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Attorney General Martha Coakley on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for alleged over-restriction of the state's famous fishing industry.

"NOAA's new regulations are essentially a death penalty on the fishing industry in Massachusetts as we know it," Coakley said during a media briefing Thursday at the Boston Fish Pier.

The new regulations reduce the allowable catch for New England groundfish by 77 percent to allow the replenishment of certain species, like haddock, cod and yellowtail flounder.This year's cod quotas are equivalent to about 6 percent of the landings of Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod in 1981, according to Reuters. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire estimate that cod stocks have declined by about 90 percent in the last 50 years due to overfishing and other changes to marine ecosystems.

 

Standing in front of a fishing boat Thursday, Gloucester fisherman Joe Orlando said his livelihood has been slashed before his eyes since the cap went into effect on May 1.

"We won’t be allowed to bring in enough catch this year to even pay my business’ debts. I am in financial ruin. This fishery is in a disaster and we need help," Orlando said.

Orlando said three years ago, he caught 100,000 pounds of cod, but now he is only allowed to catch 16,000 pounds, which he said "doesn't cut it."

The lawsuit alleges that NOAA did not use the best scientific information available to come up with fish counts and did not consider the consider the economic impacts on the fishing industry. If the state wins, NOAA would be blocked from enforcing the regulations in Massachusetts.

John Bullard, NOAA's Northeast Region Administrator, on Thursday acknowledged that the restrictions would impact fisherman, but defended the federal agency's decision to put them in place.

"We know that the quota cuts this year for groundfish fishermen for several key stocks, including cod, are severe. However, given the poor condition of these stocks and the phased approach we took to reducing fishing effort to help ease the economic impacts on fishermen in 2012, the cuts are necessary."

"We need to focus our energies on identifying constructive solutions for helping fishermen such as refocusing effort on healthy, abundant groundfish and other species," Bullard said. "It is time for us to look forward, not backward, if we are going to be able to help fishermen through this difficult transition."

The lawsuit claims the restrictions will have the most impact in Gloucester and New Bedford.

Gloucester Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante on Thursday accused NOAA of taking aim at local fishermen for exposing excessive regulation enforcement and fines.

"The dirty little secret is that this isn't about fish," Ferrante said. "This is about the vindictive agency."

The entire lawsuit can be seen at mass.gov/ago.

Follow Morgan Rousseau on Twitter: @MetroMorgan
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