Fishing regulators on Thursday delayed voting on huge cuts to the catch of New England fishermen after repeated and emotional warnings that the reductions would finish off the flailing industry.
The New England Fishery Management Council voted 15-2 to put off deciding on new catch limits for various bottom-dwelling groundfish species until their next meeting, scheduled for the end of January.
Fishery scientists say some species are recovering far too slowly, meaning drastic cuts in catch are needed to meet the law's mandates to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.
The possible cuts in catch included 74 percent for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder and up to 90 percent for Gulf of Maine cod, compared to what fishermen landed in 2011.
Before the vote, fishermen criticized fishery science they say vastly underestimated the health of fish stocks and repeatedly told the council the possible cuts would obliterate the remnants of the centuries-old industry. Scituate fishermen Frank Mirarchi, a 50-year veteran, told the council they might be looking at "the end of an era" when cuts go into effect at the May 1 start of the fishing year.
"Fishermen have fished from the ports represented by our sectors for 350-plus years continuously," he said. "These are all family-owned and operated businesses that basically, once out of the fishery, will never return."
Gloucester fisherman Mark Carroll said he'd nearly lost everything struggling under onerous fishery penalties and restrictions.
"I say if you're going to take 1 damn percent (more), shut the whole damn thing down!" he yelled, shortly before storming out of the room to applause and shouts of support. "I'm dead here, you're kicking my ... teeth out!"
The decision to delay voting on the cuts came after the head of the council, Rip Cunningham, killed a measure that could have eased them, saying it wouldn't meet federal requirements to stop overfishing and rebuild stocks. That proposal set 2013 catch limits for each of the troubled species at 10 percent below their projected 2012 catch.
Council member John Quinn said there's so much uncertainty about the science, that taking more time for analysis makes sense.
"Some may call it punting, some may call it avoiding a tough decision," he said. "I call it making sure we have every last piece of data and every last opportunity to make this decision that's going to potentially have some cataclysmic impacts on families and regions."
New Bedford fisherman Mark Phillips said the industry is so distrustful of the science behind the regulations, he doesn't think it will support whatever measures they vote on in a month.
"It just prolongs the agony," he said.
But Carlos Rafael, who owns a fleet of groundfish boats in New Bedford, said he's "100 percent" behind the delay because so much is at stake. "You've got to make sure you did everything you could in your powers to make sure the right decision is coming down," he said.
This article was originally published on December 20, 2012.
This program aired on December 20, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.