In a welcome surprise but one with potentially complex implications, Gulf of Maine cod have returned in notable concentrations to Stellwagen Bank and are being landed with plentiful yellowtail flounder by the inshore fleet.
According to NOAA stock assessments, both cod and yellowtail have been severely weakened by overfishing, and catch limits for the fishing season beginning May 1 are facing severe cutbacks. Cod landings would be reduced 77 percent and Gulf of Maine yellowtail landings would be cut by 53 percent.
The adjustments have been voted by the New England Fishery Management Council, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is made up of at large appointees from the industry, state officials and the regional administrator of NOAA, John Bullard. The cuts are based on scientific reports and analysis, but Bullard has the authority to do what he wants so long as it is consistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act mandate — to protect the resources of the sea and, in a delicate balancing act, also ensure maximum sustainable yield for the economy.
Bullard has not yet issued his policy decisions, but has hinted repeatedly that it is time for industry to bite the bullet and absorb the cutbacks. The cuts are expected to threaten the survival of the Northeast groundfishery, which was declared a disaster last September by the federal assistant secretary of commerce based on data supplied by Gov. Deval Patrick and his colleagues in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York.
Bullard has cited data showing that the commercial fleet has landed only 55.2 percent of the 3,700 tons catch allowable through March 12 to underscore the case that the problem is the paucity of inshore cod, not heartless, ultraconservative regulation.
Draconian cutbacks in the face of ample cod would all but disable the industry due to the requirement to stop fishing for all groundfish once the quota of any one of them is taken, hence the potential that a return of larger numbers of inshore cod, if combined with the likely 77 cutback in landings from 2011, could effectively shutdown the fishery via the “too much of a good thing” syndrome.
The gillnet fleet of 37 boats is effectively barred from inshore activity, under a two-month ban on fishing the inshore waters to protect harbor porpoises. And all through May, all vessels will be barred from fishing a vast swatch of the Gulf of Maine, beginning south of Cape Ann and extending far to sea and to the north.
A manager and analyst for the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition said the cod have been present in inshore waters not far from Gloucester since mid February.
NOAA reports days of high landings — more than 20,000 pounds — on Feb. 27, and March 7 and 19, separated by lower or no landings in the past stormy month.
Cod were in ample supply in 2011 with the Gloucester trawl sector of more than 40 boats landing 400,000 pounds more than its total allocation of about 1.6 million pounds. The excess was permitted due to the acquisition of quota from the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, a permit bank, and catch share trading with other sectors or fishing cooperatives in the region.
But boats’ experience seemed to confirm the findings of a 2011 benchmark assessment, which was itself confirmed by an emergency benchmark assessment made public late last year — that the inshore cod were not rebuilding as vigorously as previously thought and were subject to overfishing and were overfished.
The Georges Bank cod stock, if anything, was considered weaker based on updated assessments. And fish stocks generally in the Northwest Atlantic seemed to be broadly disappointing.
The impact of the changes were reflected in the price of cod quota, which hovered about $1 per pound last year but this year crashed to 10 cents.
“Everybody has it to sell, but nobody can catch it,” until last month when surprisingly, Gulf of Maine cod made a dramatic return, said an industry analyst.
Vito Giacalone, who runs the permit bank and is on the board of the seafood coalition, said he was not surprised, and said government regulators should not be either.
“Fish come and fish go,” he said in an email. “Regime shifts have always occurred on the highly dynamic Stellwagen Bank and surrounding basins. Sand lance abundance and location have had a lot to say about how much sea life activity is on the bank, but that doesn’t always mean cod. Other factors not well known to fishermen or scientists alike apparently determine why and when cod dominate the area like they did during that seven-year period that everyone now thinks was normal when in fact is was the first extended period I’d ever seen.
“Most of us that have been around long enough know that this is all a big natural cycle and we should not be surprised that when the fish leave the area, things go back to a different normal,” he said,
“One thing is for sure: the large adult cod seen in the Gulf of Maine at huge concentrations since 2003 have been fished under strict regulations and quota management,” Giacalone continued. “Many, many, more survived than were caught, regardless of how fickle the science has been. We know it because we see it and live it firsthand, not on a computer model.
“The fish are out there and now it’s no surprise they reappeared.”
“The system is broken because it has no way to accommodate the known variability in catch rates,” he said. “The system does not distinguish between low catch rates and low abundance. They are not necessarily a signal of one another.”
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.