By Jason McLure

LITTLETON, N.H., Aug 30 (Reuters) -- New England fishing quotas for cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder may be cut by 70 percent next year due to their depleted populations, a U.S. government official said on Thursday.

Fishermen scrambled to come up with an economic plan to protect themselves from any drastic quota reduction, which could make the fish harder to find on restaurant menus and in supermarkets.

Allison McHale, a spokeswoman for the regional fisheries office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said recent studies of fish populations could justify cuts of as much as 70 percent for cod and haddock and 50 percent for yellowtail flounder.

Overfishing is not thought to be the sole culprit.

"It's beyond just fishing," McHale told Reuters. "There are various factors we're investigating."

Fishermen suspect such factors as climate change and the rapid growth of predators including seals and dogfish, a small shark that feeds on juvenile cod and other bottom feeders.

A recommendation on next year's quotas from an advisory council that includes state environmental officials and fishermen may be released next month, and NOAA will announce the final quotas in the spring, McHale said.

"It's really scary for the fishermen," said Ben Martens, director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association, which represents small commercial fishermen. "While these cuts are very detrimental, some of them are needed. We're not seeing a lot of fish in the water and our fishermen don't want to be fishing down to the last codfish."

In response, fishermen in Maine and Massachusetts are asking the federal government to declare their North Atlantic fishery a federal disaster area, a move that could lead to millions of dollars in aid, including government purchases of excess fishing boats and permits.

Two recent assessments of cod found there were only enough spawning fish to meet 8 percent of a target level of 140,424 tons at Georges Bank, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and 20 percent of targeted levels in the Gulf of Maine.

New England's bottom-fishing industry once fed millions of people but has dwindled as species such as Atlantic halibut and ocean perch have become commercially extinct. (Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Eric Beech)

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  • Gray Sole

    Wild-caught <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=gray+sole" target="_hplink">gray sole</a>, or Atlantic sole, has been dangerously overfished over the last 50 years, leaving its numbers are very low. Whole Foods will instead buy more flounder, a similar species.

  • Skate

    <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=skate" target="_hplink">Skate</a> has also been very overfished. The majority are caught with bottom trawls, which result in accidental catches and significant damage to the seafloor.

  • Atlantic Cod

    <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=atlantic cod" target="_hplink">Atlantic cod</a> caught by trawlers will be banned, although some caught by gillnets or hook and line will be allowed by Whole Foods. <em>Photo by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/maritimeaquarium/5121214242/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk</a>.</em>

  • Atlantic Halibut

    Most <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=atlantic halibut" target="_hplink">Atlantic halibut</a> have been overfished. They're also often caught with trawls, which disturb and destroy the seafloor.

  • Octopus

    <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=octopus" target="_hplink">Octopus</a> is a popular ingredient in sushi, though there's little firm population data available. However, most octopus are caught in bottom trawlfisheries, which have concerning levels of bycatch and can damage the seafloor. <em>Photo by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/xcbiker/544256864/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">XcBiker</a>.</em>

  • Sturgeon

    The numbers of imported <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=sturgeon" target="_hplink">wild sturgeon</a> have taken a dive as a result of overfishing for their eggs, or caviar.

  • Tautog

    Partly as a result of their slow rates of reproduction and growth, populations of <a href="http://www.blueocean.org/programs/seafood-search-result?dropdownlist=&sushi=n&keyword=tautog&x=0&y=0" target="_hplink">tautog</a> are low.

  • Turbot

    This large flat fish is <a href="http://www.blueocean.org/seafood/seafood-search-result?dropdownlist=&keyword=turbot&x=0&y=0" target="_hplink">overfished in the Atlantic</a>.

  • Imported Wild Shrimp

    Imported wild <a href="http://www.blueocean.org/programs/seafood-search-result?dropdownlist=&sushi=n&keyword=shrimp&x=0&y=0" target="_hplink">shrimp</a> are often caught with bottom trawls that damage the seabed and result in bycatch of endangered species like sea turtles.

  • Rockfish

    Some species of <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=rockfish" target="_hplink">rockfish</a> will disappear from Whole Foods, but others will still be found. Among the threatened varieties are some species of Alaskan rockfish, which may already be locally depleted. They're also caught with environmentally-destructive trawls.

  • Tuna

    Whole Foods stopped selling bluefin <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=tuna" target="_hplink">tuna</a> several years ago, and now banned tunas include species listed as "<a href="http://blog.wholefoodsmarket.com/2011/04/no-red-rated-tuna-swordfish/" target="_hplink">red</a>" by its partners. <em>Photo by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/invernodreaming/6125533828/sizes/o/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">InvernoDreaming</a>.</em>

  • Swordfish

    Many <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=swordfish" target="_hplink">swordfish</a> are caught with methods that are often snare sea turtles, seabirds and sharks. Whole Foods will only carry swordfish caught using handlines, which involve a single baited line that catch one fish at a time and result in virtually no bycatch.