WASHINGTON — New England groundfishing vessels that did not catch their full share last year will be allowed to carry over a portion of that quota into 2013 in order to help the industry weather austere catch limits set by federal regulators.
Additionally, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials signaled Thursday that they are considering other options to help the fleet, including using federal funds to help fishermen pay for at-sea monitoring.
John Bullard, NOAA’s northeastern regional administrator, said up to 10 percent of unused quotas on most species will be allowed to be carried forward from last year to the 2013 fishing season. The maximum carryover amount of Gulf of Maine cod will only be 2 percent, however, due to the dire state of the fish stocks and concerns about overfishing.
The decision will give some fishermen additional flexibility, such as avoiding the necessity of fishing in poor weather or allowing them to fish when prices are strong.
“By allowing carryover we further promote safety at sea and help to mitigate some of the economic impact on the fishing industry of anticipated significant catch limit cuts while still continuing to protect fish stocks,” Bollard said in a statement. “Even with the carryover added to the 2013 quota, we still have sufficient buffers in place to ensure that catches stay below overfishing limits.”
Some fishermen in Maine did not catch their full allotment of groundfish in 2012, despite the already-reduced quotas. So fishermen as well as members of New England’s congressional delegations had asked NOAA to allow them to apply a portion of the unused quota to weather 2013.
Last month, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to slash the quota for Gulf of Maine cod by 77 percent and by 55 percent for Georges Bank cod. The reductions were necessary, regulators and scientists said, because the fish stocks were found to be much weaker than originally thought. Groundfish includes such species as cod, haddock and flounder.
Thirteen members of Congress from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire recently sent a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce officials requesting a carryover and helping fishermen cover the costs of manned, at-sea monitors.
“NOAA Fisheries must seriously consider the impact of further burdening our fishermen with at-sea monitoring costs and dedicate the resources necessary to continue to cover these costs,” the members wrote. “Even without the drastic reductions in catch limits, our fishermen cannot feasibly afford their expected share of at-sea monitors, and it is vital that NOAA provide full funding to cover these costs.”
Bollard said Thursday that the agency would analyze what percentage of at-sea monitoring costs could be paid next year with federal funds. He also signaled that the agency was looking at other flexibilities, including changes to mesh size for certain species and allowing fishermen access to some areas now closed to fishing while still protecting the species.
Groundfishing was once the economic backbone of coastal Maine and New England. In 1990, an estimated 350 vessels hauled in more than 15 million pounds of Atlantic cod in Maine alone. Today, fewer than 50 vessels remain in the industry in Maine.
The cod catch for 2011 was just 750,000 pounds and the total value for all groundfish that year was just $5.7 million, compared to $334.6 million for lobster.