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New England Fishermen Rally For Relief From Strict Catch Limits

BOSTON — As of May 1, commercial fishermen in New England won’t be allowed to catch as many cod and haddock and other groundfish — not nearly as many. Federal regulators have drastically reduced so-called catch limits so that depleted stocks can recover.

On Boston’s fish pier Monday, with a newly painted fishing boat as a backdrop, fishermen and Massachusetts politicians railed against the new catch limits — and asked for a reprieve.

Richie Canastra, co-owner of the New Bedford and Boston seafood auctions, cited reports from boats currently out at sea that groundfish such as flounder are coming back.

“The fish are showing up,” he said. “One boat: 15,000 pounds of George’s Bank yellowtail [flounder]. They’re getting them in the north and the south. It is a cycle! It’s a cycle that we go through.”

Republican state Sen. Bruce Tarr, from the fishing port of Gloucester, said the new catch limits are too drastic.

“Not on our watch are we going to let fishermen be the first species on Earth to go extinct because of federal regulation!” he said. “We’re gonna be here.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. John Tierney, from Salem, agreed the industry needs to be saved.

“Where we’ll be able to stop people from losing the mortgages on their home, on their boat, on their equipment, on their seaside properties,” he said.

Tierney issued a direct challenge to the regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service that’s in charge of managing fish stocks. That’s John Bullard. He was in the audience, and he said raising the catch limits at the last minute is just not possible.

“Legally, I don’t think we can do that,” he said. “And even if we could do it legally, I don’t think we should.”

Bullard said he knows it’s painful for fishermen, but he said hauling in more groundfish in the coming year is not good for the industry in the long term.

“We have to rebuild these stocks and get out of this situation where we’re at historically low levels of codfish,” he said. “Fishermen, as of two weeks ago, with eleven-and-a-half months in the fishing year, have only caught 60 percent of the quota from last year. Fishermen aren’t finding codfish either. Sooner or later we have to say, let’s rebuild the cod stocks.”

Bullard favors helping fishermen do things like convert the equipment on their boats so they can go after other kinds of fish that are more plentiful. But many fishermen and industry workers at the rally didn’t feel very encouraged.

“Well, I’ve been to so many of these rallies, and they don’t go anywhere,” said Reidar Bendiksen, a former commercial fisherman who now runs a fishing gear manufacturer in Fairhaven.

“Every time you go, they get smaller and they get smaller, because there’s less fishermen and less boats,” he added. “They go out of business little by little. We’ve been up against this for 20 years now.”

But they’ve never faced groundfish limits this low before.

This post was updated with the Morning Edition feature version.

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