PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) -- New England's fishing fleet faced grim news Wednesday as regulators meet to consider steep cuts in catch limits that fishermen warn will trigger industry collapse.
The New England Fishery Management Council was meeting in Portsmouth to decide 2013 limits on stocks including cod on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine. Fishermen are facing a year-to-year 81 percent cut on the Gulf of Maine cod catch limit, to 1,249 metric tons, and 61 percent on Georges Bank cod, to 5,103 metric tons.
Fishermen who chase the region's bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and flounder, say the cuts will hollow out what remains of a struggling fleet, leaving it with too few fish to make a living.
The low limit reduces the catch on a storied New England species to just a fraction of what it once was, and it also prevents fishermen from landing more plentiful species, such as haddock and pollock. That's because fishermen can't pull up the healthier groundfish without catching too much of the cod that swim among them.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's top federal fisheries regulator, John Bullard, has acknowledged that the cuts will be devastating to the industry and fishing communities.
But he says the science and low catch rates this year show that key stocks are in perilous condition and major cuts are needed to meet legal mandates to rebuild the fishery. He predicted that the industry would adapt and survive in some form until groundfish recover, perhaps by learning how to better catch healthy stocks. But he said he had no idea what the remnant would look like.
Fishermen say the catch is down this year because of natural cycles or as a result of poorly designed regulation that keeps fishermen away from healthy species. They've also consistently disputed the accuracy of fish science. Maine fisherman Jim Odlin, a former council member, pointed to an analysis that shows that for about the last decade, the council has set the catch levels recommended by science, and the industry has generally fished at or below those levels.
"It can't be this council's fault or the industry's fault that the advice we've gotten for 10 years is wrong," he told the council Wednesday. "We're taking the advice, and it's not working."
The coming cuts have been foreseen by fishermen and regulators for months, but attempts to avoid or mitigate them have failed.
Last year, the U.S. Senate committed $150 million in its Superstorm Sandy relief bill to be shared by fishermen in the Gulf Coast, Alaska and New England, where a national fishery disaster has been declared. But House lawmakers stripped out the funding, and the bill passed Monday with nothing for local fishermen.
The Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group, lobbied to extend an interim measure passed that allowed the industry to put off huge cuts in cod and haddock in the Gulf of Maine in 2012. Bullard rejected that, saying there was no legal justification. Several lawmakers who represent fishing communities have asked him to reconsider, but Bullard said Wednesday that he would not, citing the law and the persistent poor health of key fish stocks.
"The day of reckoning is here, for legal reasons and for reasons of biology," he said.