By Richard Gaines
The 2012 fishing cycle dawns today, less than a week after the other shoe has dropped on the New England groundfishery.
The first shoe was the 22 percent in the allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod, a fishery based in Gloucester, which will be followed by even more extreme measures in coming years, after a benchmark stock assessment last year overturned optimistic findings from a 2007 stock assessment.
The other shoe, outlined last week, is an 80 percent cut in the allowable catch of Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, a fishery based in New Bedford, after an updated assessment.
Together, the constrictions threaten to strangle the oldest industry in America, one which began in Gloucester in 1623 and has continued unabated ever since, albeit in a constantly evolving form.
"An 80 percent cut in yellowtail is a bigger crisis for the draggers of New Bedford than Gulf of Maine cod is for Gloucester," said Richie Canastra, owner of the region's dominant fish auction, which is based in New Bedford, and treasurer of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which is the region's largest industry group and based in Gloucester.
"We're set for a disaster for the industry," he added in a telephone interview.
Canastra said he doubts the accuracy of the trawl survey on which the yellowtail catch limit was based.
"It all comes back to NOAA research vessel Bigelow," which took over from the Albatross three years ago, he said. "Yesterday, a dragger came in to port (New Bedford) with 40,000 pounds of yellowtail."
The trawl surveys, which are done in the spring and fall, have become an increasingly dominant element in the formula used to determine the vitality of stocks. Since 2004, the ratio of weight given to the survey versus the catch reports of the fleet has tilted toward the trawl survey.
In 2004, Canastra said, the Georges Bank yellowtail assessment formula weighed catch to survey at a 40 to 60 ratio.
The ratio has been regularly weighted more heavily toward the survey until last year — the year on which the 80 percent cut in the catch is based. It was 10 to 90, with the landings counting for the smaller percentage and the trawl survey counting for the 90 percent.