloucester because of increased regulation restrictions in Maine.

Staff Writer

New England's battered groundfish industry faces even deeper cuts in fishing days under a new set of federal rules proposed for the season beginning May 1.

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced the proposed rules Wednesday and was expected to publish the details in the Federal Register today. The cutbacks, as expected, are severe and could further shrink the size of Maine's remaining groundfish fleet in an effort to rebuild fish populations before a federal deadline in 2014.

If approved, fishermen face an 18 percent reduction in the number of days they are allowed to fish. The average fishing boat is already down to 48 after years of gradual cutbacks.

In addition, boats fishing in an expanded area of the Gulf of Maine would use two fishing days for each actual day at sea.

The combination of rules effectively means the average Maine fishermen would have only 20 fishing days in the next fishing year, said Glen Libby, a fisherman from Port Clyde.

''That's pretty severe,'' Libby said. ''We were looking at 30 (days), we thought.''

He said fishermen had been hoping to overhaul the rules by 2010, but that may now be too late for many fishing families. ''There probably won't be anybody left. It should help bring the fish back though, if you don't have any fishermen.''

U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, issued a written statement blasting the proposal and vowing to oppose it.

''It is absolutely absurd to expect any fisherman to afford to operate at sea for only 20 days out of the year,'' Snowe's statements said.

''I am appalled and profoundly troubled that the agency would even consider the draconian measures contained in this proposed regulation, much less actually present them as a viable solution to the current crisis in the groundfishing industry.''

The proposal also drew harsh criticism from the Pew Environment Group, a conservation organization. The federal agency should have scrapped the idea of cutting more fishing days to save the fish, Peter Baker, manager of the group's End Overfishing in New England campaign, said in a written statement.

''This interim rule will not solve our problems, and may well cost many of the region's fishermen their livelihoods. The time for a new approach has come,'' he said.

The federal agency said in its announcement that the proposal also includes changes to help fishermen stay in business.

Catch limits on white hake, for example, would be increased and the minimum legal size of haddock would be decreased. The new proposal is a response to warnings from scientists last fall that, while haddock, cod and some other groundfish species were rebounding, others -- including most varieties of flounder -- were still declining and severely depleted.

It is intended to be an interim measure until a New England fishery advisory panel can complete a new set of rules, known as Amendment 16, scheduled to go into effect May 1, 2010. The public has 30 days to comment on the new proposal.

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

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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