BOSTON - New England's top fishing regulator said Friday that crippling cuts in catch limits this year are unavoidable and they will devastate what remains of the region's once-flourishing fishing industry.
Officials are set to meet next week to decide catch limits for fishermen who chase bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and haddock. But a New England Fishery Management Council committee has already recommended massive cuts that fishermen have repeatedly warned will destroy the industry.
On Friday, John Bullard, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast office, said key fish populations are so weak, "draconian" cuts in catch are unavoidable.
"The cuts will have devastating impacts on the fleet, and on families, and on ports," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
"That reality is here and we have to face it," Bullard said.
Bullard's statements follow years of battles between the industry, environmentalists and regulators over increasingly tough fishing rules, and months of effort to find some way to avoid catastrophic reductions.
The centuries-old industry was a critical part of the nation's early economy, and is so revered locally that a wooden cod replica hangs in the House chamber of the Massachusetts Statehouse.
But a new assessment of New England cod stocks, released this month, combined with a low catch this year is more evidence of their poor condition, Bullard said. Tough cuts are mandatory if fish populations are ever going to rebound, he said.
"Yes, stocks can get rebuilt, but they don't get rebuilt on dreams, they get rebuilt on difficult decisions that get made," he said. "So that's what has to happen with New England groundfish."
Bullard said failed management is ultimately to blame for weak fish stocks.
"We set the rules and clearly the rules have failed," he said. "There's no other conclusion."
The fishery council's science committee is recommending catch reductions of 81 per cent for cod in the Gulf of Maine, to 1,249 metric tons, and 61 per cent for cod in Georges Banks, to 2,506 metric tons. As recently as 2003, fishermen caught about 8,000 metric tons of Gulf of Maine cod and about 12,000 metric tons of cod in Georges Bank.
Fishermen have warned they can't survive the recommended cuts, saying it leaves them with too little fish to make a living.
Bullard said he thinks the groundfish industry will ultimately continue in some form, as fishermen seek alternatives, for now. Some fishermen have already turned to other commercial seafood, such as monkfish or lobster, and Bullard predicts people will hang on until the fish get healthy.
The upheaval will be painful, but it's no different from what other industries face, he said.
"A plant shuts down. A person who's worked there for 30 years all of the sudden goes to the factory door and it's closed," Bullard said. "What do you do? Well, you don't go to that factory anymore. You learn a new trade and you adapt. ... People adapt and they survive."