New England fishermen, regulators talk fish counts

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — New England fishermen and scientists met Friday amid an industry crisis in a forum that aimed to shed light on and air disagreement about the controversial science of counting fish.

Fishermen have long questioned fish population estimates offered by scientists, ­often because they contradict what they find at sea. With key stocks struggling and huge projected cuts set to decimate an already limping industry in 2013, the unrest is widespread.

‘‘The fishing industry, in general, is in a very negative mood,’’ said New Hampshire fisherman David Goethel.


In recent months, federal and regional regulators have met more frequently with fishermen to increase cooperation and try to determine how to outlast the crisis.

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John Bullard, the head of the National Oceanic and ­Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast office, said fishers and scientists should not be at odds since they both have ­expertise on fish behavior and seek the same ‘‘elusive truth.’’

‘‘We’re just trying to find ways, big and small, to have ­increased involvement because that increased involvement is going to increase our understanding,’’ he said.

At the Friday meeting in Portsmouth, scientists detailed the complexities and uncertainties of counting fish that live out of sight.

They also took questions from fishing industry advocates frustrated about what they say are shifting and incorrect population estimates that have led to lower catch limits and hurt their businesses.


Earlier this year, New England fishermen absorbed a 22 percent cut in the catch of cod in Gulf of Maine, with a projected 70 percent cut expected for 2013. Meanwhile, the catch for yellowtail flounder in Georges Bank was slashed 80 percent last year, and regulators project a 51 percent cut next year.

The huge cuts may be limited to certain species, but they threaten the entire industry. That’s because fish in New England waters mix together, so the catch on even healthy species, such as haddock, must be tightly restricted to protect the struggling species they swim among.

The dismal condition of cod and yellowtail caught fishermen off guard. Just four years ago, cod in the Gulf of Maine, for instance, was considered ­robust and growing .

Bill Gerencer, a Maine-based seafood buyer and dealer, said the frequent ‘‘whipsaw assessments’’ of fish health are a sign that fishery regulation is being built on a deeply flawed scientific tool that needs to be ­replaced.