BOSTON — More than a dozen members of Congress from Northeast fishing states met Wednesday with the U.S. Commerce Secretary to ask for emergency increases in fish catch limits, but he didn’t commit to any immediate ones.
The meeting in Washington with Secretary Gary Locke came at the request of 23 members of Congress, who wrote to Locke last month before a May 1 switch to a new fishing system.
Under the change, fishermen working in groups called “sectors” may catch a certain amount of each species of groundfish annually, such as cod and flounder. But if the sectors exceed their limit on any species, they must stop fishing for all species.
Lawmakers said limits on some species, including pollock and certain flounder stocks, were cut so low that many fishermen would quickly catch the allotment and be forced to shut down.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who attended the meeting, said the cuts could severely damage fishing communities and undermine the new system. He said Locke must act to raise the catch limits within the coming weeks.
“I think the secretary’s got to step in and we have got to hear that there’s going to be some increases,” Frank said.
The 13 members of Congress who attended the meeting include two Republicans and 11 Democrats from the five New England coastal states and New York.
They later released a joint statement in opposition to the new catch limits and calling on the Obama administration to provide economic assistance to fishermen. Frank warned that a failure to help fishing communities would be damaging for Obama “in terms of the relationship with a lot of us.”
The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the new system entered its second week amid worries from some fishermen about the catch limits and confusion on the docks, with little help from federal officials to sort it all out, according to Gloucester attorney Steve Ouellette, who represents several fishermen.
Ouellette said some fishermen are staying off the water.
“People are shellshocked and they’re afraid to fish,” he said.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, about 297 groundfishing trips were made in the first week of May, compared with 342 trips during the same time last year.
Earlier this week, Ouellette co-filed a lawsuit by the port of New Bedford and various fishing interests against Locke and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The suit argues the new fishing regulations violate various provisions of federal law, including by imposing overly restrictive measures on a fishery they say is substantially rebuilt.
But federal regulators say several key stocks are still overfished.
Patricia Kurkul, the Northeast regional administrator for the fisheries service, said regulators have been speaking to industry members daily and have had “staff on hand to respond to fishermen’s questions seven days a week since we rolled out the new regulations.”
Kurkul said NMFS has developed numerous procedures to support the new sectors, though there are “learning curves and bumps in the road” when any new system is adopted.
“We feel things are generally going pretty smoothly,” she said.