A supplemental state budget containing $1.3 million for a sonar-based assessment of Gulf of Maine cod stocks gained preliminary approval Tuesday in the state House of Representatives.
Members are debating floor amendments and could ship the $131 million spending bill to the Senate by the end of the week.
The status of Gulf of Maine cod — the stock on which inshore small boat fishermen depend — has become a matter of uncertainty after a 2011 assessment by a team from the NOAA science center at Woods Hole contradicted a 2008 benchmark assessment showing that the stock was nearly recovered from previous overfishing.
The new assessment concluded that, even if all cod fishing ceased, the stock could not meet its 2014 rebuilding deadline. Amid mounting skepticism about the validity of its science, the government must set catch limits for the 12-month annual fishing cycle that begins May 1 for cod and all groundfish. The conflicting assessments were based on trawl surveys and landings data.
NOAA has acknowledged the implications of the problem, organizing a workshop late last year. The agency is under pressure from both so-called green groups to protect the cod, and from political and fishing industry figures to move slowly lest unnecessary harm is done to the economies of fishing communities such as Gloucester.
The agency is already facing pressure from Gov. Deval Patrick who has filed new scientific studies that purport to prove that the combination of required catch limits and NOAA's now 2-year-old catch share management system have created an economic disaster.
The peer-reviewed 2011 results of the trawl survey are scheduled for public release next Wednesday in Providence at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council's Science and Statistical Committee. The full council meets the following week, with Wednesday set aside to deal with the cod dilemma and controversy.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry and others have urged the NOAA to undertake a new assessment.
The legal and practical value of using sonar to count fish and distinguish among species remains to determined, but the money in the supplemental budget was inserted to help resolve the questions.
"This project has the potential to be a game changer in fisheries management by proving itself to best available science," state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, said Tuesday. "Undoubtedly, the current discrepancy in Gulf of Maine cod data cries out for more accurate information upon which to make decisions that have the possibility of devastating fishing ports and small businesses."
In September 2010, Ferrante and state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, joined Kerry and Congressman John Tierney, representatives of the fishing industry and officials of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northeastern University for a presentation by a joint team of scientists on the history of the sonar-based system, called Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing — or OAWRS.
The experimental use of sonar was initially a Pentagon experiment, but it quickly became apparent that the dispersal over great distances of low-frequency acoustic waves might show the status of fish stocks.
Experimental use of OAWRS to find and count herring were successful in 2003 and 2007. But herring is a pelagic, a mid-water swimmer, while cod, part of a great complex of bottom dwellers, poses a different problem for sonar.
However, OAWRS expands by a factor of "roughly 1million" the effectiveness of traditional trawl surveys, now the starting point for regulatory controls, according to a peer-reviewed article in Science Magazine.
NOAA has chosen not to fund experiments to help determine if the OAWRS system could supplement or even replace the trawl surveys.
But those trawls have come to be considered so unreliable and imprecise that allocations or catch limits extrapolated from the trawl surveys are typically reduced by a sizeable fraction, denying the fishing economy significant revenues because of "scientific uncertainty."
As a result, the limits of the present approach to fish finding — identifying and counting — are held by critics of the regulatory system and many government fishery scientists as a weak link in calculations leading to the catch limits mandated by the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Should the $1.3 million for the sonar-based assessment of cod be authorized, Ferrante said, it would be appropriated to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy which would solicit proposals to conduct the sonar cod assessment.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.