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Lawsuit, New Fisheries Rules Aim To Protect New England Fishing

THE federal government has given the green light to conservation measures aimed at aiding New England's troubled fishing industry, once a significant contributor to the region's livelihood. After years of discussion about the pros and cons of conservation, the federal government has approved regional rules that allow closure of portions of fishing grounds found to contain young yellowtail flounder.

The goal is to keep them from fishermen's nets until after they have reached the age at which they can reproduce.

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The move comes as a New England conservation group is suing the US Department of Commerce and its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The suit seeks to speed approval of such closures when called for by the New England Fisheries Management Council, one of the regional councils that manage offshore fisheries under federal law.

Overfishing of groundfish species such as the yellowtail flounder, cod, and halibut has severely depleted stocks and brought economic hardship to New England fishermen. While it is already illegal to catch young groundfish, large numbers continue to perish after trawlers catch them and then throw them back into the ocean because they are too small to keep.

To counter this, the council recently developed a procedure to close within 26 days areas in which large stocks of juvenile groundfish are discovered. The process, called the Flexible Area Action System, was approved by NOAA, which has prodded the council to act.

But the first time the council moved to close an area, the regulations got hung up in NOAA's legal department, according to the New England Conservation Law Foundation Inc., and council sources. Six weeks after the Feb. 12 deadline for the regulations to be published, the foundation went to court.

Barry Gibson, chairman of the council's groundfish committee, hails the lawsuit, and criticizes NOAA lawyers for dragging their feet. ``No one had any doubt this would go through. It's a little upsetting, since we thought this was all worked out,'' he says.

NOAA lawyer Bob Taylor refuses comment on the suit itself. But he says that the regulations in question have since been approved and sent to the Federal Register for publication.

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``I'm delighted to hear that, if it's true,'' says Eleanor Dorsey, a foundation staff scientist. But she adds that the foundation will pursue its lawsuit until the Commerce Department gives assurances that future area closures by the council to protect young groundfish will be speedily approved.

There is great urgency to act at this time because research indicates a large number of groundfish were hatched in 1987. Scientists and fishermen alike see this ``class'' of fish as the best hope for rebuilding stocks to more viable levels, and have advocated strong measures to protect them.

The council is currently working on a new proposal that would allow closure of limited fishing grounds near Nantucket on five days' notice.

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