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One Man's Opinion: New England’s latest headache

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
September 01, 2007

The mind-numbing complexity and frustrations of rebuilding New England's storied groundfish fisheries were apparent once again this summer. The problem this time was not the sacred (and scarce) cod, but rather haddock.

The headache with haddock, it seems, is that there are too many of them, especially on the fabled Georges Bank, where the 2003 year class may be the largest ever recorded. The problem is that the fish are growing slower than normal and they won't reach a legal harvestable size of 19 inches until some time next year. In the meantime, draggers are catching boatloads of illegal haddock, which they are required by law to toss back.

Some fishermen are throwing back five fish for every one they can keep. If the fish could swim and grow up to be caught another day, that would be one thing. But unfortunately, that's not the reality.

"The fish are dying," Rich Canastra, co-owner of New Bedford's Whaling City Display Auction, told the Commercial Fisheries News . "Either you're giving it to lobsters or your scavenger fish or you're going to give it to U.S. consumers. What we're asking for is that it is able to be landed. This is a big sin when we throw fish over that we rebuilt."

Veteran New England fisherman Jim Odlin is a member of the New England Fisheries Management Council, which wrestled with the issue at a meeting in late July. "It just seems to me to be a total crime to be wasting this fish," Odlin told CFN .

Making fishermen discard the small haddock also encourages them to target the larger haddock from smaller, older year classes. Since the older, more mature fish are more fecund spawners, it has a negative impact down the road on haddock stocks.

Adding salt to the wound is the fact that on the other side of Georges Bank, Canadian fishermen have no minimum size on haddock and they are sending truckloads of fillets into the market, depressing the price of what few legal fish U.S. fishermen are able to deliver.

At its July meeting, the council debated once again whether it should temporarily lower the minimum size to 17 inches. One council member against that action cautioned that, "You have to think of this more in a long-term equilibrium sense." Another member suggested a compromise of 18 inches. That was ultimately rejected, however, because haddock stocks in the Gulf of Maine have not been rebuilt and there were questions over whether the National Marine Fisheries Service had the resources to enforce two separate minimum sizes.

After debating the intricate network of frameworks and amendments that make fisheries management off New England more an interpretation of law rather than marine biology, the council narrowly approved an emergency action that would temporarily lower the minimum size to 17 inches.

That recommendation now goes to NMFS, where it will be reviewed by more lawyers and fishcrats before a final decision is made. Meanwhile, struggling fishermen, some of whom are allowed to only fish one month a year, will have to throw back the very fish they need to survive.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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