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Government regulators are proposing a new set of fishing rules designed to protect and rebuild declining fish stocks in the North Atlantic. If approved, they’ll go into effect May 1st. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Megan Hall reports some fishermen say the restrictions would cripple their industry.
Early one morning, fisherman Chris Brown stands on the deck of his 54-foot trawler next to a dock in Galilee, R.I. He’s wearing orange waterproof overalls and pulling large buckets of fish out of the bottom of the boat.
Brown spent the past three days south of Block Island catching different types of ground fish including yellow tail flounder and cod – the type of fish he wouldn’t be able to catch under a proposed new set of fishing rules.
“This trip of 5,000 pounds of fish would be reduced to about 1,000 pounds next year,” said Brown. “That’s more than a change. That’s a disaster.”
Brown is the president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association. He and other fishermen are worried about a proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service that would close waters from the southern end of Cape Cod to just past Long Island. It would affect boats that catch ground fish.
“Any time you close a fishery, to me it’s an example of a failed management regime,” said Brown. “If you have to close it, then you’re not managing it – you’ve failed.”
Besides closing fishing grounds, the proposed rule would also cut in half the number of days fisherman are allowed to fish off the coasts of New Hampshire, Maine and Northern Massachusetts. That leaves the average fisherman with about twenty days to fish in the Gulf of Maine.
According to Maine Senator Susan Collins, this proposal is so harsh she fears it could spell the end of Maine’s fishing industry.
She and senators from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire wrote a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service warning that this proposal could bankrupt the ground fish industry.
“What we should do is listen more to the fishermen themselves,” said Collins. “They know how to best conserve the stocks. It’s in their interest to insure that the fishing stocks are rebuilt.”
Many fishermen want an approach known as catch shares. This would put a quota on the total pounds of fish crews can catch in a season instead of limiting days at sea or closing entire areas of the ocean.
Sally McGee is with the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council - the body that usually regulates the northeast fishing industry. McGee says catch shares give fisherman more flexibility over where and when they fish, something she’s been pushing for years.
“To get us away from this system that’s not working for fisherman, not working for fish, and to get us onto an approach that is going to work,” said McGee.
The New England Fishery Management Council had planned to institute regulations based on catch limits this year. But in August, it received new data showing that some ground fish stocks are in serious trouble. That left the council little time to respond. So it delayed the catch share approach until 2010. In the interim, the national marine fisheries service, or NMFS, stepped-in with this proposed rule.
Patricia Kurkel from NMFS says it may seem drastic to the fishing industry, but it’s the next logical step towards rebuilding fish stocks.
They’re reacting to the cumulative affects of all of the regulations over the years and I wouldn’t minimize that in any way,” said Kurkel, “but we don’t want to lose any ground either, we don’t want to lose any of the gains over the years.
The NMFS is now reviewing public comments on the proposed rule. Kurkel says its goal is to balance the economic needs of fishermen with rebuilding the ocean.
Fishermen like Chris Brown say that balance doesn’t give enough weight to his industry.