Feds Play Hardball with MA Recreational Cod Fishery & Oil Drilling on Georges Bank

Highlights from the Two-Day NEFMC Meeting in NH

On January 30-31, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) met for what regular attendees sometimes jokingly call the annual snow meeting. For at least the past five years, this meeting begins with a snowstorm, and although the city of Portsmouth NH is filled with post card like beauty, snow causes travel issues. Happily, this meeting was planned with a light two-day agenda, thus late arrivals and travel cancellations didn’t really affect the outcome of the meeting…well done NEFMC.

Besides the business meeting, in a separate function room the NEFMC hosted a one-day mini trade show where 13 separate monitoring service providers helped industry members familiarize themselves with available “at sea,” electronic and port side monitoring options. The NEFMC is doing a better job of educating fishermen on the tools available to enhance management. Hopefully this will make it easier for fishermen to accept these tools…hopefully.

Multispecies Groundfish Management Plan

It’s the time of year when NEFMC sets recreational fishing measures for the upcoming 2018 cod and haddock season. The season opens on March 1. As has been the case for years, the regulations are set very close to the start of the season because essential final catch data from the prior year is not finalized until February. To set measures earlier would require more room for error and that would mean even less fish available for harvest. The problem this creates is that less fish in this case can mean either no fish or such a low bag limit it would honestly be not worth going. Until there is a major shift in the process, the regulations are set just before the season.

People outside the process expected harvest of haddock to increase because the overall haddock quota more than doubled, and even the depleted Gulf of Maine Cod quotas were increased. Unfortunately, staff told the NEFMC to either cut back on recreational groundfishing or face even more closures. [Insert curse words here!]

To understand the discussion of the proposed 2018 groundfish regulations, our readers need to know a few things. First, recreational catch data for ground-fish is known to have such wild swings that even conservation-first environmental organizations acknowledge some of this data is outside the boundaries of common sense.

Secondly, the state of Massachusetts allows a private angler to land one cod per day, even when federal waters are closed to harvest. Years of involvement with groundfish management teach us that this MA cod fish is allowed to be kept for multiple reasons. First, the data shows this amount of fish is so small that a single observation can more than double the extrapolated estimate of total annual catch in state waters. A single fish can change the data; that is a small amount of fish by any standard. Next, a rare cod will be caught as bycatch while targeting other fish, such as winter flounder, and a good number of those released will die. Why not limit waste when the risk of this bycatch allowance being abused is acknowledged as close to none? Most importantly, MA state regulators long ago decided that if they allowed a sustainable, commercial fishery on the public-owned cod stock in state waters, then prohibiting harvest by an individual citizen would be a public trust doctrine issue that is not only unfair, but also creates some very interesting legal and jurisdictional arguments related to a lot more than government management of fish.

Back to federal waters… In 2017, NEFMC recommended and NOAA Fisheries adopted regulations that the best available science predicted, in one case, a 100% chance of not exceeding the recreational quota. Can you see it coming? Yes, one year later the NEFMC was told that recreational harvest exceeded the quota. At the heart of this issue is that the science (aka bio economic prediction model) is being used to do a job it was not designed to do. It’s sort of like digging a hole to plant a flower with a backhoe. It causes all kinds of problems.

To bring this all together, both Gulf of Maine cod and haddock quotas have been increased.  Unfortunately based on 2017 data, 2018 recreational discard mortality of cod while fishing for haddock is predicted to be so high that not only does the federal recreational cod fishery have to remain closed for another year, but also haddock daily catch must be reduced despite a quota that more than doubled.

UNLESS…MA closed its state waters recreational cod fishery.

That’s right, if MA gets rid of the teeny tiny itty bitty barely noticeable state waters single cod per day, then, if NEFMC asks nicely, NOAA Fisheries might be able to twist numbers enough to allow 2017 regulations to remain in place, despite the haddock quota going up more than 200%. This is a type of “gun to the head” political hardball that is rarely if ever seen in fishery management. So much for the federal agencies respecting individual states rights and jurisdictions.

Simply put, after all the explanation at this meeting, the NEFMC formally asked NOAA Fisheries to set regulations as status quo and hopes MA will change its mind. Follow this link for more details on this situation.

The state of Massachusetts is currently accepting comments on the situation. Read more here.

Fissues will continue to report on this issue.

Recreational Charter/Party Fishery Control Date

The Council requested NOAA Fisheries adopt and publish an updated “control date” for the charter/party ground fish fishery. A control date of 3-30-2006 is currently in place, but many felt that this date was old and, for many factors including a vastly changed fishery, it was time to “refresh” a control date. A control date is nothing but a heads-up that operators with federal permits prior to a “control date” could be managed differently than those with permits issued after that date. No specific management action related to the control date is currently proposed or even in process.

Groundfish Monitoring Amendment 23

The Council received a quick progress report on Groundfish Monitoring Amendment 23. The Groundfish Committee is expected to present a range of potential alternatives at the April Council meeting. The amendment is aimed at improving monitoring of both landings and discards in the commercial fishery.

The Council also received a brief update on the Executive Committee’s recommendations for convening a Fishery Dependent Data Working Group. The group’s charge is to discuss how fishery dependent data can be used to inform stock abundance. The Council agreed in December that establishing a working group would be a 2018 groundfish priority.

During its January 26 meeting, the Executive Committee determined that the group would consist of six scientists, two industry members, and two Council or NMFS staff members. Of the six scientists:

  • Two will come from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center;
  • Two others will be nominated by the science center; and
  • Two will be nominated by the New England Council.

Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is soliciting comments through March 9, 2018 on its Draft National 2019-2024 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. It’s hard for staff to even cover this as the threat of a “Deepwater Horizon” type of accident within one of the nation’s most fertile fishing grounds should be enough to laugh this proposal out of the room. The NEFMC did the right thing and chose to write a letter requesting pretty much all area between 3 and 200 miles along the North Atlantic be exempted from Oil and Gas Drilling. Click here to read more on this subject. Well done, NEFMC!!!

Deep Sea Coral Amendment

The NEFMC took final action on its Omnibus Deep Sea Coral Amendment and voted to submit it to NOAA Fisheries for approval. In June the Council adopted coral protection zones as the method to manage protection of corals. At this final decision meeting and after months of comment and controversial rhetoric (which is the New England norm when a fish management body attempts to protect or limit anything), the Council adopted a 600-meter minimum depth  “broad zone” which encompasses 25,153 square miles. There were technical exceptions and a lot of details in the options chosen, but after the fact many feel this was a compromise decision. Within the zone 75% of coral will be protected, 75% of habitat suitable for soft coral will be protected, and 85% of area with a “slope” greater than 30 degrees will be protected. This option also has lower economic impact on mobile bottom tending gear. Check out the official press release here.

Industry Funded Monitoring

The Council was presented an update on a federal pilot project studying the feasibility and cost of electronic monitoring on Atlantic herring and mackerel mid water trawl vessels. The pilot project included 11 vessels. An estimated 1000 hours of video footage was recorded during 126 trips, and 32 of those trips had on-board federal observers.  The monitoring is aimed at tracking catch, discards and slippage (dumping/releasing anything in the net). More information can be found here.

Northeast Skate Complex Fishery Management Plan 

NEFMC initiated Framework Adjustment 6, which will consider alternatives to prolong the fishery by better utilizing total allowable landings and keeping the fishery open as long as possible. Click here for more details.

Research Priorities

The Council discussed some very detailed (wonky) items regarding the process of setting research priorities, important stuff that no one outside the Council needs to know. Click here to learn more.