PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Amid a fog of scientific uncertainty, legal dispute and fierce debate, the New England Fishery Management Council on Wednesday asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to institute an interim and emergency catch limit on inshore or Gulf of Maine cod for the coming year in the range of 6,700 metric tons to 7,500 metric tons.
Following the decision, the council moved on to debate a number of ideas for mitigating the economic harm that cutting the cod landings are expected to cause to the Gloucester and inshore fleets all along the coast.
The government is not required to follow the recommendation, but Sam Rauch, who heads NOAA's ad hoc cod crisis team, promised a quick decision on the catch limits.
Minutes before the amendment for a wider recommendation was approved, the council rejected on a 9-8 vote a proposed catch level of 7,500 metric tons
Even at the high end, the recommended catch limit would reduce the estimated total allowable catch from 2011 by about 250 metric tons, and add to the economic burdens of the owner-operators of small boats who, based on research by state and federal scientists, are already fighting for their economic lives.
The recommended range proposal, which was approved 14-3, was a debate-ending creation that followed more than three hours of bitter argument — all set off by a stock assessment from the NOAA Science Center in Woods Hole that bluntly found the essential stock of the commercial recreational sectors was in a state of collapse.
The dire finding, which drew bitter denunciation and skepticism all day, contradicted the Science Center's previous assessment only three years ago that the iconic fish for the New England groundfishery was close to recovery after years of previous overfishing.
Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and state Sen. Bruce Tarr, the state legislative team for Gloucester and Cape Ann, both denounced the cod assessment as evidence of a governmental crisis in science rather than one in the cod fishery.
"What happened?" said Ferrante. "We had Steve Murawski, (NOAA's chief scientist in early 2011) announcing that overfishing was over, and corks were coming off the champagne bottles; now we have a stock assessment that is off by 85 percent and everybody shrugs."
"Rebuilt is now collapse — the crisis is a falsity," said Tarr. "Our choice is to enable that behavior, or stand up and say we won't accept this. (Accepting) means consigning us in foreseeable future to more faulty science."
Councilors and members of the public struggled with the claims of NOAA representatives that the Magnuson-Stevens Act required the setting of a catch limit that reduced overfishing, and at least did not reduce the size of the spawning stock.
David Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman and council member, and Glen Delaney, lobbyist for the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, argued that the legal interpretation of the law by NOAA was wrong and that the law did not require such draconian action.
Before the compromise "range" motion by James Odlin, a councilor and major fishing industry leader in Maine, the council overwhelmingly rejected, 14-3, a proposal by David Pierce, Massachusetts' council representative, to urge an 8,500 metric ton limit while further research into the status of the stock goes on.
"I'm sensitive to the status of the stock," said Pierce.
But, he noted, the state has found that fewer than half the boats were already unable to break even, and that the inshore fleet was bordering on inviability.
"We need a new assessment," said Pierce.
The low end of the range in the final motion approved was described by Pierce having "severe economic impacts.
The debate began with Rauch, the acting assistant administrator of fisheries at NOAA, and Adam Eisenberg from NOAA's office of general counsel, advising the council on NOAA's interpretation of Magnuson's requirements when a fishery was going in the wrong direction.
Quoting Rauch and Eisenberg, however, Goethel said their findings in a detailed letter to the council requiring a "substantial reduction" in cod catches that "cannot further deteriorate" the size of the biomass were absent from the law.
"Where do they come from?" Goethel asked.
The do-no-harm standard was "an interpretation," Eisenberg conceded.
Instead, Goethel urged a less extreme catch limit which can "give us time to answer the scientific questions," while council member Mark Gibson added, "the question is whether the council remains relevant."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.