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Ailing New England fisheries face steep cuts to cod quotas

The regulatory body that oversees commercial fishing in New England approved steep cuts to the catch quotas Wednesday for two types of cod in the region because of depleted stocks, a move that advocates said will devastate the livelihoods of many fishermen.

The New England Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the catch limit of Gulf of Maine cod by 77 percent from last year and the US share of Georges Bank cod, whose stock is shared with Canada, by 55 percent, said Patricia Fiorelli, a council spokeswoman.

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She said the cuts take effect May 1, and the Gulf of Maine quota will remain in place for three years while the Georges Bank limit will be in effect for one year.

Fiorelli said that before the vote at the council meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., members heard from fishermen who indicated that “they really cannot make a living from these numbers,” while others said they were already not catching cod because of the low stocks.

She said the council could revisit the quotas if new information comes to light that shows that the stocks are rebounding.

Officials “don’t know why [the stocks] are so low,” Fiorelli said. “There’s a lot of scientific work that is still being done. They haven’t made good linkages between climate change and the state of these stocks, although people are working on that, as well.”

She added, “Some people still question the science, but the council relied on what it had.”

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Earlier this month, an effort by three Massachusetts congressmen to link up to $150 million in aid for struggling fishermen to a superstorm ­Sandy relief package failed.

“We wanted to approach this without taking away anything from the resources that would go to Sandy,” US Representative William R. Keating, a Democrat, said at the time. “[Fishing] is an industry just knitted with so many generational small businesses, fragile businesses just trying to survive.”

In September, the US Commerce Department declared economic disasters in six Northeastern states including Massachusetts, as catch limits and depleted fish stocks combined to ravage regional groundfish fisheries.

US Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat who has also pushed for aid for fishermen, said in a statement Wednesday that the prospect of the cuts is what prompted the Commerce Department to act in the first place.

“Republicans in Congress blocked a vote on several amendments to the Sandy aid package that would have helped Massachusetts fishermen, but I will continue to fight with my colleagues to help our fishing communities weather this storm,” Markey said. “We also need to marshal our scientific community to understand what is happening off our coasts and how we can resuscitate New England’s fisheries that are so important to our economy and culture.”

Maine fisherman Jim Odlin, a former council member, said at Wednesday’s meeting that the council has set the catch levels recommended by science for the last decade, and the ­industry has generally fished at or below those levels.

“It can’t be this council’s fault or the industry’s fault that the advice we’ve gotten for 10 years is wrong,’’ Odlin said. ‘‘We’re taking the advice, and it’s not working.’’

In a statement, the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an ­industry group based in ­Gloucester, said it was concerned that the council was on a path of “business-as-usual.”

“Today’s motions will result in decimating reductions that will be life-altering for all segments of the fleet,” the statement said.

“We need to work together to determine how to pick up the pieces and maintain this historic fishing industry.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.

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