A vote by the New England Fishery Management Council this week to further restrict the number of days fishermen can pursue cod and yellowtail flounder drew sharp reaction from fishermen around the region, including one on the Vineyard.
"This is death by a thousand cuts," declared Jonathan Mayhew of Chilmark, who operates the fishing dragger Quitsa Strider II out of Menemsha. "Taken by its own it may not seem all that dramatic, but along with other proposed regulations, this really brings the end to the small and medium sized dragger."
The fishery management council is charged with coming up with regulations to protect fish offshore in federal waters, including waters south of Martha's Vineyard, Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine. The council, meeting in Portland, Me., this week, came up with more restrictions to prevent overfishing and protect what stocks remain.
The council was still deep in its decision-making process at press time yesterday.
But on Wednesday the council voted to cut the number of days fishermen are allowed at sea to help restore cod and flounder populations to healthy levels. The average fisherman's days at sea had already been cut to about 50; as a result of the vote by the council he will now lose four more.
Atlantic cod and yellowtail flounder are in serious trouble, according to a report issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Regional Center at Woods Hole. Cod are in such decline that scientists are concerned they are on the verge of collapse without a drastic reduction in fishing effort.
Council members agreed on Wednesday to call for an eight per cent cut in the number of days at sea a fishing boat can go in pursuit of all groundfish, which include these two species. More significantly, in an effort to reduce fishing for cod and yellowtail flounder by as much as 40 per cent, council members adopted a provision that assesses two days at sea for every day fished by a boat that targets these fish in certain areas.
The council is trying to meet a May 1 deadline mandated by Congress. Alternative proposals offered by industry spokesmen were rejected. New Bedford Mayor Scott W. Lang and Gloucester Mayor John Bell attended the council meeting hoping to pitch a plan that will lessen the blow to these waterfront cities and their fishermen. They were also critical of the fisheries science that describes the gloomy state of fish stocks.
But one council member said the news is not so bad for this region. "The impact around Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket is not as bad as the impact that will be felt in the inshore fishery of the Gulf of Maine," said David Pierce, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who sits on the council. Mr. Pierce said council members are more concerned about depleted stocks of cod in the Gulf of Maine than anywhere else. "I am pleased to see that the council's action picked an option that will have the least impact on fishermen south of the Cape to the fishermen out of New Bedford," he said.
Still, fishermen will feel the pinch. Mayor Lang publicly complained about the harmful impacts on struggling seafood processors in the Whaling City.
Mr. Mayhew of Chilmark said management actions of the past have had a particularly harmful impact on the fishing fleets that work out of small coastal towns. "This is the death knell, especially for the medium to small dragger. This is way beyond the beginning of the end," he said. Mr. Mayhew's brother Gregory Mayhew operates the fishing boat Unicorn. Both boats work out of Menemsha and are the Vineyard's last two deep sea draggers.
There was positive news for fishermen who go hook fishing for cod out of Chatham. Eric Brazer Jr., a fisheries consultant from North Chatham, said the Chatham fishing fleet got a quota they can work with.
While draggers are regulated by the number of days they can fish, the Chatham community is instead held to a quota. When the quota is reached, the fishery is closed for the year. This is a new management technique for this region that has had success in other parts of the country.
"They need to stop the overfishing without delay," said Mr. Brazer, referring to what is left of the cod south of Cape Cod. "We are starting to see potential for a large year class. That year class has to be protected. We have to shepherd those fish so they might save the fishery three years, five years down the road."
Roger Fleming, a spokesman for the New England-based Conservation Law Foundation, agreed. "We need to bring back the fish if we are going to continue to have a fisheries," he said. Mr. Fleming attended council meetings this week. "They've managed the fishery using days at sea, establishing closed areas and gear management restrictions but it hasn't worked. It seems every two or three years we end up back at the council telling them they have to make another round of cuts. The message here is that the fisheries management in New England isn't working. The focus has been about trying to control the fishermen instead of trying to control the numbers of fish that are removed from the fishery," he said.
The council also took strong measures this week to end the overfishing of Atlantic herring in the waters of the Gulf of Maine. Atlantic herring are an essential forage fish and share the same waters as alewives, another valued fish.
Massachusetts recently imposed a three-year moratorium on the harvest of alewives from herring runs. Protecting Atlantic herring is also expected to have a positive effect on protecting alewives. Alewives, also called river herring, spend most of their lives in the open ocean but each spring they return to fresh water ponds and estuaries to reproduce.
"We really think that the steps the council took this week to protect herring is very important and in contrast to the way they have been managing groundfish," Mr. Fleming said.