Bipartisan congressional pressure continues to build on Secretary of Commerce John Bryson for emergency action buffering New England's fishing fleet from potential drastic catch limits some fear could emanate from a dire new assessment of the status of Gulf of Maine cod.
In the aftermath of the peer-reviewed assessment released Dec. 1 in near final draft form, seven U.S. representatives — including Massachusetts fishing port Democrats John Tierney, who represents Gloucester, and Barney Frank, whose district includes New Bedford — have now joined U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Olympia Snowe of Maine in urging emergency action authorized by the Magnuson-Stevens Act and questioning the cod survey results.
Others to join their call are Rep. Bill Keating for Cape Cod, and Reps. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, and Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree of Maine. All signed onto a letter sent to Bryson last Friday implying that the new cod results, which contradict a three-year old benchmark assessment using the same methodologies and the empirical reports of fishermen, are wrong.
"Yes, we have received letters from Sen. Kerry, Sen. Snowe and other members of the New England delegation," NOAA spokesman Justin Kenney said Tuesday in an email to the Times. "We are currently preparing our responses to these letters, including the request to conduct a new stock assessment for Gulf of Maine cod.
"Also, we continue to talk to fishermen and other members of the public about this challenging issue," he added. "In addition to a public meeting in Portsmouth earlier this month, we launched a website dedicated to the Gulf of Cod issue (via http://www.nero.noaa.gov/) and pledge to be as transparent and proactive as possible."
Tierney, Frank and their colleagues joined Kerry in urging Bryson to order a new assessment, noting that the disputed findings will likely lead to dramatic restrictions on cod landings and — because of the tightly mixed nature of the groundfish stocks — bar fishermen from pursuing fish such as haddock, which suffer no overfishing, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's own figures.
The recent assessment estimated a biomass of 12,400 metric tons of Gulf of Maine cod — inshore fish, compared to the offshore fish known as Georges Bank cod — was barely one-third the size of the 2008 benchmark assessment that included all the groundfish.
Based on the 2008 assessment, which was generally pessimistic on stocks other than the Gulf of Maine cod, optimism was high that inshore cod would achieve its 10-year rebuilding deadline on time — by 2014.
The recent assessment crushed the optimism. But a number of fishermen continue to find cod plentiful, and that's sparked credibility questions about the new study.
"These results are directly contradicted by fishermen who are finding an abundance of Gulf of Maine cod during their trips," Frank, Tierney and their New England colleagues wrote. "Additionally, this is not the first instance where the agency may have conducted a stock assessment that was later proven to be mistaken.
"In 2009, the agency recognized that its 2008 survey for pollock was deeply flawed and to the agency's credit, it conducted an expedited new assessment that resulted in the pollock allowable catch limit be increased by 500 percent," they wrote.
The House lawmakers, like Kerry, asked Bryson to commission a new assessment and freeze the allowable catch at pre-existing levels until the new survey results are delivered.
In his letter to Bryson and NOAA Marine Fisheries leaders Jane Lubchenco and Eric Schwaab, Kerry urged the new assessment be done in concert with the industry to encourage "buy-in" from the "people whose livelihoods are most impacted by the results."
In her letter to Schwaab five days after the peer-reviewed assessments was made public, Sen. Snowe said she worried that a decision to restrict landings that might flow from the new assessment "would prove too much for New England's groundfish industry to bear."
She wrote that, in the new system based on annual catch limits and the old one based on days at sea and a total allowable catch, commercial fishermen were responsible.
"For this reason," Snowe wrote, "the results of the recent Gulf of Maine cod assessment, which have resulted in unexpectedly low biomass estimates, have been especially difficult to understand and reconcile."
"The groundfish industry has been living within its means according to the best available science until, through no fault of its own, the best available science changed," she added.
The impetus for crushing down catch levels is a requirement in the Magnuson-Stevens Act to rebuild overfished stocks within a 10-year deadline; for the Gulf of Maine cod, that's by 2014.
Snowe reminded Bryson that she and Frank have initiated a study by the National Research Council to determine if there is a scientific justification for the 10-year rebuilding standard.
"Unfortunately, we are now seeing the economic consequences of this standard unfolding before our very eyes," she said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.