BOSTON — New England fishermen looking for relief after a debilitating cut in the yellowtail flounder catch may soon find help from the booming scallop industry.
Scallopers inevitably snare yellowtail by accident. So regulators trying to protect the struggling species give them a yearly catch quota they can’t exceed. But the scallop industry works hard to avoid yellowtail. If they catch below their yellowtail quota, they can transfer what’s left over to a fishing industry desperate for it.
This year, there are indications they can shift hundreds of thousands of pounds of unneeded quota in the Georges Bank fishing grounds to fishermen.
No matter how much the scallop fleet can transfer, fishermen won’t escape major pain from the huge Georges Bank yellowtail cut enacted May 1, said Maine fisherman Jim Odlin.
Still, there’s no doubt fishermen need the extra fish, he said.
“If you can stay in business five more months, it’s what you want to do, right?” Odlin said.
Last week, three fishing industry groups asked federal regulators to immediately transfer 150 metric tons of yellowtail quota on Georges Bank from scallopers to fishermen.
Beyond such possible short-term relief, scallop industry-funded research on gear changes and other ways to avoid yellowtail could further reduce the amount of yellowtail scallopers take.
The yellowtail flounder is not a particularly valuable fish. But the price to fishermen and scallopers for exceeding their catch limits is severe — fishery-wide shutdowns and closures. So low limits on its catch prevent fishermen from chasing the more valuable or abundant fish yellowtail swim among.
Odlin said that already this year, his boats have stayed out of parts of Georges Bank he knows are haddock-rich because he fears catching too much of his yellowtail quota.
Ron Smolowitz, a researcher and the technical adviser to The Fisheries Survival Fund, a scallop industry group, said scallopers always want to be certain regulators give them a sufficient yellowtail quota. But they also don’t want to take more than they need.
“Perception is very important,” Smolowitz said. “You don’t want to be perceived as greedy, rich people and these other guys are starving to death.”
The success of the scallop industry has made New Bedford the top revenue fishing port in the country for more than a decade. Total revenues for the scallop industry, which extends to North Carolina, nearly quadrupled from $120 million in 1994 to $450 million in 2010, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to a federal report.
Meanwhile, fishermen who chase bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod, flounder and haddock, are getting hammered with cuts they say their industry might not survive.
Among the worst of it: a 22 percent cut this year in the cod catch in the Gulf of Maine with a far bigger cut looming in 2013. On Georges Bank, east and southeast of Cape Cod, fishermen got whacked with an 80 percent cut in yellowtail, from about 1,140 metric tons to 218 metric tons.
This year, the scallopers’ yellowtail quota in Georges Bank (305 metric tons) is actually larger than what fishermen are getting. But a recent projection by regulators, amid shifts in where and how efficiently scallopers are fishing, says the fleet will likely only catch 68 metric tons of yellowtail there.
That dropping estimate prompted the Northeast Seafood Coalition, Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association and the Associated Fisheries of Maine to request that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration immediately transfer at least 150 metric tons of the excess quota to fishermen.
“The sooner we do it, the more stability we can add to the industry,” said Tom Dempsey of the hook association.
Dan Morris, the Northeast’s acting regional administrator for NOAA, said a group of industry, environmentalists and regulators formed to address the yellowtail problem plans to hold a public hearing by the end of this month. A recommendation on the request could follow at a mid-June meeting of regional administrators.
Meanwhile, research continues to try to make yellowtail rarer in scallop dredges.
For instance, moving up the “cutting bar” that precedes the chain bag where scallops are collected can give the fish earlier warning, and time to swim up to avoid it, Smolowitz said. So could a “tickler” chain that precedes the dredge. So-called windows can also be placed in the dredge in places where flounder could escape, but scallops won’t be lost.
In addition, researchers are working on ways to report in real time where yellowtail are being caught, so other fishermen and scallopers can be notified and avoid the area.
“Scallopers have gone a long way toward reducing their impacts,” Odlin said. “I think that is going to have to be a central part of how we deal with this issue, and not just on the scallop side.”