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January 24, 2012

Doubts grow over cod study; Council scientist questions data

New England's fishery management council committee holds an all-day meeting Wednesday in Providence to examine and debate a new, dire and skeptically received assessment of the Gulf of Maine cod stock.

Directly contradicting an assessment in 2008 — which found the most important wild resource of the New England groundfishery was recovering rapidly from chronic overfishing — the 2011 assessment concluded that the cod stock is so weak that nearly all fishing for it should be halted.

But the assessment, a product of the NOAA Science Center in Woods Hole, has been received with doubts about its accuracy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's science itself has come under intense criticism.

In the furor, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, Gov. Deval Patrick and the co-chairmen of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute have written to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and top Obama administration fisheries officials, advising them that a "new cod assessment, undertaken with industry and 'local scientific experts'" was essential to gain the "trust and support of fishermen."

But Lubchenco wrote back to Kerry on Jan. 9 that time constraints made it impossible to organize a new stock assessment in time to set catch limits for the 2012 fishing season that starts May 1.

"So we have to use science that we're all questioning to make drastic measures?" Laura Ramsden of New Bedford, an owner of the M. F. Foley Fish Co. and a member of the council asked at a subcommittee session last week.

How peer-reviewed stock assessments three years apart could be so far off has left scientists and fishermen shaking their heads and brought uncertainty to immediate and midrange cod catch limits and management policy.

The 2011 assessment estimated the spawning stock biomass in 2007 at 10,778 metric and total biomass at 17,757 metric tons. Both estimates are about one-third the size of the stock estimates in the 2008 Gulf of Maine stock assessment, which has been the foundation of catch limits that have not been violated.

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