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Leadership Message: NOAA Approves Operations Plan for Sectors 7 and 9

July 19, 2018

NOAA Approves Operations Plan for Sectors 7 and 9; Quota May Be Leased or Traded

A Message from Mike Pentony, Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region

We have approved operations plans for Northeast Fishing Sectors 7 and 9 and allocated Northeast multispecies (groundfish) quota to these sectors for the 2018 fishing year so that they may resume limited sector operations. Specifically, we approved the request of the Sector 9 board for the sector to formally change to a lease-only sector for 2018. We also approved the request of the Sector 7 board to function as a lease-only sector until the fishing vessels enrolled in Sector 7 that are owned by Carlos Rafael are sold and permits transferred to independent third parties. This allows Sectors 7 and 9 to fully reconcile all remaining quota overages from prior years stemming from the mis-reported catch that led to the criminal conviction of Mr. Rafael. This will also allow Sectors 7 and 9, once all remaining quota overages are settled, to trade quota (annual catch entitlement or “ACE”) with other sectors so that the quota can be fished.

To expeditiously return Sector 7 and 9 operations so that the quota held by the sectors may be traded and fished, we have issued an interim final rule that goes into effect upon publication in Federal Register tomorrow. However, because we realize the significant interest the public and groundfish fishery have in this decision, we formally invite comments on this rule. With an “interim” final rule, NOAA Fisheries reserves the ability to change the rule based on comments and/or new information. We will accept comments for 30 days, and you may submit comments through the online portal (link) or through regular mail to: Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator, Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930. Please mark the outside of the envelope: “Comments on Rulemaking for NEFS 7 and NEFS 9.”

This has been a long and complicated process, and has required continued cooperation, collaboration, and patience from many parties. From the beginning, NOAA staff have been holding regular calls and in-person meetings with the Sector 9 board and then, after the majority of the Sector 9 vessels moved to Sector 7 in March, with the Sector 7 board as well, to work on a resolution that would be fair to all participants in the New England groundfish fishery. We appreciate the efforts of the Sector 7 and Sector 9 boards to come to the table with many ideas and a willingness to collaborate with us to find a workable solution. We also understand the importance of getting this right as a critical step forward for Sectors 7 and 9, for the New Bedford fishing community, and for the groundfish fishery as a whole.

One of the first challenges was to identify and calculate how much quota, on a stock-by-stock basis, was due from Sector 9 as payback for overages resulting from several years’ worth of mis-reported catch. Based on the evidence supporting Mr. Rafael’s criminal conviction, more than 700,000 pounds of fish across several different groundfish stocks were mis-reported between fishing years 2012 and 2015. Throughout the winter and spring, we worked with Sector 9 to account for and resolve these overages. We were able to resolve many of the overages by applying the Sector 9 quota remaining at the time we suspended operations last November. Working through overages, year by year and stock by stock, we resolved and accounted for overages, save one, prior to the 2018 fishing year. What remains to be accounted for this year is an overage of 72,224 lb of witch flounder.

To address this overage, we worked closely with the Sector 9 board to help them develop a new lease-only sector operations plan. Approving this new operations plan allows the sector to reconcile the witch flounder overages described above. Sector 9 plans to address this overage during the 2-week quota transfer window that we provide to all sectors. We will continue to work closely with Sector 9 to ensure this overage is repaid as quickly as possible. As a lease-only sector, all sector enrolled permits are inactive and may not fish for groundfish, but the quota held by the sector may be traded with other sectors.

Our action today also approves a substantive change to Sector 7’s operations plan. The change we approved was requested by the Sector 7 board. It prevents any vessels enrolled in Sector 7 that are owned by Mr. Rafael from actively fishing in the groundfish fishery. To become active, the new Sector 7 Operations Plan requires that the Rafael-owned vessels be sold to an independent third party. Once the permit is transferred to new vessel ownership, and if the Sector 7 board votes to allow the vessel to become active, NOAA Fisheries will issue a Letter of Authorization that allows the vessel to participate in the groundfish fishery. While the vessels remain inactive, the Sector may conduct quota transfers with other sectors.

Throughout this process, we have remained committed to ensuring that the sector program is implemented in a manner fair to all participants and that reflects the need for sustainable management of the groundfish resource in New England. Maintaining the integrity of the sector system is a paramount concern, and we are pleased to approve a fair and equitable resolution that helps ensure a viable New England groundfish fishery.