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February 6, 2012

Fish panel sets new forum on cod options

Admittedly flummoxed by an unexpectedly dire scientific assessment of inshore cod, NOAA and its New England Fishery Management Council have called a general meeting of stakeholders on Friday to brainstorm options for the new fishing year that begins May 1.

The informal meeting has been set for the Portsmouth Harbor Events and Conference Center, in Portsmouth, N.H., from noon to 4 p.m. Sam Rauch, who heads the cod crisis team at NOAA, is expected to attend.

Rauch was at last Wednesday's regional council meeting that produced furious debate about the validity of the science in the assessment, whose findings can trigger extreme conservation measures mandated by Congress in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

A compromise motion that passed the council and went to Commerce Secretary John Bryson formally asks him to take emergency action by setting an interim, one year, catch limit on cod, and recommends a broad range of between 6,700 metric tons to 7,500 metric tons.

The low end of 6,700 metric tons would represent about a 13.6 percent cut in cod landings.

The setting of the cod catch via an interim rule is certain to further weaken the economic viability of much of the groundfishing fleet, which is already undergoing significant consolidation through tight catch limits and the unregulated catch share commodity trading system, which was first instituted in May 2010.

With the catch share system consolidating more control of the catch in the hands of large-scale boats, corporations and catch share managing organizations, NOAA's own figures show the Gloucester fleet alone lost 21 of its approximately 96 boats in the 2010-2011 fishing year. And a reduction in the cod catch would deal another multi-million dollar hit to Gloucester's economy, according to figures from the Social Sciences branch of NOAA's own Science Center.

The catch limit range approved by the council is far higher than the 1,100-metric ton catch limit that would be dictated by the assessment, which essentially reversed a 2008 assessment that indicated cod stocks had nearly recovered. That earlier study, however, also led to a plundering of cod on Stellwagen Bank and possible misreporting of landings between the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, a ranking state fisheries official and numerous commercial fishermen said last week.

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