NEWPORT, R.I. — A passionate debate among grim-faced New England fishermen and regulators in a hotel Wednesday was a stark reminder of an unfulfilled promise.
Deep cuts to the once-booming fleet over the past decade were made palatable by government assurances that key fish populations would rebuild and fishing nets would be teeming again. But with two critical species — Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank yellowtail — doing poorly, those assurances have disappeared.
Instead, members of the New England Fishery Management Council spent the day first attempting to drive up the number of yellowtail that fishermen could catch, then figuring out how best to allocate a still severely limited amount of fish next year among the region’s fishermen.
“The problem with all these choices is that there is no good outcome,’’ said Rip Cunningham, chairman of the Fishery Management Council, during the gathering Wednesday at the Marriott Newport hotel.
The yellowtail flounder catch was cut 80 percent this year, and an estimated 50 percent cut is expected for the next fishing year, which begins in May. The population is so low that few fishermen still target the fish on Georges Bank, but they are pulled up in scallop dredges and groundfish trawls because they are found on the sea floor with the species fishermen are trying to catch. As a result, scallop and groundfish fishermen must abide by yellowtail catch limits.
Fishermen, and some council members, asserted that the overall yellowtail catch next year would be so low it could cripple the estimated $400 million a year scallop industry or the groundfish business.
“This is pitting brother against brother,’’ said Peter Hughes of Atlantic Capes Fisheries Inc. of New Bedford and New Jersey, which fishes for and processes scallops. “These numbers are not healthy numbers for a domestic US fishery.”
Hughes, along with other fishermen and council members, expressed deep frustration with the science behind the projected yellowtail cuts, and the need to adhere to a US-Canadian agreed-upon quota on the submerged Georges Bank plateau that the United States jointly manages with Canada.
In two votes, the council narrowly voted to reject the joint quota and set a higher one, creating confusion about how much yellowtail flounder could be allocated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is all but guaranteed to reject that higher quota, said John Bullard, New England regional chief for NOAA.
The future does not look optimistic: There are few signs the yellowtail population could rebound in coming years.
And next month, just before Christmas, the council is scheduled to make more cuts to the catch of Gulf of Maine cod, the fabled white fish that was once so plentiful fishermen were said to be able to fill baskets by merely lowering them into the sea. Many in the industry — and even environmentalists — acknowledge that move is likely to decimate an already deeply suffering fishing fleet.