Accusing the federal government of shoddy science and indifference to the plight of Massachusetts fishing families, Attorney General Martha Coakley sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Thursday over its attempt to limit this year’s catch on cod and other fish.
Her office called restrictions that slashed limits by 78 percent of 2012’s quota Draconian. The suit was filed in US District Court.
“The federal government has failed in its responsibility in considering the devastating economic impact of their regulations on our fishing families,’’ said Coakley, flanked by lawmakers and fishermen at Boston’s Fish Pier. “NOAA’s regulations are essentially a death penalty on the fishing industry of Massachusetts as we know it.”
NOAA officials acknowledged Thursday that the quota reductions are drastic but said they are essential to rebuilding severely depleted groundfish stocks and preventing overfishing among populations that have been alarmingly slow to recover.
The federal government targeted 13 species, and substantial reductions were also made for Gulf of Maine haddock, Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, and American plaice. The officials said the agency is increasing catch limits on stocks such as redfish, pollock, and white hake.
“We know that the quota cuts this year for groundfish fishermen for several key stocks, including cod, are severe,’’ said John Bullard, northeast region administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “However, given the poor condition of these stocks and the phased approach we took to reducing fishing effort to help ease the economic impacts on fishermen in 2012, the cuts are necessary.”
Coakely said that the new restrictions are grounded in flawed science and that the agency had used antiquated and unfounded methods to assess fish populations.
Scientists held much hope for Gulf of Maine cod after a 2008 assessment appeared to show that the population was thriving and would steadily rebuild. But those hopes were dashed after a 2011 assessment showed a depleted stock, said Thomas Nies, who heads the New England Fishery Management Council.
Scientists spent last year conducting another full assessment at the request of the fishing industry to determine why the numbers were off. They concluded that the bleak 2011 figures were accurate, Nies said.
Still, this year’s drastic cuts have enraged the industry. Addressing Thursday’s press conference, US Representative Stephen F. Lynch slammed the federal government, calling its approach in addressing the fishing stock one-sided, arrogant, and self-righteous.
“We understand there is a need to manage fish stock and to manage our way back to a healthier fishing environment,’’ Lynch said. “However, these regulations that we see will simply put the fishing industry out of business.”
The lawsuit names the New England Fishery Management Council, which advises NOAA and which voted on the new limits in January.
Cod is a New England staple, popular on the dinner table and a big seller for fishermen.
“It’s the king of all groundfish,’’ said Angela Sanfilippo of Massachusetts Fishing Partnership. ”People demand it.”
But the government’s effort to manage fishing stock has forced fishermen to face harsh cuts that have jeopardized their livelihoods and put them on the brink of hardship.
“We went from 11 boats three years ago, but now we are down to four,’’ said Mike Walsh of Stoughton, who has been a fisherman for 33 years. “And that was to make it through the last set of regulations. That’s how many boats that had to go away.”
Tory Bramante, the owner of the fishing vessel America, said local fishermen have felt betrayed by past government assurances that restrictions over more than a decade would lead to healthy groundfish populations by now.
“People look at us and say that we are fishermen and we can take it, but these are drastic cuts that we’ve already taken on over the past 15 years,’’ he said. “They keep coming and coming.”
Marjorie Mooney-Seus, spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries, said that while the quota reduction is bad, the limits are not as harsh as they seem. She said that fishermen caught only 60 percent of their quota for Gulf of Maine cod last year.
Roughly 6,605 metric tons of Georges Bank cod were caught in 2012, compared with 1,807 metric tons in 2013, she said. That represents 35.2 percent of fishermen’s quota, or 1,622.9 metric tons, she added.
Coakley's complaint alleges that NOAA violated three national standards governing the fishing industry, including failing to allow fishermen to catch an optimum yield, failing to use the best scientific information available, and failing to consider the economic impact of a major reduction in allotment.
Joe Orlando — a Gloucester fisherman and owner of the Padre Pio, a 65-foot trawler vessel — said fishing has been a financial anchor for his family. When the government began imposing limits, he took it in stride, hoping that his business would still be viable.
Now he is not too sure, he said. “Just three years ago, I had the ability to catch 100,000 pounds of Gulf of Maine cod,” he said at the press conference. “Because of these cuts, I’m only allowed 16,000.”
He worries about the bills, his boat, his family, and the industry he loves. “My livelihood has been cut before my eyes because of these changes,’’ he said. “With these reductions, I can’t even afford to properly maintain my boat. . . . I am in financial ruin.”