NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — A newly-formed group to help fishermen outlast an 80 percent cut in their yellowtail flounder catch offered no certain solutions Wednesday to a battered fishing industry some warn will soon collapse.
The steep cut on yellowtail in Georges Bank, east and southeast of Cape Cod, went into effect May 1. The yellowtail flounder isn’t a big money fish, but worries about exceeding the low catch limit on it prevents fishermen from chasing the more valuable bottom-dwelling groundfish the yellowtail swim among, such as cod and haddock.
Some among the group of fishermen, environmentalists and regulators expressed pessimism Wednesday.
“I don’t see any way out of it. None of us see any way out of it,” said Jim Kendall of New Bedford Seafood Consulting, a former scalloper.
Others were more hopeful, and the group made various suggestions, including speeding up a possible transfer of hundreds of thousands of pounds of unneeded yellowtail quota from the scallop fleet, while ensuring scallopers aren’t hurt by it.
Some suggested forcing fishermen to throw all yellowtail they catch overboard, to eliminate all financial incentives to catch the fish and perhaps make the quota last longer. But some said that was wasteful and wondered if it was legal.
Richie Canastra of BASE-New England, which runs fish auctions, pushed talks to obtain more yellowtail from Canada, which shares the yellowtail catch, but likely won’t use much of their allotment and might help.
“Canada is our neighbor. They’re not Iran,” he said.
A big concern was whether regulators truly understood how urgently action is needed.
If fishermen exceed their yellowtail allotment, they must stop fishing for all fish. Several people said the low quota means some boats will soon be done for the year just a few weeks into the fishing season, with the opportunity for millions in catch lost.
“If you people don’t take action in the next few weeks, you’re going to put a lot of people out of their misery,” said Carlos Rafael, a New Bedford fishing and scallop boat owner, during the public meeting at a New Bedford conference center.
This year’s yellowtail cut, from about 1,120 metric tons in 2011 to about 216 metric tons currently, was a shock to much of the fishing industry. At the time, the industry was trying to figure out how to handle a separate, major cut to the cod catch in the Gulf of Maine.
On Wednesday, scientist Chris Legault of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said exceptionally poor reproduction for yellowtail between 2008 and 2010 was a significant reason for the 80 percent cut.
In 2010, regulators estimate just 900,000 new yellowtail were born into the population, well below the average 20 million new yellowtail added annually since 1973.
But fishing industry advocates questioned the dismal estimates, saying poor science was leading to undercounting.
Tony Alvernaz, a New Bedford scalloper and former groundfisherman presented a statement signed by 40 fishermen who said they’d never use the inefficient fishing gear researchers on a survey vessel use to catch yellowtail samples.
Sam Rauch, acting head of NOAA’s fisheries arm, said whatever the solution to the yellowtail problem, it’s got to be a collaborative effort.
“I think it may be achievable given the attitudes … we heard here,” Rauch said. But “I’m not sure what that (solution) would be.”