After years of concerns about the overfishing of some of New England’s iconic species, the regional body overseeing fishing issues on Wednesday adopted a divisive plan that could require monitors to accompany groundfishermen on all trips to sea.
The plan approved by the New England Fishery Management Council would require that fishermen who target cod, flounder, and other groundfish bring monitors on their trips or install electronic devices to track their catch. The plan aims to ensure that fishermen accurately account for the haul they unload at the dock and are not improperly discarding fish that might exceed their quotas.
But the plan is contingent on Congress covering much of the costs, putting its future in doubt.
At the start of a contentious virtual meeting, John Quinn, the council’s chairman, described the debate over increased monitoring as “the most divisive issue” he has experienced in his five years overseeing the group, noting there have been multiple threats of lawsuits.
“It’s pitted friends against friends,” he said.
In the aftermath of the vote, which has fewer requirements than environmental advocates had sought, fishermen decried the decision.
“This is an incredibly sad day for both fishermen and fish,” said David Goethel, who has long fished for cod and other bottom-dwelling fish out of Hampton, N.H. “I am heartbroken that the good name of hard-working, law-abiding fishermen have been dragged through the mud and called liars and cheats.”
Environmental advocates called the plan a step in the right direction, but they worried that it wouldn’t be viable without sufficient government support.
“If federal funding continues, we will finally have accurate and precise baseline information about the catch, discards, and landings in this fishery,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst at Oceana, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. “This information is the foundation of successful modern fisheries management, and we are optimistic that today’s action will help chart the future success of this fishery.”
The rules apply to about 180 boats that target bottom-dwelling fish like cod, which have seen their population in the Gulf of Maine plummet by about 90 percent in recent years.
Until now, the fishermen were required to take monitors on 40 percent of their fishing trips. Those costs — estimated at more than $700 per trip — have been covered by the National Marine Fisheries Service without any guarantee that the agency would continue paying.
If the plan is approved by the Fisheries Service, the new rules would impose “a target” that all fishing trips are monitored, either by human observers or electronic devices. In some circumstances, regulators could provide fishermen waivers.
Over the first four years, the federal government would cover the full costs of the monitoring. If regulators don’t cover those costs, the industry would be required to pay for the costs of monitoring up to 40 percent of the trips to sea. The plan would be reevaluated in its fifth year.
One environmental group, The Nature Conservancy, offered to pay as much as $2 million to cover the costs of the entire fleet to equip the boats with electronic monitoring devices, calling such action “essential” to preserving the region’s fisheries.
“We believe that electronic monitoring is a scalable solution to delivering the fisheries data needed for sustainable management, at a cost that will continue to go down,” said Chris McGuire, the group’s marine program director.
Advocates have raised concerns about the lack of monitoring during the pandemic. The Fisheries Service didn’t allow monitors to observe fishing trips in the region until last month and were pleased by the push for increased oversight.
“A sustainable fishery must be based on accurate data, and the fishery management council demonstrated their commitment to that today, while also minimizing the economic burden on the industry,” said Allison Lorenc, a policy analyst at the Conservation Law Foundation.
But groups representing fishermen worry about the long-term impact on the fleet, which has been dwindling for years.
“The critical discussion of establishing monitoring targets that improve catch accounting while maintaining flexibility and fleet viability has yet to be addressed by the council,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an advocacy group for groundfishermen in Gloucester. “The can has been kicked down the road.”