The period for public comment ends Monday on the fishing sectors’ proposal to trade cod allocation for the elimination of some restrictive elements of the emergency cod measures NOAA Fisheries instituted last November in the Gulf of Maine.
Barring comment that will sway NOAA to a different conclusion, a coalition of industry stakeholders and sector managers seem to have done something extraordinary: convince the federal fisheries management regulator to reconsider a policy deemed by fishermen to be overly restrictive, dangerous and economically unfair.
Both sides conceded the ultimate compromise on the emergency cod measures represents a departure from the way they usually interact and the oft-abrasive tenor their color their discussions.
“They deserve credit for reconsidering the measures and putting it back out there for comment,” Vito Giacalone, executive director of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, said of NOAA’s decision to revisit the emergency measures it instituted in the belief that the Gulf of Maine cod stock required immediate and sweeping protections. “Hopefully, this will help open their eyes and see what the sectors can do to help solve some of these problems.”
Bullard was asked if he could recall another specific and significant instance where fishing industry stakeholders and his agency managed to find common ground after first starting at two widely spaced ends of the policy spectrum.
“In the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been here, it’s always been a difficult situation,” Bullard said. “I’ve always had to make difficult decisions. But we’ve always tried to keep the lines of communication open.”
NOAA’s unscheduled and unpublicized stock assessment last summer showed the Gulf of Maine cod stock to be in its worst shape in more than half a century, resulting in NOAA’s interim actions to end all cod fishing in the gulf, as well enacting a 200-pound trip limit on cod bycatch and announcing closures in the broad stock areas.
It also instituted rolling area closures for March that fishermen saw as precluding them from safely fishing for other healthy and more plentiful species without dangerously having to travel great distances in inclement weather.
During the initial comment period, Giacalone and several Northeast fishing sectors advanced a novel proposal: the sectors would surrender up to 60 metric tons of cod allocation in return for the elimination of the 200-pound trip limits, the broad stock area closures and some of the rolling area closures planned for March.
NOAA Regional Administrator John K. Bullard, at the January meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, rejected the sector proposal, saying the agency lacked the necessary time to assess the merits or potential impact of the proposal.
NOAA at that time also summarily declined to consider using sector exemptions to implement the plan.
“Up in Portsmouth, at the council meeting, we said we wouldn’t change our mind on the interim measures,” Bullard said. “That evening, we kept talking to Vito and thought maybe there was a way to do it.”
The two sides kept returning to the concept of a sector exemption rather than another type of rule or measure as the most effective and speediest means of enacting the proposal.
“We just kept trying to figure out a way to do it,” Bullard said. “A different way to achieve the same thing.”
In the interim, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of the Massachusetts 6th congressional district wrote a letter to NOAA, co-signed by four other members of the delegation, that supported the fishing industry plan and implored the agency to revisit its actions.
The industry stakeholders and NOAA Fisheries arrived at a compromise: NOAA would eliminate the trip bycatch limit and leave the broad stock areas open, but it only would be able to accept up to 30 metric tons of the surrendered cod allocation and the rolling closures scheduled for March would stay in effect.
“We felt like what we came up with addresses two of the major complaints by the fishing industry,” Bullard said. “We think there is a conservation benefit to that and it’s a good proposal.”
Giacalone and other fishing industry stakeholders also endorsed the conservation benefits of the plan.
“It reduces the amount of cod quota for fishermen to catch,” he said. “It’s the same as a quota reduction, but in a more reasonable and organized way.”
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