The acting head of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is signaling that his agency would allow a 6,700-metric ton catch limit for Gulf of Maine cod as a one-year interim figure for the new fishing year that begins May 1.
But the figure — noted by NMFS' Sam Rauch in a New England Fishery Management workshop meeting Friday in Portsmouth, N.H. — marks the low end of a range of interim limits recommended by the council the previous week.
It would mean a 22-percent cut in the catch that Gloucester and other New England groundfishermen are being allowed to haul in this fishing year. And Rauch himself acknowledged that "it's going to be hard to preserve the industry" at the potentially still lower catch numbers in line for 2013.
The 6,700 metric ton limit is at the floor of a recommended range of between 6,700 and 7,500 metric tons the New England council sent to NOAA earlier this month, as the industry grappled with what NOAA scientists and officials say is a "crisis" in the cod stocks.
That fear is spawned by a 2011 trawl study that showed an unexplained but significant depletion in Gulf of Maine cod just three years after an earlier assessment that found the stock recovering and, in fact, on the verge of recovery.
A final decision regarding any interim catch limit for the coming year is still to come from NOAA and the Secretary of Commerce. An interim limit would essentially grant fishermen a one-year reprieve under deeper cuts that would be mandated by the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act given the new and dire trawl data.
The new study also contradicts the 2010 declaration by then-lead NOAA marine scientist Steve Murawski, who hailed what he viewed as the end of "overfishing." It goes against the grain of the plentiful cod New England fishermen themselves are finding in the waters.