Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute to facilitate switch to new ground-fishing rules

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PORTLAND — The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has received a $2.4 million federal grant to develop and implement systems that will help institute new ground fishing regulations set to go into effect this year.

Traditionally, trawlers seeking prized ground fish like cod, haddock and flounder are limited in the number of days they can fish – an effort to allow ground fish stocks to replenish after years of over-fishing. 

Starting in May, however, many ground fisherman are expected to voluntarily participate in a new regulatory structure that would limit the amount of fish caught in a given year, rather than limiting days at sea. 

Fishermen would join a sector, which would have a pre-established catch limit for each fishing stock. Then, the fishermen would dole out the total catch limits among themselves. If one sector has an abundance of one species, like haddock, but limited supplies of another, that sector could increase its capacity to catch abundant fish by trading its quota for under-caught fish with another sector.

The new regulatory system will require strict reporting requirements and legal documentation before it is fully operational. And that’s where the Gulf of Maine Research Institute comes in. 

While these costs would be too much for each sector to bear by itself, GMRI will divide $1.5 million in federal grants to 14 of the 17 proposed fishing sectors. The institute, which received $300,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to administer the grants, will also provide technical and legal assistance to the fledgling sectors, which will have to establish offices. 

GMRI will also help sectors develop bylaws and governance structures, as well as operational plans and harvesting rules. 

Much of the money will be used by each sector to pay for independent, dock-side monitoring. The new regulations require that half of landings where vessels sell their catch must be independently monitored. Next year, only 20 percent of the landings will need to be monitored.  

Each sector would have to report to federal regulators on a weekly basis. 

“It’s almost like having a bank account,” GMRI Sector Integration Program Manager Jonathan Labaree said. “Only instead of the bank telling you how much money you have in your account, you tell the bank how much you have left.”

Meanwhile, the New England Fisheries Science Center is leading an initiative to change how the skippers keep their fishing logs, which describes the quantity and types of fish caught in each area. To further this initiative, GMRI received a separate grant for $600,000 to begin installing equipment aboard fishing vessels that will allow skippers to keep electronic fishing records, instead of handwritten notes. 

“Technically, it’s separate from the sector-development,” Labaree said. “But it has a huge implication on how sectors will be reporting their data and potentially internally managing their internal operation.”

Labaree said he hopes to rig more than 25 vessels with the new electronic reporting technology, but said that much of the equipment is still being developed and the costs are still unknown. 

Labaree said that about 85 percent of fishermen with active permits have signed on to the new regulatory system, but that percentage could change when federal regulators release the catch limits for each sector. Fishermen who do not want to participate in the new regulations can still fish under the old system, which limits days at sea. 

Combined, the fishing regulations and the electronic reporting systems are intended to give fishermen, scientists and regulators a real-time assessment of the health of fishing stocks. 

“There’s a really dramatic shift in the way fisheries are getting managed,” Labaree said. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net