Federal fishery managers meeting in Wakefield, Mass., Thursday voted to recommend tougher fishing restrictions for the Gulf of Maine, where scientists say cod stocks are in danger of collapse.
Maine’s ground-fish fleet is concentrated in that vast body of water stretching from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia.
Pat Fiorelli, spokeswoman for the New England Fishery Management Council, said Thursday night the council was recommending staggered, monthlong closures between April and September in the section of the gulf between Cape Cod and Penobscot Bay. She said the council also recommended a year-round closure encompassing prime fishing grounds known as Jeffrey’s Ledge off New Hampshire, as well as a monthlong closing of Cashes Ledge in June.
In addition, Fiorelli said the council supported reducing the amount of cod caught per fishing trip to 700 pounds. She said the cap would be further reduced to as little as 400 pounds if all the measures don’t prove to be effective.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates fishing in federal waters, will have the final say on whether the council’s recommended measures suffice to rebuild cod stocks.
Maine’s ground-fish fleet consists largely of small, family-run boats concentrated in the 36,000-square-mile Gulf of Maine. Most of the 1,700 licensed vessels are not large enough to venture to Georges Bank where thousands of square miles have been off-limits to fishing and cod and other ground-fish stocks have begun to rebound.
Maine officials and scientists have faulted the council for failing to take action to protect the Gulf of Maine when sections of Georges Bank — a vast shallow plateau 200 miles southeast of Portland — were closed to fishing in 1994. They note the closings drove larger boats into the gulf, further eroding stocks.
“We are cautiously optimistic. We will need to see the full document,” NMFS spokesperson Terri Frady said Thursday night, speaking from Wakefield. “We are certainly encouraged the council didn’t back away from their responsibility.”
Eleanor Dorsey, a fishery scientist at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, said the approved measures could be enough to improve cod stocks. “They may be enough to get the pressure on cod down to the level that’s being recommended,” she said Thursday night. “There are a number of uncertainties, like how many cod will be killed because of discarding and how protected cod will actually be due to the closures.”
Last month, the council’s Multispecies Monitoring Committee reported cod stocks were at historic low levels in the gulf and in danger of crashing. The committee of scientists called for a 63 percent reduction in fishing.
Fiorelli said the council has until Feb. 1 to submit its recommendations to NMFS. The federal agency hopes to have the regulations in place in time for the 1998 ground-fish season, which begins May 1.