The region's fishermen, who have railed for months against the possibility of having to pay for the government observers who monitor their catch, may be getting a bit of a reprieve.
The New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees the region's industry, approved measures last week to alleviate some of the burden fishermen are facing to cover the costs of the observers monitoring their catch.
Earlier this year, federal regulators decided to end the multimillion-dollar subsidy that paid for the program, handing off the cost to the fishermen. The observers, under federal mandates, accompany fisherman on about a quarter of their trips as a way to curb overfishing.
A federal report this year found the new costs could cause 59 percent of the region's once-mighty groundfishing fleet to lose money. Many of the estimated 200 boats remaining are already struggling, given sweeping government-imposed cuts to quotas of cod and other bottom-dwelling fish.
The council's recent action, if approved by federal regulators, could reduce by half the number of trips that observers are required to take with the region's groundfishermen. The new regulations — which the government has estimated could cost fishermen as much $710 per trip with an observer — would reduce that requirement from nearly a quarter of trips to as low as 13 percent.
"This definitely helps, and is a good thing," said Kevin Norton, 45, a veteran groundfisherman from Scituate. "But I wouldn't go too far. The bottom line is that this one bone they're throwing at us isn't enough. There's a whole industry going bankrupt."
The council's vote raised concerns among environmental advocates, who say the observer program — even in its current form — doesn't do enough to monitor the catch and blame regulators for waiting too long to protect species such as cod.
Last year, after environmental advocates had been raising concerns for years, surveys by the National Marine Fisheries Service found that the region's cod population had fallen to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population. As a result, regulators imposed a temporary moratorium last fall on commercial fishing for cod and then cut this season's quota by 75 percent.
Oceana, a Washington-based advocacy group whose lawsuits against the federal government spurred many of the current rules, estimates that groundfishermen in the Northeast have been illicitly discarding an average of about $25 million a year in fish they shouldn't be catching. Fishermen are supposed to bring in all of the fish they catch, and then pay to "lease" additional quota if they go over the limits. By discarding the extra fish, they avoid the payment but also make it impossible for regulators to account for what they are catching.
Last summer, Oceana filed another lawsuit against the fisheries service, arguing that the observer program still has too many loopholes.
"If this critical information [about how many fish are being caught] isn't accurate and precise, it encourages illegal discarding of overfished stocks and undermines the ability of the fisheries service to administer the quotas, prevent overfishing, and rebuild our fish stocks," said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst for Oceana.
Brogan said the cuts are technically steeper than half to the observer program, given that the percent of trips monitored was slated to rise to 41 percent for the next fishing season.
"This low level of observer coverage is completely unacceptable, especially as the failure to monitor catch and enforce catch limits is in part responsible for the collapse of the New England groundfish fishery in recent years," he said. "The council prioritized cost and economics over conservation of their fish, even when some stocks are in the gutter."
Regulators declined to say whether they would approve the council's cuts, which would take effect on May 1.
"We are working with the council and the industry," said John Bullard, regional administrator of the fisheries service. "They will submit these proposals to us in late January, with accompanying analysis. We will review them at that time."
He noted that, by law, the fishermen were supposed to start paying for the observer program three years ago, but the fisheries service has defrayed the costs because of the industry's financial turmoil. He has said his agency lacks the money to continue paying for the program.
The federal dollars had been expected to run out last month, but because fewer fishermen are going to sea, the money for the program is now expected to last until the end of February.
The cuts also mean a limited number of jobs for observers, who are specially trained by the government and employed mainly by private contractors. There are now 90 certified "at-sea monitors" for the groundfishing fleet.
The amount of trips observed fell in recent years. Since 2010, when observers accompanied 9,400 trips to sea, the number of trips monitored has fallen by 40 percent, said Amy Martins, who oversees the region's observer program for the fisheries service.
Over the same time, the number of boats in the fleet has fallen from 442 in 2010 to at most 241 today, according to the fisheries service.
For now, the region's various fishing sectors are considering different ways to cover the costs of the observers, from pooling fees for all their vessels to requiring fishermen to foot the bill each time they go to sea with a monitor.
"Regardless which path is being explored, it will be a learning curve, and it is a difficult pill to swallow, because many fishing businesses are not profitable right now," said Libby Etrie, who manages the Northeast Fishery Sector I out of Gloucester.
She called the council's vote "a positive step," but other colleagues lamented the impending costs, noting that the fisheries service has estimated that paying for the observers will reduce the fleet's revenue by 20 percent.
"That's crushing," said Hank Soule, who manages the Sustainable Harvest Sector of fishermen from South Berwick, Maine.
For Kevin Norton, the coming costs may be too much.
In recent months, the 45-year-old father of four has been trying to fish as much as he can — before the subsidies run out.
"I'm doing this week by week now," he said. "I'll probably have to tie the boat up as soon as we have to pay for the observers."
By the numbers
The region's cod population has fallen to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population.
SOURCE: National Marine Fisheries Service