BOSTON (AP) – Massachusetts has filed suit to block new federal rules for fishermen that state officials contend could cripple the industry.

Attorney General Tom Reilly’s lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court, seeks to overturn an emergency plan to reduce by half the number of days fishermen could spend at sea.

The proposed limits took effect May 1 under an emergency rule by U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. They are aimed at helping the Northeast fish stocks depleted by overfishing recover, but state officials argue that it’s overkill.

“The secretary arbitrarily refused to preserve reasonable access on the part of Massachusetts fishermen to 13 fish stocks where overfishing is not occurring,” Reilly stated in the lawsuit.

The restrictions, authored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have sparked sharp protests from Bay State fishermen, lawmakers and industry officials. Final regulations are expected in August.

New Bedford stands to lose as much as $40 million in business over the summer under the new regulations, city officials claim.

Supporters of the new limits, however, argue that they are vital to protect groundfish stocks, including cod and flounder.

“If Massachusetts is successful in its challenge, critically depleted fish stocks like Gulf of Maine cod and several flounder stocks, most of which are at a small fraction of healthy levels, will continue to be overfished and the rebuilding of these economically important stocks will be jeopardized,” Roger Fleming, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement on Tuesday.

NOAA is seeking to protect and rebuild vulnerable fish stocks while keeping the struggling fishing industry afloat. Striking such a balance between commerce and conservation has been a source of controversy between federal regulators and fishermen for years.

AP-ES-05-16-06 1729EDT

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