By Doreen Leggett
A skate plan, an ecosystem update, fisheries protections in wind lease areas, criminal charges, and the fate of sea clammers were just a few of the items discussed by the New England Fishery Management Council in February – and that was just day one of a three-day meeting.
The regional council, one of eight established by federal legislation in 1976, is charged with conserving and managing fishery resources from three to 200 miles off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The system was designed to give fishery managers flexibility to use local input to come up with plans that match each region’s unique challenges and opportunities.
One of the 18 members on the council is the chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, John Pappalardo, who has served for close to 20 (non-consecutive) years working on the council’s core goals: develop fishery management plans; set annual catch limits and accountability measures; identify research priorities with scientists and stakeholder/industry partners; adhere to national standards to prevent overfishing while achieving optimum yield for domestic fisheries.
This is the nitty gritty of a federal system that oversees one of the nation’s historic, iconic industries. The process can be filled with acronyms, frustrating, even numbing in its details and complexity. But it plays a crucial role in the economy of anyplace fish comes to ports – including Cape Cod.
To give you a sense of the how the council works we went, virtually, to the first day of its February meeting. This day in the life tackled many weighty issues in technical, low-key fashion, similar to many meetings that occur without fireworks and crowds drawn to big controversies like draconian cuts to fish stocks, or requirements for 100 percent observer coverage on boats.
One of the council’s discussions closely followed by the Cape involves skates, an important regional fishery. There have been discussions for several years on whether the skate fishery management plan should switch from “open” to “limited entry” to better protect the species. Recently, that topic was tabled in favor of a smaller action intended to improve reliability and accountability of catch reports and catch data, such as discards.
Council staff, and others, went over possible options with council members. The options ranged from requiring yearly permits, requiring permits before the season started and not being allowed to drop the permit, or no action which means skate permits are required but can be obtained or dropped at any point during the year. There are currently 350 vessels with a federal permit.
Committees recommended no action because very few permit holders entered and left the fishery last year.
“A very small number of vessels have been using this flexibility,” said Rachel Feeney, a fishery analyst with the council, meaning about five percent of the fleet.
The skate population is considered healthy and fishermen are only catching a small percentage of the available quota; 12 percent of bait and 32 percent of wings.
“The alternatives that would restrict permits are not necessary right now,” Feeney said.
The majority of the council voted to support the recommendation. Pappalardo was in the minority.
Pappalardo said no action was a missed opportunity because it did little to improve skate assessments, understand landings and data, better understand the true potential for vessels to enter the fisheries or protect skates from overfishing. Considering limited staff resources, he questioned creating a document if there was no change.
“There is nothing in this action that we were voting on that improves or addresses any of the issues,” he said.
He also was in the minority, on a close vote, that approved a closer look at work being done to assess whether the surf clam industry’s actions to protect habitat are effective. The matter may come up again at the April or June council meeting after the habitat committee, a subcommittee of the council, and another subgroup, the Plan Development Team, look at data.
Industry representatives said surf clam vessels and manufacturing are in danger if they are not allowed to fish in areas with abundant surf clam populations. Those areas are protected habitat in the Great South Channel, but the vessels were allowed in to do research. Owners hope to extend that research work and show that their continued harvesting on soft bottom areas is not harmful.
“The situation is dire,” said Monte Rome, general manager of Intershell International Corp., with multiple boats in the fishery.
Pappalardo was concerned that the council had already decided against supporting an emergency action to continue and that the council was supporting a motion that didn’t provide a clear roadmap. He also expressed concern that it took close to a decade, as well as extensive peer-reviewed reports, for the council to vote to protect those habitat areas. Contemplating changes with preliminary data seemed hasty.
The council was also updated on Ecosystem Based Fishery Management, an approach to consider everything from climate change to predator prey relationships, competition with other species, and fishing effort rather than managing species by species.
Because of the ocean’s complexity, EBFM has been slow to progress, but Pappalardo, who chairs the council’s EBFM committee, has doggedly pursued it.
Assisted by Andrew Applegate on council staff, the plan is to move forward with public workshops this spring, identifying stakeholders associated with Georges Bank for a pilot. One key element is working with National Marine Fisheries Service to clarify how ecosystem approach performs with National Standard One, which requires the optimum yield for each fishery.
“There is certainly a lot of things that are currently a little over the horizon that will come into focus soon,” Applegate said.
Council member Daniel Salerno, from New Hampshire, asked when the committee was going to begin to address some of the questions commercial fishermen have about EBFM – what can I catch being top on their minds.
“We hear some of the industry folks saying, ‘I’m interested. I don’t know a thing about it,’” said Salerno.
Applegate said those question will be answered in Phase II after the prototype is developed.
The council also received updates on earlier council actions wending their way through the regulatory process.
Mike Pentony, NOAA’s Regional Administrator for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, said the start of the year was busy. Upcoming hearings include how best to reduce sea turtle bycatch in multiple fisheries. There is also an early March meeting of the harbor porpoise reduction team; currently the take is below established parameters.
Pentony reminded the council that comment period on a plan to require 100-percent observer coverage ends March 15.
“That will have a hard and fast decision date in mid-April,” he said.
There will also be another comment period published in the Federal Register on how the rule will be implemented.
Another big issue is a paucity of herring and other forage fish, which led to an early shutdown of fishing in an area off the Cape to mid-water trawlers, plus quota for mackerel reduced substantially, from 17,000 metric tons to 4,000.
Coast Guard personnel reported boarding 82 vessels and issuing six violations – species violations and a closed area incursion – which is a 93 percent compliance rate. There were also some indictments handed down to a captain and crew in Maine for reportedly illegally selling more than 2.6 million pounds of Atlantic herring. Five fishermen from Maine and one from New Hampshire are charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction of justice.
Jon Hare, director of Northeast Fisheries Science Center, reported that since the federal government is still operating on a continuing resolution it could affect the spring bottom trawl survey, which provides information to make regulatory decisions. On a positive note, Hare said observer training has been going well, back to pre-pandemic levels. There is however a backlog of data.
Council and staff are also trying to get ahead of wind projects planned along the coast. The council agreed to create a Habitat of Particular Concern in Southern New England. The designation would not limit fishing or provide more protection, but would create focus and research for planned wind farms, or other projects such as aquaculture.
“I am highly supportive of adding this additional focus to the area,” said Libby Etrie, a council member from Massachusetts.