PORTLAND, Maine — Fishery regulators are poised to pass new regulations that would give commercial fishermen in New England the option of being regulated by how much fish they catch, not how many days they spend at sea.
The New England Fishery Management Council was close to approving a plan Thursday that would allocate shares of the annual catch to groups, or sectors, of fishermen in the effort to rebuild populations of haddock, flounder and other so-called groundfish.
Fishermen who participate no longer would be limited to a specified number of fishing days but could face shutdowns if their group exceeds its catch limit. Fishermen who don’t want to join a group still would have the option of being managed based primarily on the number of days they spend fishing.
The plan, a broad suite of measures known as Amendment 16, must receive final approval from the secretary of commerce. It would go into effect May 1, 2010.
The rules are viewed as a major turning point in how New England fishermen are regulated. Scores of fishermen, conservationists and others filled a meeting hall in Portland as the council hammered out details of the plan this week.
Seventeen groups of fishermen have applied to create sectors, based on where they fish, what they catch or their type of fishing gear. There are already two fishing sectors in New England, both based out of Cape Cod.
Gary Libby, who operates a 57-foot boat out of Port Clyde, said sectors allow fishermen to work together to do what’s best for them and their communities. He likes that the regulations are flexible, so fishermen can determine when and how to fish.
He and other fishermen have applied to create a sector based in Port Clyde.
“It makes it so fishermen are in control over their own businesses,” Libby said.
But others are skeptical.
Joel Hovanesian, who operates a 76-foot boat out of Point Judith, R.I., is no fan of the current days-at-sea regulatory regime but said the new plan is based on faulty science and would result in more red tape and bigger government. Having two sets of fishing rules — sector management and days at sea — is bound to be problem-atic, he said.
He fears corporations will take over the region’s fishing industry.
“We’ll end up like the family farm,” Hovanesian said. “Eventually, giant companies will take over.”
Fishermen have come under increasingly restrictive regulations over the past 15 years that have limited where and how often they can fish. Some boats are limited to fewer than 20 days a year.
But fish populations have struggled to rebound to healthy levels, forcing regulators to continue passing even more restrictive measures. At the same time, the fishing fleet has shrunk.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, the arm of the Commerce Department that oversees the nation’s fisheries, is encouraging programs where fishermen are allocated shares of a total catch.
There are 12 such programs nationally, including ones for Alaskan halibut, Gulf of Mexico red snapper and surf clams in the Mid-Atlantic, said Steve Murawski, chief scientist for NMFS in Washington.
Officials there believe the approach can work for New England groundfish as well, Murawski said.
“We’ve had three decades of stocks not recovering and a lot of difficulties in the communities and the management is very contentious,” Murawski said. He said the federal government would do “everything we can to make this a management model that works.”