Snowe lambastes interim fisheries rule

Posted Feb. 18, 2009, at 9:37 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Sen. Olympia Snowe said Tuesday that an interim rule proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service would push the New England fishing industries “off a cliff.”

“We can only speculate on the drastic economic impacts that would befall coastal infrastructure, shore support, and seafood-dependent industries,” she wrote in a letter sent to James Balsiger, the acting administrator of the fisheries service.

The senator is joining Maine fishermen, industry experts and state officials in urging the fisheries service to modify its intended interim regulations, which are planned to take effect in May and likely would last until 2010.

In order to protect dwindling groundfish stock, the new regulations would cut the already limited days fishermen can fish, expand the area where each fishing day used is counted as two days, and entirely close the area south of Cape Cod to trawl fishing.

The average fisherman in the Gulf of Maine now is allowed 48 fishing days to earn a living, but with the new regulation, that number will drop to fewer than 20 days.

George Lapointe, the Maine fisheries commissioner, said that just 10 years ago fishermen were allocated more than 70 days — and he thinks that 20 is not enough to get by.

“The industry is at the tipping point,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of people already, and a lot of people would tip with the interim rule.”

A National Marine Fisheries Service spokesperson said the interim rule is intended to keep fish stock safe until the New England Fishery Management Council can finish its work on Amendment 16 to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal legislation designed to conserve and manage the nation’s fisheries. It is not designed to put the region’s few remaining fishermen out of business, she said.

“The purpose of this is to rebuild these stocks so that we have a more profitable and sustainable industry in the long run,” Teri Frady said Wednesday. “It’s not reasonable to say, ‘Just shut the fisheries down until it gets better,’ for obvious reasons. We are bringing down the fishing rates to try to get at or below the overfishing level. We’re still trying to provide all the fishing opportunity we can.”

Lapointe wrote his own letter to the fisheries service Tuesday in which he expressed his concern that the Maine fishery might not survive the current efforts to protect the fish.

“The proposed regulations do not balance the need to rebuild the stocks with the current and very pressing need to preserve what remains of New England’s groundfish fishery and associated infrastructure,” he wrote. “There is little hope that there will be any semblance of a viable commercial fishing industry left to benefit from Amendment 16.”

The commissioner said his agency recommended against the drastic cut in fishing days. He also suggested that instead of closing the waters of southern New England to trawl fishing, the National Marine Fisheries Service could require fishermen to work there with modified gear that doesn’t drag on the bottom.

The fisheries service might not agree with his agency all the time, Lapointe said, but “they’ve been pretty good about listening to our concerns.”

Frady said that the National Marine Fisheries Service does take comments into consideration — and added that there are a few happy fish stories coming from the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.

Those include the resurgence of haddock and a surprising comeback for redfish — a species that collapsed due to overfishing in the 1930s.

“We have been making progress,” she said. “It’s just slow.”