BOSTON — New England fishermen and federal data reports are telling the same story this year: The catch is way down.
Two-thirds of the way through the 2012 fishing year, which ends April 30, fishermen have caught less than half their allotments on 14 of 16 species of bottom-dwelling groundfish.
For instance, fishermen have caught just a quarter of their allotment of cod on Georges Bank. And they’ve pulled home a scant 3 percent of the quota of haddock on Georges Bank. The catch on Gulf of Maine cod is down by about half.
The numbers come as regulators at the New England Fishery Management Council agonize over potentially devastating cuts to catch quotas in 2013, which fishermen warn will bury them. The issue is so freighted with anxiety that the council called a special December meeting to decide the cuts, then pushed the decision off until January.
But Tom Dempsey of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, a council member, questioned whether the cuts would truly be catastrophic, since fishermen aren’t catching anywhere near their full limits, anyway. The real problem, he said, is that the fish being cut from the catch exist only on paper.
“There’s a disaster in New England groundfish, but it’s because we can’t catch the quotas we have,” Dempsey said. “And in most cases, that’s because those fish just aren’t there.”
Some fishermen, though, say it’s premature and dangerous to conclude with a third of the fishing year to go that fish have disappeared, or that pushing through huge quota cuts in 2013 won’t matter.
“There was no fish this summer, practically anywhere,” acknowledged Maine fisherman Jim Odlin. But he and others said market forces help explain lower catches to date. And he said in four decades in the cyclical business, stocks he’s seen vanish one year come back in force the next, and no one knows why.
“If you saw this for two or three years, then I would start to say something is going on, then I would be convinced,” he said. “But right now, I can’t tell you.”
The federal catch data are regularly updated with reports from fishermen, fish dealers and federal on-board observers. According to data through Tuesday, four of the five stocks with the largest quotas have seen their catch drop, compared to landings through the first week of last January. Some have seen dramatic declines in catch.
Only 835 metric tons of Georges Bank haddock has been caught this year, a scant 3 percent of the allotment and about a quarter of how much had been caught at this time last year. “They’ve vanished. They flew the coop,” said fisherman Tommy Williams, of Point Judith, R.I.
Fishermen have also caught only about half as much cod on Georges Bank as they did at this time last year. It’s the same story for cod in the Gulf of Maine. Landings are down by a little less than half. Meanwhile, only about 48 percent of its quota has been caught.
The data back the grim and highly disputed fishery science that indicates key fish stocks are struggling badly, said Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation. “All the signs everyone has seen, they’re really troubling,” he said.
The catch reports provide more evidence of the poor health and productivity of fish stocks in the Northeast, said John Bullard, the Northeast’s top federal regulator. He said fish stocks have too long been “bouncing along the bottom.” The chronic struggles indicate deeper cuts are needed to preserve the industry’s future, as painful as that is for the industry now.
“No one promises anyone in the fishing industry a job for life. It’s not a guarantee,” he said. “So what we have to do is try and make decisions so the resource expands, so there’s opportunity.”
Fishermen, though, say there’s be more behind the current catch data than failing fish stocks, including pricing and other market forces.
Since 2010, fishermen have been allowed to lease their quota out, and Plymouth fisherman Ed Barrett said that can keep boats tied up if prices are bad. For instance, a fisherman who leases cod quota at 70 cents a pound will stay home until prices increase enough to ensure a profitable trip, and the market’s been down since Superstorm Sandy, he said.
Williams said scarcity isn’t the reason he hasn’t caught certain fish, such as yellowtail flounder. He said he’s avoiding the yellowtail because he could quickly catch his entire quota, and once fishermen hit their quota on one species, they must stop fishing for all of them.
South Boston fisherman Mike Walsh believes abnormally high water temperatures have forced fish out of the region. Who knows whether that’s an anomaly or a trend, he asked. And where do massive cuts in catch leave the industry if the temperatures drop and the fish come back?
Ultimately, the slow catch on some species isn’t alarming to Williams and others who work in an environment they can’t control, chasing fish that vanish and reappear for reasons they can’t explain. And it’s no time to overreact, Williams said.
“From a fishermen’s standpoint, no one’s getting ready to jump off a bridge,” he said. “It’s just what (the fish) are doing.”