By Richard Gaines
The Conservation Law Foundation has urged the government to drop 2012 catch limit for Gulf of Maine cod well below the interim figure of 6,700 metric tons that has been announced informally by the acting NOAA Fisheries administrator as the maximum level under consideration.
Instead, CLF implicitly recommends setting the 2012 allowable catch about 4,000 metric tons, a level that would ensure against dropping the spawning stock biomass below 7,300 metric tons, which was the lowest ever recorded, in 1999.
The 2010 spawning stock biomass was 11,868 metric tons in the 2010 NOAA Science Center assessment that set off the cod crisis.
CLF noted that the government has estimated a catch level of 6,700 metric tons produced more than a 31 percent chance that the catch would push the inshore cod biomass below the lowest level ever.
The 6,700 metric ton figure represents a 22 percent cut from projected landings in the 2011 fishing year ending April 30. Setting the limit at 4,000 metric tons would mark a cut of 47 percent from the current year.
Moreover, CLF, which has become the lead environmental non-government organization in the cod crisis, contends that allowing that much inshore cod to be landed in the coming fishing year would force regulators to make far more drastic cuts in 2013.
CLF also outlined a series of proposed management measures designed to protect the stock and the dayboat fleet that depends on it, including "trip limits on Gulf of Maine cod" and barring boats from landing inshore and offshore cod in the same trip.
David Pierce, Massachusetts' representative on the New England Fishery Management Council, also made the case for protecting the inshore boats from the bigger "trip boats" which have been trawling in Stellwagen Bank, the most productive inshore grounds.
The Boston-based organization is also endorsing the need for a federal "economic disaster" declaration.
In November, before the arrival of the cod crisis, Gov. Deval Patrick, backed by the congressional delegation, filed socio-economic research evidence showing that the fishery was consolidating into an economic disaster through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's catch share system, which is steering more and more permits and quota into the hands of fewer and larger businesses, and away from smaller, independent boats. NOAA's own figures show that Gloucester's fleet lost some two dozen of its estimated 96 boats in the 2010 to 2011 fishing year alone.
To smooth the destabilization of the inshore fishery and avoid pushing the spawning stock biomass beyond a "tipping point," CLF questioned the wisdom of setting the catch level at the 6,700 metric ton level for the cycle beginning May 1.
CLF laid out its case in a position paper released Friday, the same day acting NOAA Fisheries Administrator Sam Rauch signaled 6,700 metric tons as the upper limit for an interim or emergency rule — allowing fishing levels higher for one year than otherwise would be allowed after a dire and surprising stock assessment found Gulf of Maine cod depleted significantly from another NOAA assessment carried out in 2008.
Pierce, the deputy director of marine fisheries and a council member, said at the Feb. 1 council meeting that imposing trip limits and finding some way to police the misreporting of Stellwagen cod as Georges Bank cod were needed.
Leaders of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry group and the home of 12 of the 17 catch share sectors, has testified against limiting boats to fishing in either offshore or inshore.
"Removing flexibility would only force boats into inshore areas," Jackie Odell, the coalition's executive director, wrote to board members, sector leaders and allies after the council completed two days' debate on cod two weeks ago.
Rauch's expressed willingness to consider setting a 6,700 metric ton cod catch limit came during a workshop in Portsmouth, N.H., last Friday. Barely a week earlier, the regional fishery management council, an arm of NOAA Fisheries that includes government positions and stakeholders appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, approved a compromise motion asking for a 2012 "interim" catch limit ranging from 6,700 metric tons to 7,500 metric tons.
In arguing for smoothing the catch levels for the coming years, CLF's senior counsel Peter Shelley noted that "given the risks of further potential declines of spawning stock biomass below the lowest levels ever observed, we think it would be just plain wrong and irresponsible to dodge this biological crisis and try to push it off to 2013."
"There aren't any good choices," Shelley wrote, "but there may be choices that are less irreversible or harmful than others. What is the New England council thinking?"
With a lower interim catch level, he wrote, "further declines" in the spawning stock biomass can be averted while "protecting the small vessel, inshore fleet from collapse, reducing the potential revenue differential between 2012 and 2013 catch limits, and providing emergency financial assistance during the bridge period.
"This could be done with a tolerable reduction of five-year net present values for the fleet with a distributed economic income across the groundfish fleet," he wrote. "Available Gulf of Maine cod allocations should be targeted toward small inshore boats to reduce the disproportionate impacts of catch level reductions on this sector of the fleet."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.