BOSTON — The Northeast’s top federal fisheries manager announced Wednesday that he’ll delay a planned shutdown of a key fishing area after fishermen warned the closure, intended to protect harbor porpoises, would devastate a segment of their industry.
John Bullard said the two-month closure in the Gulf of Maine to fishermen who use stationary nets, called gillnets, will start Feb. 1, instead of Oct. 1.
Bullard said the most recent data, beginning in 2008, indicates porpoise are more frequently entangled in fishermen’s nets during the winter. The plan to close the area in the fall had been based on historical data, he said.
“Adjusting the closure to begin in February should result in fewer harbor porpoise entanglements in commercial gillnet gear, if fishing behavior is consistent with recent years,” Bullard said.
His decision comes after his initial refusal, announced earlier this month, to change the closure on request of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group. But Bullard agreed to reconsider after meeting with coalition leadership in Gloucester last week. The coalition estimated a $10 million loss for the industry, including the Maine, New Hampshire and Gloucester-based gillnetters most affected.
The shift comes despite a request by the Humane Society of the United States to keep the fall closure in place.
In a Sept. 10 letter to Sam Rauch, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Sharon B. Young of the Humane Society wrote that changing the closure would reward fishermen who broke rules intended to protect porpoise, and also defy federal science on the best way to protect the mammals.
“Disregarding the advice of your own experts in this instance would be the essence of arbitrary and capricious decision-making,” she wrote.
The harbor porpoise isn’t endangered, with a population estimated between 60,000 and 90,000. But federal law allows only about 700 porpoises to be caught and killed annually, and regulators are charged with reducing that number to about 70.
Gillnetters have been criticized by regulators for failing to install working “pingers” on their strings of nets. Regulators said they had only a roughly 40 percent compliance rate on the devices, which emit a sound that drives the porpoises away.
But fishermen argued they’ve actually been far more compliant, and equipment that measures if their pingers are working often doesn’t work itself. They add it’s difficult to tell when the pingers break down because they emit a sound porpoises, not people, can hear.
In shifting the closure, Bullard is requiring gillnetters to install pingers on all their nets, starting Oct. 1, a month earlier than usual. When fishermen have effectively used pingers, fewer porpoises have died in their nets, he said.
“We need that same amount of focused attention to reduce harbor porpoise entanglements now,” he said. “Working together, we can protect harbor porpoise and keep fishermen on the water.”