PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Environmentalists and commercial fishermen both say they are fearful of proposed changes to the federal rules that govern New England's beleaguered cod fishing industry.
The rules govern an industry that has fed New England for centuries and is now in steep decline. Most codfish sold to consumers in the region now come from foreign countries such as Norway, Iceland and Russia.
Cod is closely associated with fish and chips.
Regulators who typically split New England's cod into two stocks want to slightly raise the Gulf of Maine quota but more dramatically cut the Georges Bank quota for the coming fishing year. The catch limit would rise 30 percent, to 500 metric tons, in the Gulf and fall nearly two thirds, to 762 metric tons, on Georges.
The quota cut on Georges Bank also would make it difficult for fishermen to pursue other, higher-quota species such as haddock and pollock, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association. Fishermen also must stop fishing for other species when the cod quota is met.
"These cuts are actually setting us up for an even more difficult year," he said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says New England's cod population is in poor condition and subject to overfishing. Scientists also have said the fish is vulnerable to climate change. U.S. fishermen's annual catches of Atlantic cod were over 100 million pounds in the early 1980s and are now close to 5 million.
NOAA's proposal also includes a reduction in the number of fishing trips that would be accompanied by "at-sea monitors," who are workers hired to gather data for future quotas. The proposal states that coverage would fall from 24 percent to 14 percent in the coming fishing year.
The proposal comes as a shift in the cost of monitors from the government to the industry has touched off a rancorous debate between fishermen, regulators, politicians and environmentalists. Environmental group Oceana criticized NOAA for proposing to reduce monitoring in a fishery the group said needs better data collection to rebuild.
"The New England groundfish fishery is on the brink of collapse," said Gib Brogan, Oceana's fisheries campaign manager. "Instead of recognizing this looming disaster and helping fishermen move toward a more sustainable future, this proposed rule would instead weaken the chances of recovery for this historic fishery."
The new rules could apply by May 1. They are subject to a public comment period and need final approval from the federal Department of Commerce.