WASHINGTON (Saving Seafood) Sept 25, 2012 – Recently-appointed NOAA Fisheries Northeast Regional Administrator John Bullard met with representatives of various Atlantic coast fisheries and elected officials last Friday in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He began the meeting stating that his staff had put “hundreds of hours” into studying a request by the Northeast Seafood Coalition (NSC) to modify a “consequence closure” for one year before denying it, but ended the meeting agreeing to go back to the NMFS offices to review the decision based on new information provided to him during the meeting.
Last April, NOAA announced that because the number of harbor porpoise takes had exceeded a designated threshold, areas in the Gulf of Maine would be closed to gillnet fishing for the months of October and November to prevent the accidental deaths of harbor porpoises. NSC asked that the dates be amended to February 15 - March 31, 2013, and proposed a southern boundary change by using the authority granted to the Assistant Administrator in the Take Reduction Plan.
Mr. Bullard has stated that he will announce whether he has decided to change NOAA’s position Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 1:15 pm at a New England Fishery Management Council meeting in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In their letter denying NSC’s request, NOAA stated, “we found a negligible conservation gain for harbor porpoises and little economic benefit for the fishermen that would be affected by the closure.” Industry leaders and representatives of elected officials who attended the meeting argued that since NOAA clearly stated that the industry proposal would not hurt harbor porpoises, and would have some benefit to fishermen, the request should have been granted.
“NOAA agreed that our proposal is at least conservation neutral,” stated NSC’s Executive Director, Jackie Odell. “Where we differ, is we think our proposal will have a significant economic benefit and they think it will have ‘little economic benefit.’ Our member fishermen have told us an October / November closure will be devastating. Shouldn’t fishermen be able to decide their economic future for themselves?”
During the meeting, Emilie Litsinger of the Environmental Defense Fund read a statement supporting the NSC, “…this proposal appears to be a win-win solution for fishermen and harbor porpoise. … Changing the consequence closure to February and March will have a conservation neutral effect on harbor porpoise interactions, while lessening the economic impact on the fishermen.” EDF also suggested, “increased observer coverage to help document porpoise interactions for these four months [to inform] future management actions.”
In a statement released after the meeting, the NSC said, “During a tumultuous time such as this--when the Northeast groundfish fishing industry has been declared a fishery failure--all parties need to engage in a dialogue to find mutually beneficial solutions that will keep all aspects of the fishery alive.”
During the meeting, a NOAA staff member identified by Mr. Bullard as an expert on the harbor porpoise issue stated that, in order to accept the proposal, NOAA would have to revisit the time-consuming rule making process, and to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) they would “have to go in and do an environmental assessment.” However, NSC representatives pointed out that the Take Reduction Plan gives the agency authority to modify the closure with a simple notice in the Federal Register, which takes only a few days.
The same NOAA staff member also commented, “If we felt there was a conservation neutrality to [the proposal] or a gain to it, the regulation does provide [authority to change the plan]. "I think that is the discrepancy.”
An NSC representative felt the NOAA staff person’s statement was in conflict with NOAA’s written response to NSC. “You are rewriting the facts, your letter states unequivocally, ‘we found a negligible conservation gain,’” the representative said.
In defending the autumn closure, the official explained, “The October/November timeframe was chosen because those are the heavily fished months… In February and March you have less effort.” An industry attorney pointed out that fishing effort is usually less in February and March because the fleet is active in the fall. With a closure in October and November, fishing effort would likely move to the late winter and spring.
NMFS regulations require gillnet fishermen to deploy “pingers”, devices that regularly emit an audible "ping" to deter harbor porpoise from gear interactions. According to NMFS observer data, the fleet was 82.5 percent compliant with having the correct number of pingers, based on 883 observed hauls. The fleet was 92.4 percent compliant for pinger functionality based on 428 pingers tested. However, determining the functionality of pingers in the field can be difficult for both fishermen and NMFS enforcement. To further advance pinger compliance, the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund has worked with the Australian manufacturer Future Oceans to ensure they have the manufacturing capability to deliver new technology pingers with LED indicators. The LEDs will enable fishermen to instantly know if the pinger is functioning properly.
During the meeting, the fishermen offered to deploy twice the number of traditional pingers currently required starting October 1, and beginning in November (as soon as they can be delivered) to replace the old pingers with the required number of new generation "LED pingers" which provide a visual confirmation of pinger functionality. The Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund has offered to make new-technology LED pingers available to fishermen through favorable equipment leasing terms to enable fishermen to remain in compliance without the financial stresses of an up-front capital investment.
In a prepared statement the NSC expressed appreciation to Mr. Bullard for his “willingness to reconsider his decision based on all the new information presented to him in the meeting” The coalition also expressed appreciation to U.S. Senators Kerry, Brown, Shaheen, Ayote, Snowe, and Collins; to Congressmen Frank, Tierney, Keating, Guinta, and Michaud; to Congresswoman Pingree, Massachusetts State Senator Tarr, and the Gloucester Fisheries Commission.
Read the original request from the NSC to the NEFMC
Read the letter of support from 12 members of the US House and Senate