WASHINGTON — Members of New England’s congressional delegation are asking federal fisheries regulators for more flexibility in setting cod catch limits for next year as the region’s already struggling groundfish industry faces the potential for even more severe cuts.

In a letter sent this week to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials, 12 senators and House members from the New England – including all four from Maine – urged NOAA to carefully consider options to avoid what are expected to be massive cuts in the allowable catch of Atlantic cod.

“A 2,000 metric ton ACL [annual catch limit] would be untenable for the fishery and all efforts consistent with the law should be pursued to provide flexibility for these fishermen,” the senators and representatives wrote in their July 11 letter to Eric Schwaab, acting assistant secretary for conservation and management at NOAA.

The delegation endorsed a proposal by the New England Fishery Management Council, which manages commercial fishing in the region, to allow ground fishermen to voluntarily reduce this year’s catch and carry over the unused portion to next year.

“We ask that you fully consider the council’s position and expedite any analysis necessary to fulfill its request,” the letter continues. “Time is of the essence, and New England’s groundfish industry is awaiting the results of your decision.”

Once the economic backbone of the entire region, cod stocks have been dramatically depleted and are now protected by austere catch limits. Maine’s groundfish industry, for instance, is down to just a handful of boats as most fishermen switched to lobster or other species.

A recent stock assessment of cod populations found that  the particular age group being studied was actually much smaller than originally thought. In fact, even if all cod fishing was halted for two years, the stocks would still be not be considered “rebuilt” by 2014, according to the studies.

As a result, federal fisheries regulators reduced the quota for 2012 and are expected to further slash the catch limits in 2013.

Initially, the catch limit for 2012 was projected to be 1,500 metric tons, down from more than 8,500 the year before. But fishermen and regulators worked out a compromise — including carrying over part of the 2011 quota to 2012 — to keep the limit at 6,700 metric tons. Now fishermen, the council and New England’s congressional delegation are asking for similar flexibility for 2013.

The New England Fishery Management Council, which is comprised of fishermen, regulators and others, typically recommends quota allocations during the fall. NOAA officials then review those quotas based on the law and can approve, disapprove or modify them. The quotas are then put in place prior to the May 1 opening of the fishing season.

Maggie Mooney-Seus, a spokeswoman for NOAA’s northeastern region, said Friday that the timeline could be different for cod due to the complexity of the issue. NOAA staff are reviewing relatively new scientific data that could impact the estimates for next year, although Mooney-Seus said she does not expect to see a major shift in the stock assessment.

But she said NOAA staff are reviewing the various proposals recommended by the fishery council, some of which may be applicable to next year’s season. But other recommendations, such as breaking up the Gulf of Maine cod regulatory structure into smaller sub populations of fish, may still be years away even if the science supported such a shift.

“That’s going to be a more long-term effort to revisit that structure,” she said. “And when we do that analysis, anything that comes out of it will not be implemented for several years.”

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