Federal regulators are looking to allow fishermen to catch nearly six times the original limit of a key groundfish stock after fishermen said it was set so low it would sabotage the Northeast industry.
The National Marine Fisheries Service said Wednesday that a preliminary analysis of new science indicates fishermen can catch about 35 million pounds of pollock this year without overfishing the stock. The current allotment is about 6 million pounds.
The fisheries service is now working on an emergency change to the pollock limit, which could be completed by July if the early numbers hold up, according to a NMFS spokeswoman.
Fishermen say quick action is crucial because of a sweeping change to New England's fishing regulations, which began in May. Most fishermen now work in groups called sectors and divide an allotted catch. But if they exceed their limit on one fish species, they must stop fishing on all stocks.
Fishermen said limits on various stocks, particularly pollock, were set so low that fishermen would quickly reach them and be forced to prematurely shut down for the year. Groundfish such as cod, pollock and haddock swim together in New England waters, so it's tough to avoid one species when going after another.
Vito Giacalone, of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, a fishing industry group, said he was happy about the possible pollock increase, adding that it will free up fishermen to chase healthier species they might not have been able to catch otherwise if they were forced off the waters too early.
"This flip-flop in the pollock assessment is of the magnitude that fishermen have claimed all along," he said.
But Giacalone said pollock was just one of many species whose catch limits have been set far too low. Stocks of winter flounder, cod and yellowtail flounder also should be on that list, he said.
"All these stocks will continue to threaten the viability of hundreds of small business and thousands of jobs in the Northeast," Giacalone said.
Congressmen from New England's five coastal states and New York asked Commerce Secretary Gary Locke last month for emergency increases in catch limits. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who wrote Locke about increasing the pollock limit, said Wednesday that the move to raise the limit is "good news for Massachusetts fishermen and the communities that depend on them."
The fisheries service said the new pollock assessment uses more data and the most sophisticated population modeling ever applied to the species. Patricia Kurkul, northeast regional administrator for the fisheries service, said the agency is committed to being flexible when new science justifies rule changes.
"We hope these actions demonstrate that we are dedicated to rebuilding the resource and enabling fishermen to continue fishing," she said.
Peter Baker of the Pew Environment Group said in the past, NMFS "would just sit and wait until next year, but they understood that there was some urgency."
"We're not advocating that NMFS should willy-nilly, not based on the best available science, raise catch limits to appease the fishing industry," he added. "But when they have more data, when they can ... set the catch limits more accurately, like they are with pollock, we're all for that."