BOSTON -- A plan to allow certain New England fishermen back into fishing grounds where they’ve long been banned was so objectionable to environmentalists that two groups sued to kill it months before it was officially released.
And after the proposal was unveiled last week, fishermen who once backed the idea called the plan a useless gesture that does nothing for their struggling industry.
None of the criticism surprises the Northeast’s top fishing regulator, John Bullard. But he says it doesn’t mean the proposal to reopen 3,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean can’t work.
"We recognize it’s probably not going to make anyone happy," Bullard said. But, he added, "We think it’s a responsible way to make abundant stocks accessible to people."
The plan, released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is not yet in effect, pending a period of public comment.
It was devised after a December vote by regional regulators that gave fishermen permission to ask to work sections of previously forbidden fishing grounds. It details where fishermen can ask for access and the conditions under which it could be granted.
The closed areas, located in the Gulf of Maine and to the south and east of Cape Cod in Georges Bank, were off-limits as far back as 1994 to fishermen who target bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and haddock. Regulators shut down the grounds to protect the fish and their nurseries.
But fishermen argued last year that the closures became obsolete in 2010 when regulators decided to instead try to protect groundfish with tough catch quotas.
They argued that with huge cuts in those quotas coming in 2013, it made sense to reopen at least some sections of the closed areas so fishermen could harvest the healthy fish species reportedly there, such as redfish and haddock.
Environmental groups immediately objected, saying critical fish habitat would be damaged, jeopardizing fish recovery. The Conservation Law Foundation and Earthjustice sued in May, arguing that regulators were trying to skip a legally required analysis of the effects of the proposed change.
Greg Cunningham of the Conservation Law Foundation said NOAA is acting under political pressure to help fishermen but could do major damage to fish stocks.
"The risks are pretty substantial, we think, but they haven’t finished doing the work to determine what these risks are," he said.
Jud Crawford of the Pew Environment Group said NOAA’s approach is short-sighted and threatens key habitats for cod and other troubled fish in exchange for minimal benefit to fishermen.
"We’re at the bottom of a barrel, an ecological barrel," he said. "We’re scraping at the bottom of the barrel rather than climbing out of the barrel or finding a way to fill the barrel again."
Bullard said NOAA’s plan has been extensively analyzed and includes numerous steps to meet the environmentalists’ concerns. For instance, the final plan only grants access to three of the five closed areas, leaving both zones in the Gulf of Maine off-limits while opening portions of the Georges Bank areas.
Bullard said the new access is being considered only in places that aren’t considered key fish habitats -- though environmentalists say important habitat would be affected.
For fishermen, it’s a requirement aimed at appeasing environmentalists that ruins the whole plan. They object to a mandate to have an independent on-board catch observer on every trip to monitor and prevent fishing gear entanglements with whales and porpoises and other protected marine mammals.
Observers cost roughly $500 to $800 daily.
"Obviously, it’s just crazy to think that anybody could afford to pay $700 a day to go fishing, under these circumstances," said Maggie Raymond, head of the Associated Fisheries of Maine.
Maine fishermen Jim Odlin, who owns five fishing boats, said there’s no reason to require an observer on every trip. Odlin wonders why the areas would be at greater risk from groundfishermen when other fishermen, including lobstermen and scallopers, have long been allowed in without bringing an observer each time.
"There’s nothing special about these areas," he said.
Despite their objections, Bullard believes it’s an open question about whether fishermen will truly stay away, once access to the previously closed fishing grounds is granted.
"We’ll see," he said. "The industry has told us there’s an awful lot of fish to be caught."
Still, no one is expecting the plan to be a "silver bullet," Bullard said, noting that only larger boats have the range to reach the newly reopened fishing zones, which shuts out New England’s substantial small boat fleet.
The plan is part of a larger strategy to help the industry with numerous small steps in the hopes it can all add up to keeping more fishermen in business through the crisis, he said.
"Is it a game changer? No," Bullard said. "But it’s a piece of the puzzle."