Commercial fishermen bowed their heads and then shook them, as well-meaning officials decided what they could catch, how much, and how often.
It was like cutting open a full net and watching the fish swim back into the sea. “This will kill us,” one fisherman said, not wanting to be identified. “How can we live on that?”
After a long, drawn out, and sometimes cantankerous threeday conference at the Newport Marriott Hotel, federal regulators finalized their best proposals to severely limit commercial cod fish catches next season, restrictions that if approved might crush the livelihood of fishermen trawling in federal waters.
On Tuesday, Nov. 18, the New England Fishery Management Council set a quota cut that will reduce total allowable cod catches for the 2015 fishing year from 1,550 to 386 metric tons.
The next day, the board of regulators voted on closing areas to protect spawning fish, limiting boat trips and the catch per trip to just 200 pounds of cod.
Patricia Fiorelli, public affairs officer for the Fisheries Council, said that the reports on cod reproduction are dire and that cod levels are at their lowest levels on record in the Gulf of Maine.
“We found out in August that federal waters in the Gulf of Maine, are really in poor condition,” said Fiorelli. “At our September meeting we determined we had to do something to protect the cod levels in the Gulf of Maine and quickly.”
Overseen by NOAA Fisheries federally, Fiorelli said the New England Council will recommend that NOAA take these emergency actions when they vote in two months.
“We are mandated by law to use our best available science and that’s what our decisions are based on,” added Fiorelli. “I know the limits were already cut severely last year, and I know the measures in place are onerous to the fishermen. I feel for them.”
On May 1, the start of the commercial fishing season in 2015, the limits will likely be put into place. “Between commercial and recreational fishermen they are limited to 386 tons. That’s it. That’s a 75 percent reduction.”
Tim Tower, a charter/party boat captain out of Maine, spoke at the conference. His input was part of an important discussion on cod being caught unintentionally on charter fishing trips. “We have to release them. We have been releasing them when we catch them,” said Tower.
“We had to set limits,” said Fiorelli. “We are now looking at measures to protect cod stock. Our staff will provide any available analysis to justify the actions and then submit them to NOAA. They have the final decisions on what was submitted today.”
The Council was also considering closing areas to cod fishing gear and there was a long session on identifying which ones – hooks, line, long lines, spears, rakes, diving gear, cast nets, tongs, harpoons, weirs, dip nets, stop nets, pound nets, gill nets, pots, trawls and dredges among them.
The greatest fear came from lobstermen who occasionally catch cod in their traps and claim to always release them.
Ultimately, the council rejected that idea. “A motion was made, but there was not enough science,” said Fiorelli. “In the cod protection areas, they were going to get rid of lobster gear, but the council saw the light. This will not affect lobstermen. In this case, the limiting was premature.”