MACHIAS, Maine — A frustrated and angry group of fishermen met Tuesday night with two state Department of Marine Resources experts to express their dismay that new, more restrictive halibut fishing regulations are being considered.
More than a dozen halibut fishermen from the Down East coast learned from Togue Brawn and Kohl Kanwit that the federal government considers the Gulf of Maine halibut resource to be overfished.
Kanwit, however, questioned the government’s assessment methods, saying they are unreliable. Still, a new federal requirement that all landed fish must be at least 41 inches is expected to be adopted shortly, and Kanwit said the DMR will match it.
The fishermen decried this move, telling the scientists that the assessment tools were inaccurate and that they were seeing plenty of fish. They also complained strongly about competition from Canadian fishermen who can land shorter fish and have no catch limits.
“I’m going to drive a knife through every [short fish] and throw them overboard,” said Greg Wood, who operates two halibut boats. “We’ve had our throat cut enough.”
All of the fishermen present said the halibut fishery does not make them a large profit. Kanwit added that in 2008, of the 139 active harvesters, only seven fishermen caught more than 30 fish.
The new proposed rules could shorten the season from two to three months, limit each fisherman’s catch to 30 fish, down from 50, for commercial fishermen (recreational fishermen are limited to one fish a day), increase the minimum fish size from 38 inches to 41 inches, and increase the state fine structure.
But the fishermen asked that DMR back off and leave the fishery alone.
“Everyone is fed up with their rights being taken away,” fisherman Kevin Feeney said, “especially in this part of the state. We have to survive.”
Fisherman Ivory Preston added, “I don’t agree with [the regulations]. Period. Leave the fishery alone.”
Kanwit and Brawn explained that although only 139 harvesters were active in 2008, 955 people had taken the state training class and potentially could get halibut licenses, called “endorsements.” Only 50 harvesters were active just seven years ago.
Brawn also provided statistics which showed that fish landings in 2002 were about 12,000 metric tons but dramatically rose to more than 40,000 metric tons by 2008.
Kanwit also addressed the fishermen’s concerns about the Canadian fishermen’s ability to catch more and shorter fish and then truck them into the U.S. for sale.
“They know their minimum size is way too small,” Kanwit admitted. “But they are not going to do anything about it. The only way to make real progress is to make this a Canadian-U.S. discussion. We cannot.”
Brawn added, “It is pie in the sky to think we can work more closely with Canada to solve these issues. We just won’t get very far.”
Both women said that since the federal government has determined the Gulf of Maine halibut are overfished, the state must act.
“There is an opportunity for an explosion of effort in the halibut industry,” Brawn said. “We are trying to be proactive. It’s not the guys that are fishing now that we are worried about. It’s the future.”
The fishermen disputed Brawn’s statements, saying there were plenty of fish stocks but because of the regulations, few fishermen.
But, Kanwit warned, “If we don’t do anything and the stocks decline, then we’ll have to come in with a hammer. By acting now, we are trying to shape the fishery in a logical way that makes sense.”
Brawn said the information gathered at the Machias meeting and another one held in Ellsworth will be used to come up with proposed rules for DMR.