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.