Fishing regulators, saying they were trying to avoid industry collapse, narrowly approved a catch limit for yellowtail flounder on Wednesday that's twice the amount endorsed by a group that bargains with Canada on the shared catch.
Members of the New England Fishery Management Council said they had no choice but to defy the negotiated catch recommendation, which they said was too low to allow fishermen or scallopers to survive. Their vote came even though the Northeast's top fishing regulator, John Bullard, warned the higher allocation doesn't pass legal muster and would be struck down.
"There's a lot at stake here looking forward to the future, the near future," said David Pierce, of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who proposed the higher allocation.
A committee of U.S. and Canadian negotiators had recommended a maximum 2013 allocation of 215 metric tons for U.S. fishermen chasing yellowtail flounder on Georges Bank, which extends through both countries' waters. Instead, the council approved by a 9-8 vote a maximum 495 metric ton allocation for U.S. fishermen. That limit was based on numbers included in a separate recommendation by the council's Scientific and Statistical Committee.
That allocation will be split between scallopers and those fishermen who target bottom-dwelling groundfish such as cod, haddock and flounder.
Yellowtail flounder isn't a big-money stock, but the species' struggle has huge implications for fishermen. That's because the fish swims among various stocks, and fishermen and scallopers inevitably pull them up unintentionally.
So regulators charged with protecting the fish devise yellowtail catch limits that fishermen and scallopers can't exceed without triggering penalties that can threaten or even destroy their businesses.
The problem now is that the yellowtail population is weak and the catch limits are set very low, making it difficult for fishermen to avoid quickly hitting them. When they do, fishermen must stop fishing, while scallopers eventually get shut out of key fishing grounds.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell noted the 215 metric ton limit represented an 81 percent cut from 2011. He told the council it would obliterate thousands of jobs in his port, capital of the country's lucrative scallop fleet, which had $350 million in revenues in New England in 2011.
Council member David Goethel said the future of both industries is so bleak, and the science of assessing fish populations so broken, the council had nothing to lose by voting for the higher limit.
"At some point, it's time to stand up and do the right thing, even you get shot down for it," said Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman.
But the decision came amid warnings that discarding the recommended catch limit could destroy the longtime trade agreement with Canada.
And it was made even though Bullard, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast office, said the higher catch limit violated legal requirements that fishing regulations end overfishing and be based on the best available science. The council is an advisory body to NOAA, which makes final decisions on regulations.
"We'll probably not approve it," said Bullard, a former New Bedford mayor.
After the vote, the council debated how to split the yellowtail limit between fishermen and scallopers, with both arguing that reductions in their share would be disproportionately damaging.
"It worked," said Peter Hughes, a New Jersey scalloper. "We're pitting fishermen against fishermen for crumbs."
The council eventually voted to allot 40 percent of the yellowtail allocation to scallopers in 2013, and 16 percent to them in both 2014 and 2015.