BOSTON — U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Thursday he’s open to raising the catch limits on certain fish species that fishermen say they urgently need, but he needs more information before making that call.
Locke initially had expressed uncertainty about whether federal laws gave him the power to raise the catch limits on various species.
In a letter sent to Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Barney Frank on Thursday, Locke said he now is convinced he has that authority. He said he’s prepared to issue an emergency regulation to revise catch limits “whenever there is both sufficient economic and sound scientific data available to meet these requirements.”
Fishermen have argued the limits on some protected species have been wrongly set so low, it will prematurely shut down fishing and devastate the industry.
Under the rules, if fishermen exceed their limit on one species, they must stop fishing on all species.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe welcomed Locke’s decision.
“Today’s action still provides the administration sufficient time to make changes that can reap significant benefits for the fishery this year without compromising the long-term sustainability of our groundfish stocks,” the Maine Republican said in a statement.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick also hailed the decision to review the catch limits, saying Locke “has really given us an opening to help our struggling fishing communities.”
Patrick said he has instructed his environmental secretary, Ian Bowles, to work with advocacy, science and fishing groups to help pull together the data requested by Locke within “weeks, not months.”
The situation is urgent, Patrick said.
“We’ve got folks who are hanging by their fingernails right now,” he said. “Their experience out on the water is that there are an awful lot of fish out there.”
In his letter, Locke said he agrees that there is a need to sharpen the estimates of fish stock and to include fishermen more in collecting data.
He also said the Obama administration is asking Congress to redirect $15 million in prior year funds for stock assessments and cooperative research projects nationwide to get a better estimate on the numbers of fish.
Environmental advocates said they agree that better data and science, improved fishing gear and stricter enforcement of fishing limits are needed to protect the fish stocks and ensure the future of New England fisheries.
But advocates questioned how dire the economic situation is for the fishing industry, pointing to increased revenues statewide despite new regulations on catching groundfish.
“Further data and study is required to ensure that small-boat fishermen can also prosper under the new system,” said Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Massachusetts Advocacy Center. “However, we must be sure not to undermine the foundation of the new policy.”
Associated Press writer Jay Lindsay contributed to this report.