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.