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Baker questions federal findings on fishing limits

Voices support for fishermen

GLOUCESTER — Governor-elect Charlie Baker vowed Saturday to do his part to save the state’s struggling fishing industry, saying Massachusetts has not done enough to support fishermen and calling into question research used to impose restrictions to boost the cod population.

“I’ve been struck by the dynamic in which the federal government says there are no fish and then fishermen go out and fish for a few hours and catch 10,000 pounds or 5,000 pounds,” Baker said.

Scientists say cod often congregate around their spawning areas as their numbers decline, making it easier for fishermen to catch them.

Baker spoke after meeting with fishermen behind closed doors at the Gloucester House Restaurant. Lieutenant Governor-elect Karyn Polito and state Senator Bruce Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester, also attended.

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Fishermen have been sounding the alarm since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced emergency measures Monday that effectively ban cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine for six months to protect the species from further decline.

The new rules, which went into effect Thursday, restrict what areas can be fished, lower the allowed accidental catch of cod to just 200 pounds per boat, tighten reporting requirements, and reduce the size of nets fishermen may use.

The regulations were implemented after NOAA announced that an assessment of the cod fishery over the summer found the population had plummeted more steeply than previously thought.

The federal government also found few young fish, reflecting paltry spawning rates.

Many fishermen dispute these findings, and Baker added his skepticism.

“You’re talking about a 65,000-square-mile area in which a 75-mile trawl is the basis on which they made the decision to close it,” he said. “I don’t know if I consider that to be adequate or not. It doesn’t sound adequate to me.”

Peter Baker, who leads the Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean conservation work in New England and is not related to the governor-elect, said the data used by NOAA are considered reliable by the global scientific community and that catching a big haul of cod does not prove the population is large or stable.

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“What the science has shown is that when cod start to decline, they ball up in small areas,” Baker said. “If you’re a good fisherman, you can go to those small areas and catch a lot of fish. That doesn’t mean there are a lot of cod. It means you’re a good fisherman.”

Baker said the temporary ban was “a good first step,” but would not restore depleted cod populations.

“What they really need to do is protect ocean habitat where cod can go and spawn and feed,” he said.

In Gloucester Saturday, fisherman Al Cottone showed photographs he took of fish he said he caught the week before the emergency measures were announced to illustrate the difficulties the ban presents.

Cottone said he got about 1,800 pounds of yellow tail flounder and cod in one location 18 miles offshore and then traveled a mile and a half to another spot closer to port. There, Cottone said, he set out to catch flounder and ended up with 700 pounds of it. When he counted the cod from that haul, it came to two fish — but that area is now off limits for all fishing because of concerns about the species, he said.

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“We can stay away from the cod if we want to,” he said.

Charlie Baker said the state should try to persuade higher education and research institutions to create an accurate picture of fishing stocks. The observations of fishermen at sea should also be taken into account, he said.

The incoming governor also decried a lack of support for fishing, saying he thinks it is “terrible that this industry hasn’t had the kind of advocacy it deserves.”

Congress has pitched in, appropriating $32.8 million in aid this year to groundfishermen in New England, much of it going to Massachusetts.

“It’s a debate about data,” the governor-elect said. “There’s clearly a difference of opinion between the fishermen that we were just talking to and their families and NOAA about what’s going on out there.”

Media representatives for NOAA did not return voicemails or e-mails on Saturday.

The debate over fishing continues this week when the New England Fishery Management Council meets, Tarr said. According to the council’s website, the meetings will be held Monday through Thursday.

Tarr said he plans to push for an end to the emergency ban on cod fishing and advocate for fewer restrictions on where fishermen can go when the season begins on May 1.

“We need immediate action,” Tarr said. “What’s at risk right now is the entire in-shore fishing fleet in the state, and that not only has an impact immediately on hundreds of jobs here and in ports like New Bedford and on the South Shore . . . but it has a much larger impact on the identity of the state, on tourism, on restaurants.”

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Fisherman Paul Vitale, who attended Saturday’s meeting, said he is hopeful that Baker can help. “It sounds like he wants to start getting better data and start helping the fishing fleet,” Vitale said.

Vitale pointed to the state Division of Marine Fisheries as an agency in need of reform.

“They’re supposed to represent the Massachusetts fishermen and they’re not,” he said.

Tommy Testaverde, 58, described fishermen’s distrust of federal regulators.

“They use the information that we give them, catch reports, and close down the areas where we catch the fish,” he said. “They know what they’re doing, how to hurt people, and they’re doing it.”

The audience at the Gloucester House restaurant as governor-elect Charlie Baker meets with fishermen to hear their concerns about the recent ban on cod fishing.
The audience at the Gloucester House restaurant as governor-elect Charlie Baker meets with fishermen to hear their concerns about the recent ban on cod fishing.(John Blanding/Globe Staff)

David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.