Fishery Council Restores Fishing Days to Scallop Fleet

By Steve Urbon
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — In a rare reversal of what was to have been a final decision, the New England Fishery Management Council on Wednesday rescinded its November decision and restored fishing days to the scallop fleet in the northeast.
The contentious, 10-5 vote with two abstentions was made in a hotel ballroom packed with about 200 people, mostly fishermen from New Jersey to Maine and their supporters. Environmentalists on the council and from the audience derided the whole process, the media and politicians.
Council fishing analyst Dierdre Boelke made a lengthy Powerpoint presentation about the scientific basis for the staff’s recommendations and defending the more conservative limits, but by mid-morning there was little doubt in the room about the outcome.
The council’s decision last fall would have cut the scallop harvest by some 25 percent, or what New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang said would translate into a $250 million economic hit for the port of New Bedford.
Lang testified in favor of raising the scallop limits, as did state Reps. John Quinn, D-Dartmouth, and William Straus, D-Mattapoisett. Garth Patterson represented U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who had suggested that council Chairman John Pappalardo be replaced by the governor if he didn’t put the matter on the council agenda for reconsideration.
In November, the council’s scientific staff — which calculates an annual mortality formula to decide how much can be caught in a sustainable way and presents various options to the council — cut back sharply for fear of overfishing and an unusually large catch in 2009, but had an option of cutting less and taking a somewhat greater risk of overfishing. Wednesday the council decided that the November decision was too conservative and didn’t provide enough of a benefit to justify the costs.
William Wells, a scalloper from Virginia, told the council during the public hearing portion of the meeting that sharply limiting catch this year would send prices soaring, which in turn would curtail the market. If market share is lost, he said, it would be difficult to get back, perhaps impossible in some cases. Markets such as stores and restaurants are slow to adopt change, he said, but are quick to fill an empty place on the shelf.
The council vote was met with applause from those in the room. Council member Rodney Avila of New Bedford said afterward that a significant change has come about within the industry, with the groundfish fishermen lining up in support of the scallopers rather than staying away from this fight. Curtailing scalloping would save too few yellowtail flounder to matter much, they concluded, especially in light of the damage the scallop restrictions would cause.
The best thing today was we got a solution by all working together,” Avila said. “We’re all brothers and we need to support each other to survive.”
Reconsidering Framework 21 was anathema to some council members and to the Conservation Law Foundation. CLF’s representative Peter Shelley bitterly complained about the press coverage and the “unprecedented political attack” on the council.
He said Rep. Frank’s remarks were “inexcusable.”
Council member David Preble of Rhode Island was even angrier, referring to the scallop industry’s arguments as “propaganda,” spread by a “malignant, incompetent yellow press.”
As the discussion progressed, it was clear that the council will seek ways of avoiding this sort of confrontation in the future. January 27, 2010
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