BOSTON — New England's top fishing regulator said Friday that crippling cuts in catch limits this year are unavoidable and they will devastate what remains of the region's once-flourishing fishing industry.
On Friday, John Bullard, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast office, said key fish populations are so weak, "draconian" cuts in catch are unavoidable.
"They cuts will have devastating impacts on the fleet, and on families, and on ports," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Officials are set to meet next week to decide catch limits for fishermen who chase bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and haddock. A key New England Fishery Management Council committee has already recommended massive cuts that fishermen have repeatedly warned will destroy the industry.
The centuries-old groundfish industry, which pulled in about $90 million in 2011, was a critical part of the nation's early economy, and is so revered locally that a wooden cod replica hangs in the House chamber of the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Bullard's statements Friday follow years of battles between the industry, environmentalists and regulators over increasingly tough fishing rules, and months of effort to find some way to avoid catastrophic reductions.
But a new assessment of New England cod stocks, released this month, combined with a low catch this year is more evidence of their poor condition, Bullard said. Tough cuts are mandatory if fish populations are ever going to rebound, he said.
Fishermen have long disputed the accuracy of fishery science that drives regulation, pointing to numerous examples of bad estimates. They also say they've been needlessly squeezed by arbitrary and unneeded rules pushed to promote conservation. Environmentalists counter that regulators have too often caved to the industry.
The fishery council's science committee is recommending catch reductions of 81 percent for cod in the Gulf of Maine and 61 percent for cod in Georges Banks.
New Hampshire fishermen Dave Goethel, a council member, said the recommended catch limits aren't "even remotely enough fish to make any of these boats viable businesses."