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Working with Fishermen to Find Solutions

Recently, commercial fishermen who fish for whiting as part of the small-mesh multispecies fishery asked us what it would take to make changes to this fishery. Specifically, whiting fishermen want to open some of the Gulf of Maine exemption areas earlier in the year.

Whiting, also called silver hake. Credit: Flesher, NEFSC/NOAA

In response, we reached out to our region’s whiting fishermen and convened a workshop on February 18 to clarify the reasons for the exemptions for the whiting fishery and the steps necessary for adjusting the regulations, including the data needed to evaluate any potential changes. This collaborative workshop included fishermen, researchers, New England Fishery Management Council staff, state marine fisheries agency personnel, and federal managers.

The whiting fishery is an “exempted fishery,” which means that fishermen are able to fish for specific species without being subject to certain Northeast multispecies regulations, such as mesh size requirements, provided the catch of other groundfish species is minimal (see map below). The Regional Administrator, in consultation with the New England Fisheries Management Council, authorizes exempted fisheries. There are currently several whiting exempted fishing areas within the Gulf of Maine. Vessels may fish for whiting with small-mesh trawls only within the designated exempted fishery areas and according to specific regulations.

Currently, there is very little data on the potential impacts of the whiting fishery outside of the current exempted fishing period and areas. Evaluating potential changes to exemptions requires us to understand how much bycatch (catch of non-targeted species) would occur in other areas or periods, or how an expansion of the exemptions would affect mortality or stock rebuilding goals of other groundfish species.

During the workshop, the group heard presentations on the history of the whiting exemptions, requirements for making regulatory changes, and an overview of NOAA Fisheries’ exempted fishing permit application process. We discussed that exempted fishing permits would authorize fishing in ways that are normally prohibited for the purpose of enabling researchers to collect much needed data on the potential impacts of expanding the whiting exemption. Workshop participants discussed regulatory changes the fishing industry would like to see, such as opening some of the exemption areas earlier in the year, and research being conducted by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

As a whole, the group believed that the process to enact regulatory change should be more flexible. Industry members suggested an innovative approach by which much of the necessary research could be conducted within the current fishery. We agreed to keep discussing ways to collect the data needed to consider changes to the whiting exemption. We are also working on a more detailed summary of the workshop and will continue to work with our industry partners to enhance the ability of regional whiting fishermen to catch fish.

For more information, contact Mike Ruccio, Sustainable Fisheries Division, at 978-281-9104 or email him at

March 11, 2016