With the Atlantic cod population at an all-time low, federal regulators Monday announced the closure of commercial and recreational cod fishing in parts of the Gulf of Maine.
The temporary restrictions also include a 200-pound limit on how much a fishing vessel can catch during a single trip, following several years of no trip limits for most active fishermen, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.
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The emergency measures are necessary to prevent "a cod stock collapse" and complete closure of the fishery, which is in the worst shape regulators have seen since they began monitoring the stock 40 years ago, said John Bullard, a regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries.
Bullard acknowledged the restrictions will have a significant economic impact on some fishermen this year.
"They're going to pay an economic price," he told news reporters. "We're going to have to hope somehow that ... we're going to get a break from Mother Nature and there's going to be good recruitment class (of young cod)... and we're going to see a rebuilding."
NOAA estimates the restrictions will reduce revenues from groundfish, which includes cod, by $1.6 million in 2014.
The Gulf of Maine, along with Georges Bank off the coast of Massachusetts, is one of two key areas where East Coast fishermen capture cod, a vital commercial fish in New England that appears in supermarkets and roadside fish-and-chip shops.
The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service estimates cod spawning in the Gulf at only 3 percent to 4 percent of its target level, or a 13 percent to 18 percent decline from three years ago.
Regulators are closing areas where most of the cod catches have occurred over the last couple of years to protect the remaining stock. Most of those areas will be off the coast of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, impacting those who fish the inshore waters there.
The emergency plan goes into effect Thursday, and will remain in place until May.
Proctor Wells, who sold his groundfishing permits three years ago when federal regulations made it too difficult to survive, said he understands why regulators need to act. Whether it's environmental factors, overfishing, or both, cod stocks have not rebounded despite two decades of warnings about the fishery's collapse.
"I understand 'em. It's tough medicine but if there's going to be any fish in the future, then you've got to do something," said Wells, who's now a lobster fisherman who fishes from Sebasco, Maine.
While the cod population is diminishing, the Gulf of Maine's haddock stock has rebounded, allowing NOAA to double its quota from more than 600,000 pounds to about 1.3 million pounds. NOAA officials say they hope the increase in the haddock catch will blunt the financial impact of the cod restrictions, although they acknowledge the economic benefits will be modest.
Peter Baker, director of Northeast U.S. oceans for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said in a statement that while the rules are "helpful and necessary," a long-term strategy needs to be developed "to protect the habitat they need to recover."
Bullard said a New England Fishery Management Council committee will meet this week to begin crafting long-term measures.
Associated Press reporter David Sharp contributed to this report from Portland.
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