- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

BOSTON | The winter flounder, a bottom-dweller with both eyes on the right side of its head, isn’t the most profitable fish in New England, but it’s suddenly become one of the most important - and fishermen say that’s all wrong.

To protect the dwindling winter flounder population, fishermen working in waters from southern New England down to New Jersey will next month see their already scarce allotment of fishing days cut in half, costing them millions.

This tough new measure won’t just keep fishermen away from the winter flounder. New England groundfish, such as cod, haddock and flounder, swim in the same areas, so regulators protecting weak fish must also limit fishing on stronger species because they all get pulled up in the same nets.

Fishermen say the system puts them at the mercy of whatever stock is currently in bad enough shape to be considered the fishery’s “weakest link.”

New Bedford fisherman Carlos Rafael said that even if a weak species improves, more cuts inevitably come as another declines and steps must be taken to protect it. Mr. Rafael said that sidelines his boat and he can’t get his allowed catch of healthier fish, such as haddock.

“Where does it put us? It will ruin us. And that is what it’s done so far,” said Mr. Rafael, who owns 29 groundfishing boats. “By protecting the weakest link, they put everybody out of their misery.”

Federal regulators estimate the new rule, which will go into effect May 1, will cost the Northeast’s fishing industry $15 million in revenues, about 9 percent. Fishermen say it’s worse than that. Mr. Rafael says he alone will lose about $3.6 million, 40 percent of his business.

Under the new rules, fishermen from Portland to Providence are down to a few dozen fishing days a year on a single permit, with some carrying as few as 18 days. That follows a steady trend that has seen fishing days reduced from about 88 earlier in the decade. The rules will bridge to a 2010 overhaul of New England fishery management that will do away with allotted fishing days. Instead, groups, or “sectors,” of fishermen will divide and manage an allotted catch of different species.

The hope is better conservation, and bigger catches, but it doesn’t change the legal mandate that creates a system in which weakest links drive fishery management.

The fisheries law, called the Magnuson-Stevens Act, requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect and rebuild 19 New England species and gives strong protection to lucrative and less valuable stocks alike.

Winter flounder, called “blackbacks” for their dark colors, are prized for a delicate flavor that goes well with various sauces and spices. But they’ve never been king of New England’s seas: winter flounder had a healthy $12 million catch in 2006, but that was far below the $20 million for Atlantic cod.

Still, regulators were set to shut down the entire Southern New England fishing area to protect winter flounder, before deciding to count each fishing day used there as two days.

The dire condition of winter flounder wasn’t even known until last year, when a federal stock assessment showed its population was just 9 percent of the level to which fishery managers hope to rebuild it. That qualified the fish as a “weak link,” joining fish such as Gulf of Maine cod or yellowtail flounder, whose troubles have driven rulemaking in the past.

By law, regulators must try to minimize the negative effects on fishing communities when they make new rules. But when conservation and economics conflict, protecting fish is the top priority, said Galen Tromble, chief of the domestic fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“There’s a line you can’t cross,” Mr. Tromble said.

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