BOSTON — Congress passed a law Tuesday that fishermen say will bring fairness to fish-sharing negotiations with Canada and likely lead to a higher catch limit on a key New England species.
Every year, negotiators decide how much each nation can pull up in a rich section of the Georges Bank fishing grounds that includes both U.S. and Canadian waters. The new law allows the U.S. to deal with Canada without being held to the tight 10-year timeline to rebuild the fish stocks, which applies in all other American waters.
Without the pressure of that timeline, Canada can allow its fishermen to catch more of a given species in a given year. The change evens things out, lawmakers said.
“For too long, our fishery managers have been placed at a competitive disadvantage in negotiating catch limits with their Canadian counterparts because of an erroneous interpretation of the law,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, who led the push for passage of the law with Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank.
Fishermen are hoping the change will lead to a quick increase in what they say is an unnecessarily low catch limit for yellowtail flounder. That low limit threatens the entire industry, they say, because new rules shut down fishing on all species once the catch limit on even one species is reached.
“Knowing that they have more yellowtail would keep [fishermen] more at ease fishing out in the ocean, [knowing] if they do come across yellowtail they won’t be shut down,” said Richie Canastra of Whaling City Seafood Display Auction in New Bedford.
Canastra said the lucrative scallop industry also is affected because it’s been forced to curtail fishing to protect yellowtail, which are caught by mistake in scallop dredges.
The basic fix in the law means the U.S. now recognizes its agreement with Canada as an “international agreement.” The nation’s fishery law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, allows “international agreements” to include stock rebuilding periods longer than the 10-year timeline.
Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy at the Pew Environment Group, called the change a “technical fix” and said he didn’t want to speculate on how regulators deciding catch limits would respond.
“They still can’t allow overfishing, which I think is a really important benchmark to make sure this doesn’t lead to over-exploitation of the resources,” he said.
Each year as part of the United States-Canada Transboundary Resource Sharing Understanding, the U.S. and Canada split up the cod, haddock and flounder that swim in a 45,000-square-mile section of U.S.-Canadian waters. Yellowtail flounder is the only species that will be immediately affected by the new law because it’s the only one that’s entirely contained in this jointly managed patch of ocean.
In 2009, U.S. and Canadian regulators couldn’t agree about the yellowtail allocation for the first time.
Without the change, American fishermen could get stuck watching Canadians catch the same fish they’re forbidden from taking, because the Canadians weren’t subject to stricter American law, said Vito Giacalone of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group that pushed for the legislation.
“Theoretically, they could take it all, and U.S. fishermen have to stand there and watch it, and watch them sell it to our U.S. consumers,” he said. “It’s so absurd that you wonder why this hasn’t been passed a long time ago.”
Upon being signed by President Barack Obama, the law will go into effect during the current fishing year, which runs until April. Regulators aren’t bound to act quickly to change the catch limits, though Canastra is hoping they will.
“It could relieve all of the fishermen this year,” he said.