ELLSWORTH — Meeting in Newport, R.I., this week, the New England Fishery Management Council voted not to ban lobster traps from portions of the Gulf of Maine. The vote came as the council considered a comprehensive set of new fishing rules designed to protect the dwindling cod population in New England waters.
“I appreciate the work of the New England Fishery Management Council in deliberating this important issue,” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said.
Saying that DMR was “keenly aware of the challenges facing our groundfish fleet,” the council’s 14-1 vote (with one abstention) “not to apply closed area measures to lobster gear is appropriate. It will allow necessary time to conduct a more rigorous analysis of available data.”
The council’s actions last week came in response to recent scientific assessments indicating that Gulf of Maine cod, an inshore stock of fish that has been harvested by New England fishermen for generations, has declined to historic low levels.
At the beginning of November, federal fisheries regulators adopted emergency measures aimed at reducing fishing pressure on the cod stock until the council could act. While the council’s intention is to have its plan replace the federal restrictions beginning on May 1, 2015, the start of the next fishing year, the emergency measures will likely remain in effect at least until April 30.
In a statement released on Friday, the council acknowledged that each of its proposed rules will likely have “direct economic impacts on fishermen, particularly the small, inshore day-boat fleet fishing primarily for traditional finfish species” off the southern Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts coasts.
Key among the provisions approved by the council is an annual catch limit of just over 850,000 pounds for the 2015 groundfish (cod, haddock, pollock and flounders) fishing year beginning May 1. That represents a 75 percent drop in the amount of Gulf of Maine cod that will be allocated to both commercial and recreational fishermen. The current year’s limit of about 3.5 million pounds was considered extremely low by the fishing industry.
The council also adopted a system of seasonal closures of a number of “Gulf of Maine Cod Protection Areas” that will apply to all commercial fishing boats that fish for of groundfish of any sort. Those areas will not be closed to lobster fishing.
When the stock size increases to a level equal to 50 percent of the biomass needed to produce a sustainable fishery and cod population, the council will consider whether the closures should remain in effect.
According to the council’s statement, the “configuration of closures would allow healthy groundfish stocks to be harvested, and do not close areas where cod spawning has been infrequent.”
Recreational and charter fishing boats would not be subject to the new closed area rules, but would not be allowed to catch and keep any Gulf of Maine cod while fishing in them.
Keliher said last week the council’s vote not to ban lobster traps in the closed areas “also addresses jurisdictional issues by ensuring involvement of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in the data analysis and on-going management discussions,” relating to the lobster fishery.
Keliher also praised the council for recognizing that a story published in the Portland Press Herald early in November about the amount of cod caught as by-catch in the lobster fishery was based on “a rough estimate derived by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2008 from raw data” that was too imprecise to use as a basis for fishery management decisions.