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Federal officials on Monday enacted severe cuts in how much Gulf of Maine cod fishermen can catch, but avoided, for now, catastrophic cuts that could virtually wipe out New England's fishing industry.
The 22 percent cut from what fishermen were allowed to catch last year takes effect May 1.
The reduction will cause big problems for the industry, which has been reeling since data released last year showed cod in surprisingly dismal shape. But regulators could have cut the catch by as much as 85 percent this year, which would have destroyed the traditional New England fleet from Maine to Massachusetts.
Instead, they took advantage of flexibility in the nation's fishery law, which essentially allows them to end overfishing on the cod in two years instead of one. That may ultimately mean devastating regulations are simply pushed back to 2013, but fishermen are welcoming the delay.
Maine fishermen Proctor Wells said the added time could expose flaws in what fishermen believe is questionable science.
"Is it dodging a bullet, instead of extending your time on death row?" said Wells, who fishes out of Phippsburg. "We'll see."
Deep cuts in the cod catch threaten the entire New England industry because cod and other bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as haddock and flounder, swim among each other. The only way to protect cod is to severely restrict the catch on the numerous fish they mix with.
Just four years ago, scientists said the Gulf of Maine cod was robust and headed to full recovery. But last year, scientists released data indicating cod was recovering so slowly the population couldn't rebuild to federally-mandated targets by 2014.
Regulators considered cutting the Gulf of Maine cod catch from 8,500 metric tons in the 2011 fishing year to just 1,300 metric tons this year. But the cut announced Monday instead reduces the allowed cod catch to 6,700 metric tons this fishing year, putting off the major hit until 2013.
"The point is that fishermen will be able to help shape the future management measures rather than having to take unanticipated, severe cuts this year," said Alan Risenhoover, acting deputy assistant administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Fishery managers said they would use the coming months to conduct a new assessment of Gulf of Maine cod, which could conceivably improve the outlook. But Bill Karp, acting director of the federal Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said in a conference call Monday that regulators don't expect the new assessment to make a "profound difference" in how scientists view the cod's health.
Jackie Odell of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, a Gloucester-based industry group, said scientists must be open to new information, even if it contradicts what they think they know.
"This is about closing a fishery down, the economic impacts of this are going to be devastating," Odell said. "So they better have no doubts with the results of this. ... This isn't an exercise just in science. This is about people's lives."
Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation said regulators are allowing fishermen to catch too much cod this year, and risk prompting a crash in cod stocks that could last decades.
He advocated a larger cut this year, tempered by a smaller cut in 2013, and steps to direct the catch to the fishermen on smaller vessels that depend most heavily on cod. Instead, regulators have proven too timid in an election year to adopt tough, needed measures, he said.
"The most objective interpretation of this is `We hope we're right. We're not going to tell you there's a significant risk. We may be wrong, and we're going to kick this into the next political administration,'" he said.