By DON CUDDY
April 28, 2012 - 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — Fishermen and industry leaders in New Bedford predict that cutting the allowable yellowtail flounder catch by 80 percent will have disastrous effects on the New Bedford groundfish fleet, and they say flawed science, rather than depleted stocks, has created the crisis.
"This is a bigger disaster for New Bedford than the Gulf of Maine cod crisis is for the Gloucester fleet," said Richie Canastra, co-owner of BASE New England, the seafood display auction. "This will close down the sectors, plus the boats that were not fishing and leased out their quota will have to liquidate."
He cited one boat owner who leased 30,000 pounds of yellowtail quota for $1 per pound last year.
"He only got 4,000 pounds this year," Canastra said. "He'd need $10 a pound just to stay in the game."
Yellowtail landings account for roughly 20 percent of groundfish revenue in New Bedford, according to Canastra. Through February this year, more than 1.5 million pounds of yellowtail were landed here, and this year's quota is 565,000 pounds, he said.
News of the cuts emerged Wednesday evening at the New England Fishery Management Council meeting in Mystic, Conn., just days before the new fishing year begins on May 1. The news caught many in the industry by surprise.
"We expected some reduction," said New Bedford seafood consultant Jim Kendall. "But we were thinking maybe 15 percent."
The drastic cut has angered fishery insiders who have repeatedly questioned the reliability of the stock estimates derived from the NOAA trawl surveys.
"First, it was pollock, then Gulf of Maine cod and now it's yellowtail estimates that were revised," Kendall said. "The common denominator for me is the Bigelow," he said, referring to the survey vessel operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fishery science center in Woods Hole. "They are using roller gear."
Fishermen know that rollers on the net bottom allow flat fish to escape beneath it, he said. Flat fish include flounder.
On the waterfront, fishermen were equally taken aback by the reduction in quota. "If we can't catch yellowtail, then we'll have to stay off Georges Bank because you can't catch flounder without catching yellowtail," said Sean Machie, captain of the 76-foot steel dragger Apollo.