New England’s top fishing regulator said Friday that crippling cuts in catch limits this year are unavoidable and they will devastate what remains of the region’s once-flourishing fishing industry.
Officials are set to meet next week to decide catch limits for fishermen who chase bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and haddock.
But New England Fishery Management Council committees have already recommended massive cuts that fishermen have repeatedly warned will destroy the industry.
On Friday, John Bullard, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast office, said that key fish populations are so weak that ‘‘draconian’’ cuts in catches are unavoidable.
‘‘They cuts will have devastating impacts on the fleet and on families and on ports,’’ he told the Associated Press.
‘‘That reality is here, and we have to face it,’’ Bullard said.
His statements follow years of battles among the industry, environmentalists, and regulators over increasingly tough fishing rules and months of effort to find some way to avoid catastrophic reductions.
The fishing industry was a critical part of the nation’s early economy and is so revered locally that a wooden cod replica hangs in the House chamber of the Massachusetts State House.
But a new assessment of New England cod stocks, released this month, combined with a low catch this year is more evidence of their poor condition, Bullard said. Tough cuts are mandatory if fish populations are ever going to rebound, he said.
‘‘Yes, stocks can get rebuilt, but they don’t get rebuilt on dreams; they get rebuilt on difficult decisions that get made,’’ he said. ‘‘So that’s what has to happen with New England groundfish.’’
Bullard said failed management is ultimately to blame for weak fish stocks.
‘‘We set the rules, and clearly the rules have failed,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s no other conclusion.’’
The fishery council’s science committee is recommending catch reductions of 81 percent for cod in the Gulf of Maine, to 1,249 metric tons, and 61 percent for cod in Georges Banks, to 2,506 metric tons.
As recently as 2003, fishermen caught about 8,000 metric tons of Gulf of Maine cod and about 12,000 metric tons of cod in Georges Bank.
Fishermen have warned that they cannot survive the recommended cuts, saying it leaves them with too little fish to make a living.
Bullard said he thinks the groundfish industry will ultimately continue in some form, as fishermen seek alternatives.