To help fishermen compensate for reduced catch limits for groundfish in New England waters, federal regulators have proposed reopening some fishing areas that have been off-limits for nearly 20 years.

The three areas are south of the Gulf of Maine and south and east of Cape Cod, and the reopenings would primarily affect fishermen in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

But National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries is not proposing to reopen the areas entirely. Specific sections would remain closed based on recommendations by the New England Fishery Management Council to protect habitat, said Maggie Mooney-Seus, public affairs officer for the Northeast Region of NOAA Fisheries.

Catches of stocks that are in poor condition, such as Georges Bank yellowtail and cod or those that are spawning, would be limited through seasonal restrictions and the use of selective trawl and hook gear, she said.

Provisions in the proposal would ensure that habitat, at-risk groundfish and other species such as whales and harbor porpoises are not made more vulnerable by fishing in previously closed areas.
The proposal is open for public comment through July 26, then will go through a review process and potentially be modified before becoming a rule.

For nearly two decades, some areas have been closed to groundfishing to help restore depleted species such as cod, haddock, halibut, flounder and yellowtail.

Other fishing, including lobster harvesting, has occurred in portions of the zones, Mooney-Seus said.

The proposal released Wednesday recommends that an agreement negotiated by groundfish and lobster fishermen, and endorsed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, limits groundfishing to times of year when lobstering is not as prevalent, to minimize the potential for conflict between fishermen who use various types of gear, she said.

Fishermen are taking less than their annual catch limits so year-round closures are no longer needed, John Bullard, Northeast regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in a written statement. Some areas must remain closed to protect habitat, he said.

On advice from the New England Fishery Management Council, NOAA Fisheries in April announced its final management measures for the Northeast groundfish fishery, including much lower quotas. Those measures took effect in May.

Since then, NOAA Fisheries has been working to reduce the impact on the fishing industry, by increasing allowable catches of species such as redfish, pollock, white hake and winter flounder, and by approving certain types of fishing gear and methods to help fishermen better target healthy groundfish and other stocks.

In areas that NOAA Fisheries suggests reopening, the agency wants to require monitoring on all fishing trips to gather data on the fish caught, and possible interactions with whales, harbor porpoises and other animals.

Boat operators who want access to these areas would be required to cover the cost of monitoring.

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