Both of Gloucester’s general fish auction houses are confirming reports by fishermen that cod — the fish that helped make this city the world’s oldest, most famous and, for a long time, its busiest fishing port — appears to be following its age-old pattern as it swims in increasing numbers into the shallow waters off Cape Ann.
“There’s a sign of life out there,” said Chris Duffy, general manager of the Cape Ann Fish Exchange.
“We knew it was going to happen just now,” said Vito Giacalone Jr., who operates Fishermen’s Wharf Gloucester with his two brothers.
Both men described the influx of cod as short of dramatic but nonetheless significant for an industry that is facing a potential 77 percent cutback in Gulf of Maine landings for the fishing year that begins May 1, and a regional shutdown on April 1, a rolling closure period for which the government has denied applications of sectors for a waiver.
“The fish are right on target,” said Capt. Joe Orlando who has been fishing on Middle Bank (a section of Stellwagen Bank) just a few miles to the southeast of Gloucester in recent days. “(Cod) move in in March. March has started to pick up. We’re right on target, year after year.”
NOAA Fisheries Social Sciences Branch has published landings data showing landings of Gulf of Maine cod in excess of 10,000 pounds on 11 days over the past six weeks. On five of those days, landings exceeded 20,000 pounds, and fishing has been severely constrained by the spate of winter storms.
Orlando’s sense that the fish are behaving typically and showing in typical numbers challenges a NOAA Science Center assessment which concluded that the stock was in a weakened status of nearly unprecedented levels, and as the stock assessment was presented to the New England Fishery Management Council in January, that body — an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — backed the 77 percent cut in inshore cod, which would come on top of a 22 percent cut made in 2012. The relatively small reduction covering the current fishing year was put in place as an interim action designed to buy enough time for the new benchmark assessment.
NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard was on vacation and unavailable for comment Friday, but he has made clear repeatedly that the science compels him to abide by the recommendation of the council and slash the inshore cod harvest in the fishing cycle beginning May 1.
“Now, we’ve got seven days to work,” said Orlando.
The rolling closure that begins April 1 and goes through the month means the day boats, which dominate Gloucester’s fishing fleet, have just this week to catch and land fish. The area to be closed covers virtually all of Massachusetts Bay.
Orlando said he could not imagine how he and his colleagues would remain viable under the 77 percent cut in Gulf of Maine cod. He had been allocated 108,000 pounds in 2011, the second year of the fishery’s transformation into a catch share commodity market for boats entered into fishing cooperatives known as sectors, was cut to 78,000 pounds in 2012 and would be further cut to 17,000 pounds in the coming year.
The impending draconian cuts in cod were part of a double whammy -- combined with a recommended 53 percent cut in the quota for yellowtail flounder, based on NOAA science assessment data.
Here too, however, the findings of the fishermen clash with the government science.
In an inteview at the Times March 7, Bullard said he had heard enough to be concerned about the need for the extreme cutback in yellowtail, which fishermen have been reporting finding in dramatic numbers for many months. But he said he was convinced the inshore cod needed the extreme protection recommended by the council, which is made up of state officials and appointees of the secretary of commerce from industry and other stakeholder groups.
The council, the congressional delegation and the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition have all argued that Bullard has the legal right to grant the industry a second year of “interim emergency” relief — the 22 percent cut of the current year — which reduced but did not end alleged overfishing. Bullard said he would not do that even if he were liberated to do so by NOAA General Counsel Lois Schiffer, whose legal memo Bullard relied upon in denying the requests for extending the interim action to a second year.
Gicacalone Jr. said in recent days day boats were landing between 500 and 1,000 pounds of cod, a significant uptick from the paltry winter landings.
Like Duffy, his competitor, Giaclalone Jr. said he was not surprised.
“The fish just moved, maybe it was water temperature or feed, but we knew they’d come back,” Giacalone said. “The draggers are getting a few after the big storms shook things up. Fish have tails.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.