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January 28. 2013 9:15PM

NH fishing industry feeling heat of restrictions

PORTSMOUTH - The outlook for New Hampshire fishermen appears bleak as meetings of the New England Fishery Management Council take place this week.

While the Council considers up to a 90-percent reduction in Gulf of Maine cod and haddock catch allocations as mandated by the National Marine Fisheries Services, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, have joined forces to urge the Department of Commerce to reconsider its fishery decision.

They said New Hampshire will be hardest hit of the New England states by a decision to reject interim 2013 over-fishing measures.

So far, NMFS, which operates under the federal Department of Commerce, has rejected requests for such measures.

In a Jan. 24 letter, John Bullard, regional director for NMFS, said there is no legal basis to change their determination.

In a joint letter sent on Friday, the New Hampshire senators called on the Department of Commerce to reconsider the NMFS decision, which they say threatens the survival of New Hampshire's fishing industry and the economic well-being of its coastal communities.

"Fishing is one of the Granite State's oldest industries, and it is still a critical driver of our state's economy today. The National Marine Fisheries Service's recent decision will deal a blow to coastal communities across New England, but New Hampshire will be especially hard hit. That is why we're strongly urging the Department of Commerce to reconsider," Shaheen and Ayotte said in a joint statement. "Sustainable fisheries are essential to the industry's long-term success, but the Department must first ensure that sweeping measures do not devastate fishing communities."

The NEFMC requested an extension of interim measures to mitigate the economic damage caused by the recent decline of cod and haddock populations in the Gulf of Maine.

The senators say NMFS' decision to deny the Council's request runs counter to congressional intent under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs fisheries nationally.

In their letter, the senators state that provisions within that act demonstrated that the intent of Congress was to prevent fisheries from collapsing while Councils prepare and implement rebuilding plans for fish stocks.

"For this reason, we urge you to reconsider your decision and set the 2013 Annual Catch Limits to reduce over-fishing for these species at levels that will allow the industry to survive," the senators wrote. "If your decision is not reversed, nearly all fishing jobs in our state will be lost, and it is likely that the fishing industry that has thrived in New Hampshire for generations will soon cease to exist."

Fisherman and NEFMC member David Goethel of Hampton said this is not an exaggeration.

On Wednesday, the Council will make decisions about annual catch limits on all ground fish stocks for the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank to take effect at the start of the fishing year on May 1. Their four-day annual meeting is being held at the Sheraton Harborside Hotel in Portsmouth.

He said the proposed cuts are "draconian" and the commercial boats left in New Hampshire will not even come close to breaking even.

"Whether people are out of business or not is technical. When you can't earn enough money to pay your bills, you're out of business," Goethel said.

All of the fishermen are self-employed, so are ineligible for unemployment benefits when their jobs disappear.

Goethel said the Council thinks there is latitude in the law to buy a little time and still reduce the numbers, but at a level that at least keeps the fishery operational.

"We're trying to find some accommodation here between an inflexible policy and a situation that puts both commercial and recreational fisheries on the road to extinction," David Goethel said.

He said the 90 percent proposed reduction in cod catch allotments will affect every fisherman, from independent owners to charter party boats as well as commercial fishermen and related businesses.

"This will have a major impact on New Hampshire's economy," Goethel said.

The New Hampshire fleet has already been decimated as a result of federal changes in the determination of catch shares for ground fish over the last three years.

"I think our federal government has absolutely abandoned us and failed the fishing communities," Goethel's wife Ellen, a board member for New Hampshire's two fishing sectors said.

Wednesday's meeting pertaining to annual groundfish catch limits is open to the public.

gmacalaster@newstote.com



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