WAKEFIELD – Commercial fishing regulators postponed making devastating catch cuts to the New England fleet Thursday, hoping to find some way to aid fishermen who gave wrenching testimony about the effects cuts would have, including loss of homes, boats, health insurance, and livelihoods.
The New England Fishery Management Council will ask for guidance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees fishing, to see if new information will become available on fish stocks and if less severe measures could be put in place before they deal with the issue again in late January.
But even fishermen in the audience said they doubted much could be done: A federal law requires fish stocks to meet strict rebuilding targets; if rules seem to undermine that, conservation groups are likely to sue to ensure the cuts are made.
Not making the cuts — which could be as high as 50 to 80 percent, compared with this year for some prized species such as cod and flounder — are also unlikely to pass muster with NOAA, which must approve the council's actions.
"Absolutely the cuts are going to come,'' said Joe Orlando, a longtime fisherman out of Gloucester who was at the packed meeting at the Sheraton Colonial Boston North Hotel.
Speaking earlier to the 18-member voting council, he said federal fish-counting science was bad, and regulators should shoulder some of that burden.
"If I am going to lose my house . . . I hate to say it, but you should lose your house, too. You have to have some accountability," Orlando said.
Warming waters and a changing ocean possibly related to man-made climate change are contributing to dismal populations of cod and flounder, according to regulators who say the only way to try restoring fish populations is to reduce the size of the yearly catch.
Tense-faced and sympathetic members of the council listened to fisherman after fisherman plead with them not to make the cuts.
"I can't sleep," Mark Carroll, a Gloucester fishermen, said to the council before getting up in agitation to point at the scores of fellow fishermen in the ballroom. "All these people are going to lose their job; this has run amok. I get so upset I can't think straight . . . It's lights out; it's over."
To ease the pain, the council voted to possibly open up to 5,000 square miles of conservation areas that have largely been closed to fishing in the past 15 to 20 years, although some environmentalists and council members warned against that.
Jud Crawford of the Pew Environment Group said the areas needed to stay closed to help protect fish habitat and fish populations.
Beth Daley can be reached at email@example.com.