By Richard Gaines
On the eve of today's landmark debate about the status and future of inshore cod — the dominant fish for both the commercial and recreational industries — controversy Tuesday continued to engulf the NOAA Science Center's dire assessment of the resource.
"The stock assessment does not appear to be complete," New Bedford Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell wrote to C.M. "Rip" Cunningham, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, which is in the midst of its mid-winter meeting in Portsmouth, N.H.
The council agenda calls for discussion beginning at 1 p.m. today on the status of Gulf of Maine cod and a "possible request to the National Marine Fisheries Service for emergency action to address overfishing" of the iconic seafood.
Barring an emergency declaration, the science assessment would require a virtual shutdown of the fishery, which by all accounts would induce an economic catastrophe for the ports of New England, including Gloucester. But the Obama administration has signaled its willingness to use what limited flexibility exists in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to minimize the hardships in the short run.
Gloucester and New Bedford, the twin capitals of the groundfishing industry, would suffer almost equally in terms of lost income and revenues from an end to inshore cod fishing, but New Bedford's fishery is far more diversified with a primary revenue stream from top-dollar scallops.
Gloucester has little to fall back on; its fleet has lost its diversity over the past decades and now lists heavily toward owner-on-board day boats, which have scraped by with easy hauls of cod from Middle Bank — a section of Stellwagen Bank — off the Massachusetts shore.
"Without cod," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, "there's no fishing."
Based in Gloucester, the coalition, the region's largest industry group, has made itself the platform for 12 of the region's 17 sectors, including two that are limited to Gloucester boats. And it has proposed a setting of "interim limits" to deal with the cod crisis in the new fishing year, which begins May 1.
The congressional delegation also wrote to the council Tuesday, urging Secretary of Commerce John Bryson to buffer the blow to the industry by approving an interim catch level "that would allow the industry to survive."
In a letter from the office of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snow, R-Maine, all 10 senators from the region's ocean states and nine congressmen, including John Tierney for Gloucester and Barney Frank for New Bedford, encouraged the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "to prioritize research in the coming year that will improve the groundfish assessment process."
"NOAA Fisheries staff, industry members, and the environmental community have remained open-minded and continue to seek mutually agreeable solutions to an exceptionally difficult problem," the congressional letter said. "All involved have sought to improve the science upon which catch levels are based and have engaged in this dialogue in good faith.
"Nothing short of this level of cooperation will be required to resolve this issue for both the near- and long-term," the added.
After weeks of debate and legal research, Bryson's emissary to the conference, Sam Rauch, wrote last Thursday to the council that the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows a one-year reprieve for the industry so long as the regimen reduces overfishing.
The controversial assessment, as peer reviewed, was examined and debated for a full day last Wednesday in Providence by an independent Science and Statistical Committee reporting to the regional fishery management council. Rauch wrote to Cunningham that he would attend the cod crisis meeting today.
New Bedford Mayor Mitchell explained that the stock assessment was not complete because "there is no scientific consensus regarding the information given to the council."
"At the same time," he wrote, "the assessment leaves out critical considerations, such as the migration patterns of cod, the implications of increasing catch per unit of effort, and the surveys conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries.
"The tremendous uncertainty about the well-studied species is, to say the least, discomforting," Mitchell added.
"Mayor Mitchell of New Bedford has hit the ground running in terms of his advocacy of the fishing industry as evidenced by this powerful letter to NEMFC," added Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk. "Gloucester also needs to be relentless in its advocacy, and I am going to ask the Fisheries Commission to raise its profile and advocacy on behalf of the industry."
Organizers of a national fishermen's rally set for the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 21 have seized upon the cod crisis as an example of the need to rewrite Magnuson to allow more routine flexibility in rebuilding plans.
Amendments to the law in 2006 and 1996 together require hard catch limits and 10-year rebuilding plans for overfished stocks.
Gulf of Maine cod was previously assessed in 2008 as approaching a rebuilt status and fishing was allowed at levels reflecting the assessment.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.