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.
"That reality is here and we have to face it," Bullard said.
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.
"Yes, stocks can get rebuilt, but they don't get rebuilt on dreams, they get rebuilt on difficult decisions that get made," he said. "So that's what has to happen with New England groundfish."
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, allowing overfishing that hurts stocks.
Bullard said failures by fishery managers are ultimately to blame for weak stocks that haven't rebounded.
"We set the rules and clearly the rules have failed," he said. "There's no other conclusion."
The fishery council's science committee is recommending catch reductions of 81 percent for cod in the Gulf of Maine, to 1,249 metric tons, and 61 percent for cod in Georges Banks, to 2,506 metric tons. As recently as 2003, fishermen caught about 8,000 metric tons of Gulf of Maine cod and about 12,000 metric tons of cod in Georges Bank.
New Hampshire fishermen Dave Goethel, a council member, said the recommend catch limits aren't "even remotely enough fish to make any of these boats viable businesses."
"We're not talking about, `Oh yeah, we're going to have a tough year next year,'" Goethel said this earlier week. "We're talking about, you know, that's it.'"
Bullard said he thinks the groundfish industry will ultimately continue in some form, as fishermen seek alternatives to stay in business for now. Some fishermen have already turned to other commercial seafood, such as monkfish or lobster, and Bullard predicts people will hang on until the groundfish get healthy.
The upheaval will be painful, but it's no different from what other industries face, he said.
"A plant shuts down. A person who's worked there for 30 years all of the sudden goes to the factory door and it's closed," Bullard said. "You learn a new trade and you adapt. ... People adapt and they survive."
Goethel said the bulk of his assets and decades of his life are tied up in fishing. At age 59, whatever's ahead for the industry, he has to ride it out.
"Fishermen are eternal optimists. Every day I go to sea I'm going to have the best day I ever had in my life," he said. "So, yeah, I'm always optimistic that somehow, some way I haven't figured out how yet, we'll find a way out of this mess."