CAPE MAY - An attempt to save one species of fish that has little economic value may cost the commercial fishing industry another species that is a big part of the local economy.

The problem was discussed at a meeting Thursday of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council held at the Congress Hall hotel. The council has a mandate under a federal fishing law to rebuild populations of butterfish, a small silver fish primarily found from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Maine.

The problem, fishermen say, is the method used to rebuild butterfish populations could shut down the fishery of Loligo squid - a more valuable fish - because butterfish are accidentally caught in squid nets. This is known as "by-catch."

The squid fishery will be closed next year once 1,500 metric tons of butterfish are landed. Butterfish by-catch estimates vary by year with a range of 1,000 metric tons to 9,200 metric tons.

Greg DiDomenico, of the Garden State Seafood Association, said in many years fishermen have caught double next year's by-catch ceiling.

"It will have a negative impact on the industry and probably not have a positive impact on butterfish," said DiDomenico, whose association represents about 40 squid boats and five squid processing plants in New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and North Carolina.

One reason it may not help, DiDomenico said, is that Loligo squid eat butterfish. That is why they are often caught in the same nets. DiDomenico said allowing more squid to live may reduce butterfish populations.

"There could likely be diminishing returns on butterfish because Loligo squid eat butterfish," DiDomenico said.

Richard Seagraves, a biologist with the council, said gear changes would not work. He said changes to fishing nets were successful in saving another fish, scup, from the squid nets but did not release butterfish.

Seagraves said research is ongoing on gear changes and closing areas when more butterfish are around, but the "mortality cap" of 1,500 metric tons is the only choice for 2011.

"It is a small number for them to work with. If butterfish are more abundant, they'll run up against that cap. A few big butterfish landings could blow them out of the water," Seagraves said.

Fishermen may have to regulate butterfish themselves by moving to another spot if a lot of them are being caught.

"It will force them to get off them," Seagraves said.

Both sides seem to agree overharvesting is not what is causing a decline in the butterfish numbers. Commercial harvests hit a peak in 1984 at 11,972 metric tons but have been a fraction of that in recent years. Butterfish live for only about three years but few are now surviving past their first year.

"Seventy percent don't make it to age one. They're all eaten," DiDomenico said.

Seagraves agrees that overfishing is not the problem. Fish run in cycles and he believes butterfish are simply at a low point.

There is a market for butterfish but it's pretty small at $695,488 in sales along the East Coast in 2009.

The market for Loligo, also called long-finned squid, is much larger at $4.6 million in sales in 2009. That is the price paid to fishermen but the value rises about six times, to about $28 million, as it goes to wholesale and retail outlets.

It's a market that could be worth much more. Only 2,087 metric tons were landed in 2009 worth $4,657,492 dollars. It was not a good year. In 2008, the harvest was 3,241 metric tons worth $6,907,218.

The annual quota is 20,000 metric tons, meaning the fishery had the potential to grow quite a bit before the butterfish factored into it. Squid is caught in this region in Cape May, Point Pleasant Beach, Barnegat Light and other ports. The species can be found from Newfoundland to Venezuela but is most abundant in mid-Atlantic waters and off New England.

"It's a very valuable fishery. We tried to find a solution," Seagraves said.

DiDomenico said the problem is fishery managers can't control nature, but they can control fishermen. DiDomenico has written letters as far back as April to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, with 13 questions about the issue but said he has not received answers.

"We're asking the council to look into this so we can receive a proper response," DiDomenico said.

The association is still hoping to get that response before Jan. 1 when the new butterfish cap goes into place.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711