EDITORIAL – Work, goodwill yield relief for gillnetters

In a welcome turn of events, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is proposing to eliminate the consequence closure strategy it implemented in 2010 as an incentive for gillnetters to use pingers to keep harbor porpoise out of their gear.

The move, which was announced on Aug. 26, came about through the willingness of people on many sides of this contentious issue to do the right thing.

A year ago, gillnetters were facing an October/November Coastal Gulf of Maine Consequence Closure, which, coming at the peak of the pollock season, would have been an economic disaster for the fleet.  Looking to avoid that calamity, the Northeast Seafood Coalition undertook an ambitious review of Northeast Fisheries Science Center data and was able to produce solid scientific evidence that harbor porpoise takes were more likely to occur in the late winter than in the fall.

That convinced NMFS to shift the timing of the closure from October/November to February/March.  It also prompted the agency to take a closer look at recent harbor porpoise takes and fishing patterns, which revealed that the number of harbor porpoise takes had dropped significantly below the potential biological removal (PBR) cap established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  While the current PBR is 706 harbor porpoise annually, preliminary data indicated that the take by the gillnet fleet declined from 792 animals in 2010 to 249 in 2012.

NMFS concluded that changes in fishing patterns brought about by the adoption of the groundfish sector program, coupled with decreased landings due to severe quota cuts, meant that the formula used to estimate the rate of porpoise takes no longer worked.  That led to the agency’s proposal to abandon the consequence closure strategy, which it discussed with the Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team (TRT).

Unfortunately, this finding came far too late to prevent last winter’s closure, which hurt many gillnetters already struggling to deal with low quotas.

But some good has come out of all of this.  In conjunction with moving to eliminate the consequence closure strategy, NMFS made a serious commitment to increase enforcement efforts to ensure compliance with pinger requirements.

The industry will be ready for it.

Collaborative efforts among the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, fishermen, sectors, the Gear Conservation Engineering Network known as GEARNET, and manufacturer Future Oceans of Australia led to the production of a new LED-equipped pinger that fishermen can know for sure is working properly.  The fund also came up with an innovative program that has made swapping out old pingers for the new ones more affordable for fishermen.

Effective compliance with pinger regulations will continue to be critical in the future.  Minimum estimates of harbor porpoise abundance have increased, meaning there likely are more porpoise around.  And the environmental community is none too happy about the elimination of the consequence closure strategy.  It’s a good bet that they will press NMFS for further restrictions on fishermen if there is any indication that harbor porpoise bycatch is on the upswing.

The New England fishing industry demonstrated its resolve to set the record straight on this issue and proactively addressed the pinger problem, while NMFS did its part by taking steps to do away with a flawed rule and committing to additional dialogue with the TRT.  That’s the way things should work.  /cfn/