September 23, 2020

Management plan for the popular monkfish to be explained tonight

All mouth.

That’s how scientists like to describe the mammoth-mouthed monkfish that has become a lucrative option for Maine fishermen since the collapse of cod and other groundfish stocks in recent years.

The mottled creatures — largely popular in Asia and Europe — are sought after for their tails and livers and fetch nearly as much money as the top-of-the-line species gray sole.

However, increased monk fishing has led fishery managers to add the premium-priced creature to their list of overfished marine species. By next year, they are aiming to have a monkfish management plan in place.

The proposed rules are being aired in a public hearing at 7 tonight at the Urban Forest Center in Portsmouth, N.H.

Chris Finlayson of the Maine Department of Marine Resources says monkfish have become a key species Maine groundfishermen depend on to make ends meet.

“Up until 10 years ago, monkfish were just a nuisance bycatch,” he said Thursday. “It took off when Julia Child did a program on cooking monkfish. With her seal of approval, the market really exploded.”

The New England and Mid-Atlantic fishery management councils, two of several regional advisory groups charged under a 1977 federal law with drafting and recommending fishery management plans, have yet to make their monkfish plan final. They will review the public comments before submitting the plan for final approval to the U.S. Commerce Department. The plan would apply to federal waters along the Eastern seaboard.

Under the draft plan, a monkfish permit would be established. To qualify for a permit, Maine fishermen would have to prove they caught a certain amount of monkfish between 1991 and 1994. Otherwise, they would be limited to landing 300 pounds as bycatch per trip.

In addition, a minimum size of 11 inches would be imposed for monktails and 17 inches for whole monkfish harvested in the Gulf of Maine — a 36,000-square-mile body of water stretching from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia — as well as the northern part of Georges Bank — a shallow, underwater plateau 200 miles southeast of Portland.

Barbara Stevenson, owner of two Portland-based fishing draggers, is vice chair of the New England Fishery Management Council’s monkfish committee. She said some problems have surfaced with the proposed rules. Some Maine groundfishermen caught enough monkfish during the specified period to qualify for a monkfish license, she said, but have since sold their boats and bought other vessels. The permit and record of catches go with the vessel.

“There are people who bought boats that do not have that history,” she said Thursday.

For the most part, though, Stevenson thinks the rules are fair. She said monkfish are a complex species to regulate because they are largely caught as a byproduct by groundfish trawlers and scallopers.

“I think this is the best deal we could come up with,” she said Thursday.

Rich Langton, a DMR fishery scientist, said monkfish are a species that was not pursued commercially until a decade ago.

“I think if most people saw them, they probably wouldn’t eat them. They are just ugly but they do taste good,” he said this week. “They are just bizarre.”

Also called goosefish, monkfish boast a vast mouth and are known for their insatiable appetites.

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