NH fishermen say new rule sounds death knell for industry
PORTSMOUTH -The new regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, John Bullard, heard more than two hours of comment from local fishermen Wednesday about federal regulations that threaten to eliminate the local industry.
The most recent crisis to challenge ground fishermen in New Hampshire is a closure planned for October and November as a result of a report that showed fishermen were not in compliance with regulations to deter harbor porpoises.
But fishermen have argued that the data is flawed, and instead of fighting the closure entirely, have asked for it to be moved to February and March, when more harbor porpoises have historically been taken and the economic impact would not be as severe.
Josh Weirsma is the Sector 11 and 12 manager, which covers all of New Hampshire's commercial ground fishermen.
He has estimated that the direct impact to fishermen from the closure is about $1 million, with an additional impact of $2.5 million on related industries, including businesses like Yankee Co-Op in Seabrook. He said the months of October and November are when 50 percent of the state's 20 gillnet fishermen make most of their profit. The rest of the year, they are fishing to keep up on costs.
Weirsma said the fleet was deemed 40 percent 'pinger' compliant, but there were severe issues with how NFMS arrived at that number.
He developed what he believes is a more accurate analysis and submitted it to NMFS, but despite three requests, he has yet to receive a response.
'What is the objective of the agency? Is it to protect harbor porpoises or is it to maximize the punishment for the industry,' Weirsma said. He said if the objective is to protect harbor porpoises, then based on the agency's own admission, it would not matter if the fishery was closed in February and March or now, but the economic consequence to fishermen for closing now is much higher.
New fisheries chief
Bullard has only been on the job for five weeks, but Weirsma said he already passed up an opportunity to build social capital with fishermen by declining to adjust the penalty.
Bullard has made it a goal to try and rebuild a trust with fishermen that has been badly damaged by the current administration at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
He was at the Urban Forestry Center on Wednesday evening to hold one of what he expects to be many listening sessions with fishermen throughout the regional industry.
Bullard previously worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees NMFS, in the mid-90s, and part of his job at the time was to deal with what was then a crisis in ground fish.
'What I am learning in my first five weeks on the job is that this situation seems a lot worse than it was in the 90s,' Bullard said. 'And I don't think there are any easy decisions in front of us. Harbor porpoises or any other decisions.'
He said every decision they make at NMFS, they are going to try and keep in mind that people are hanging on by their fingertips.
'You are killing us'
One of those people is Rye fisherman Jay Driscoll, who brought evidence to show the challenges fishermen are facing.
He handed Bullard three pingers used to deter harbor porpoises from fishing nets, and asked him to try and figure out which one was not working, which Bullard was unable to do.
Driscoll said there are guns used in the industry to 'ping' at the devices and make sure they are operating correctly, a resource that could be provided by NMFS to help fishermen be compliant.
'There is no reason why observers or anyone else cannot come down before (October) 1st and make sure every one of those things is working … with your help we can get harbor porpoise (by-catch) down to zero level,' Driscoll said. 'We don't have the tools to fix this; you guys do.'
He said the consequence of the closure for him is not being able to pay his mortgage or keep a roof over his children's heads.
'I'd rather you throw me in jail than put this consequence on me right now,' Driscoll said. 'You are killing us.'
Cod catch cuts
Weirsma said the major issue is the compounding effect of the closure coupled with proposed cuts in Gulf of Maine cod catch allotments for the next year of 75 percent, and additional large cuts proposed in other major stocks.
'We can't even really look forward to next year because this is kind of our major crisis right now,' Weirsma said.
Commercial fisherman Erik Anderson argued that the harbor porpoise plan was put in place in 2007, before the whole management structure of the fishing industry changed, a structure he says is now equipped to handle the responsibility of making sure all boats are compliant.
He said the New England Fisheries Management Council made a unanimous decision to have this issue remedied, and 12 members of the regional congressional delegation, including all four members of the New Hampshire delegation, signed a joint letter to Congress asking them to reconsider the consequence closure.
'There is a fishing community here and there's not many left of us and the consequence of this closure for this gear type, for the gillnet fishermen, it is the death knell,' Anderson said.
He said closing the fishery is also going to do nothing to reduce the mortality rate of fish, as other gear types, including mobile gear fishermen, will move into the territory.
Weirsma said he and others in the fishery are meeting again with Bullard next week, which may be there last opportunity to convince him to reconsider the closure.
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Gretyl Macalaster may be reached at email@example.com..