Thousands of square miles of ocean off the New England coast, off-limits to fishing for 16 to 18 years, could reopen in May to help offset the effects of anticipated drastic reductions in fishing quotas.
The New England Fishery Management Council, meeting in Plymouth, Mass., was almost unanimous in voting Thursday to include a proposal that would allow access to portions of five large closed areas as part of new regulations covering bottom-feeding fish stocks such as cod, haddock and flounder.
The council will take a final vote on the proposed update, known as Framework 48 to the groundfish management plan, Nov. 13-15 in Newport, R.I., the Cape Cod Times reports.
State and federal fishery regulators and politicians have been looking for ways to help a New England fishing industry that could see 28 percent to 94 percent of its catch, depending on the species, cut from the previous year to prevent overfishing on key stocks such as Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank yellowtail flounder. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Commerce Department issued a disaster declaration for the Northeast groundfish fishery that could net $100 million in federal aid.
Many fishermen and regulators have pointed out that the large closings that occurred in 1994 and 1996 were done largely to reduce overfishing by providing vast areas where fish could hide, grow and spawn, the Times reported. Fishermen and council members argued that closed areas severely hampered fishing on some stocks, such as haddock, which had been rebuilt.
"We are not catching close to what we could be catching on that healthy stock," Jackie Odell of the Northeast Seafood Coalition told the council Thursday. Odell said this past year fishermen landed just 18 percent of the Georges Bank haddock quota.
"A huge economic loss is occurring," she said. "We have to provide a better opportunity to target this stock."
Environmentalists who closely monitor the fishing industry said the proposal was illegal, purposely skirting requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act for a full evaluation of environmental impact. They threatened legal action if the council approves the measure in November.
"This developed explicitly to avoid environmental review," Conservation Law Foundation senior attorney Peter Shelley told the council Thursday. "We will fight this strenuously."