BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
---- — SEABROOK — The state of New Hampshire has joined a lawsuit seeking to block federal fishing restrictions it believes would have a devastating effect on families and small businesses throughout New England and the Granite State.
A court has approved the state’s request to become an intervener in the lawsuit brought by Massachusetts against federal regulators in May, Gov. Maggie Hassan and Attorney General Joseph Foster announced this week. The two New England states are the only ones suing.
The rules, which took effect May 1, brought major cuts in catch limits for bottom-dwelling groundfish, a major portion of the fish landed by New Hampshire’s commercial fishing industry and the fleet at Seabrook’s Yankee Fisherman’s Co-operative. The most significant cut is a 78 percent year-to-year reduction in the catch of Gulf of Maine cod. However, fishermen have also absorbed huge reductions in key flounder and haddock species, so integral to the local fishing sector.
“The onerous restrictions and reduced catch limits put forth by the federal government could have a dire effect on the economic viability of New Hampshire’s fishermen, placing one of our state’s oldest and most treasured industries at grave risk and undermining an important sector of our economy,” Hassan said.
While visiting Searook on Tuesday, Hassan said while hesitant to speculate on the possible success of the joint lawsuit against the federal government, Hassan felt it was important for the state to enter the legal battle.
“I do think it’s important for us to fight for the fishermen and the industry that’s so much a part of our state,” she said.
In the months before the rules took effect, regulators took various steps to try to ease the blow, including increasing the quota on healthier species. But the Northeast’s top regulator, John Bullard, has repeatedly said the sharp cuts, though painful, are needed to help fish stocks rebound.
According to court documents, New Hampshire argued the rules could have a disproportionate impact on the state’s fisheries because they employ smaller vessels that tend to fish closer to shore. Further, New Hampshire might not agree on how to argue their case or appropriate remedies, Foster said.
According to Foster, “what’s good for Massachusetts would not necessarily be good for New Hampshire.”
New Hampshire fishermen landed 7.5 million pounds of fish last year worth $5.6 million, according to court documents; of that total, the groundfish at issue in the lawsuit were worth $3.9 million.
Seabrook’s Yankee Fisherman’s Co-operative lands most of the fish in the New Hampshire, the only remaining cooperative in the state. Over recent years, as federal regulations have become more and more severe, the tonnage of fish caught and sold at Yankee has dropped drastically, in some cases by more than 50 percent, causing some local and regional fishermen to sell their permits and get out of the business. The result of the federal regulations has threatened the very existence of the Granite State’s 400-year old fishing industry.
This groundfishing season has been difficult, according to Yankee Fisherman’s Co-op manager Red Perkins. Not only have fishing limits been slashed, but all species usually found in local waters are in short supply.
“In June, we thought at first that it was going to be a decent season, but it wasn’t at all,” Perkins said. “There’s very few fish. It’s amazing. No one knows if it’s the rain or (warmer) ocean temperatures, but it’s not the fishermen.”
Although most of Seabrook’s commercial fishermen use small boats that customarily fish waters close to shore, some are venturing to waters hours away in hopes of finding fish, Perkins said, but even that didn’t work.
“We have fishermen fishing farther away and they’re still not finding the volume of fish they’ve expected,” Perkins said. “We’re catching some fish, enough to supply (the Co-op’s attached retail fish) market, but no way near what everyone’s used to. Thank heaven for the market, it’s provided another valuable source of revenue for us.”
Perkins said an example of lessening of fish volume can be seen in the blue fin tuna catch. Last year fishermen landed more than 200 blue fin tuna, a lucrative commodity. This fishing season only 50 blue fin have been caught for sale.
Perkins is pleased to see the state stepping up to the plate and helping in the fight against the new fishing restrictions.
“I think it’s great they’ve jumped on board the lawsuit,” Perkins said. “I think it’s because the state is seeing what’s happening to our fishing industry. This summer, some guys didn’t fish at all, but sold all their quotas to others.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.